Here’s the story of Janet LaBreck, who was one of four siblings born with retinitis pigmentosa. Janet rose above tremendous physical and financial limitations to eventually become President Obama’s Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration.
Janet LaBreck was a legally blind high school graduate, and ready to start the rest of her life. Diagnosed at 10 with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), she’d spent 7 years at Perkins School for the Blind before coming back home to Pittsfield, Massachusetts and graduating with her local high school class, in 1978. Now, she was ready to move forward with her post-high school plans. To help her forge that future, she’d been assigned a vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor, who was sitting in the young woman’s living room, giving her his best advice.
“You can’t rely on individuals who are sighted,” he cautioned LaBreck. “You need to rely on yourself.” Impatient with his assessment, LaBreck reminded the man, who was also blind, that most people were sighted. “What am I supposed to do,” she asked, “exclude all of these people from my world?”
“You don’t have to exclude them,” he said, “you just can’t count on them.” What LaBreck lacked in age, she certainly made up for in doggedness. She pushed back against the advice, pointedly asking the VR counselor how he’d traveled to her house that day. When he told her that he had a driver, who was downstairs waiting for him, she was exasperated by the contradiction. The irony seemed lost on the man.
He then asked the Massachusetts woman what she wanted to do with her life. She knew exactly what she wanted to do, she told him. She’d known for a long time. Go to college, get a degree, and work on behalf of people with disabilities. Her years at Perkins School for the Blind had provided the role models, education and encouragement she needed to believe in herself and her capabilities. Her parents may not have had high school diplomas, but she was determined to go to college. Ignoring the woman’s optimism, the VR counselor told LaBreck he didn’t think that her dreams would be possible.
“You come from a background where nobody else went to college,” he warned. “You don’t have support systems in place to rely on, and you don’t have money or a job. That would not be a good vocation for you.” LaBreck felt her blood pressure rising.
“You know what?” said LaBreck, “I think that this meeting is over. You need to leave.” She’d been raised in a low-income family with five siblings, and of the six children, four were born with RP. She’d already overcome so much. She wasn’t about to let this stranger walk into her home and define her future. No way. “You came in here and have done nothing but tell me what I can’t do,” LaBreck told the VR counselor. “I need someone who can give me hope, not someone who will discourage me. I’m going to ask for a new counselor.” And, that’s exactly what she did. Happily, LaBreck’s second VR counselor provided exceptional guidance, and the experience confirmed LaBreck’s interest in advocating for the blind.
The unwitting gifts of retinitis pigmentosa
LaBreck’s encounter with that first vocational rehabilitation counselor made her realize something important about who she was. “I recognized that dealing with the fact that I had a degenerative, progressive eye condition that would eventually lead to total blindness had caused me to mature much more quickly than my peers,” says LaBreck. “I was thinking about real issues and I was thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
She knew she needed to effectively manage her own independence, and that it would start with a college degree. She was determined to let nothing stand in her way. “Education is the only route out of poverty, which is where I came from,” says LaBreck. “With it, I knew I could be successful. That I could be a leader.”
Forging ahead, LaBreck received her Bachelor of Arts in Human Services from the University of Massachusetts, and her Masters of Education at Springfield College. She then spent the next 20 years doing exactly what she had told that VR counselor she was going to do: she worked tirelessly on behalf of the disability community, as an advocate for the blind.
LaBreck was exceptional at her job, and made a name for herself in the state of Massachusetts. Her efforts eventually garnered the attention of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and in 2007, the governor appointed LaBreck Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB). As commissioner, she represented the more than 30,000 legally blind in the state. It was a position previously held by Helen Keller in 1906, the first deaf-blind person to ever earn a bachelor of arts degree in the U.S.
While leading the MCB, Commissioner LaBreck established an award-winning summer internship program to help prepare the legally blind for the workplace. The program began with two internships in its first year, and eventually grew into a robust initiative boasting more than 100 summer internships for the legally blind. The award-winning program was soon replicated across the country, and is still going strong today.
Janet, it’s for you. It’s the President.
In 2013, former President Barack Obama was looking for someone to lead the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) within the United States Department of Education. It wasn’t long before LaBreck’s name surfaced. Her decades-long work and dedication to improving the lives of those living with blindness and other disabilities earned her the respect of the 44th President of the United States. When President Obama called on her to serve as Commissioner to the RSA, a presidentially appointed and senate confirmed position, Janet LaBreck accepted. For the remainder of President Obama’s term, she oversaw the RSA’s multi-billion-dollar budget and the federal programs it funds to help people with disabilities find employment and live more independent lives.
Since LaBreck was a presidential appointee, she transitioned out of her role as Commissioner of the RSA in January, when President Obama left the White House. She is now deciding her next steps, and taking a breather after keeping pace with the busy schedule of a federal appointee. “We didn’t have much time to take off for resting or just recovery,” says LaBreck, “but it was an honor to serve the Obama administration.” While it might be impossible to imagine how someone follows working for the President of the United States, those who know her well expect inspirational next steps. And, as one vocational rehabilitation counselor in Massachusetts can attest, it is wise not to underestimate Janet LaBreck.
If you are interested in applying for vocational rehabilitation services, please visit the Department of Education’s RSA website, at rsa.ed.gov.