Virginia A. Jacko, a blind visionary and CEO of Miami Lighthouse, speaks on how we can raise a new generation of kind, thoughtful, and empathetic people
"I put too much powder on my nose," Virginia A. Jacko admits jokingly at the beginning of our interview. Before us is a graceful woman adorned with a pearl necklace and impeccable red manicure, flawlessly styled hair, and tastefully subtle makeup. Dressed in a fashionable light gray jacket and glossy leather shoes, Virginia warmly takes our hands and welcomes us to Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a place where she sought assistance 17 years ago, and moved more than 1,200 miles from Indiana to Florida. Now she serves as a beacon of hope for countless of its visitors.
When Virginia started rapidly losing her sight to retinitis pigmentosa, a condition characterized by retinal damage, she was working as a chief finance executive at Purdue University. She didn’t know anyone who was blind, and questions like How do you use a computer when you can no longer point and click? How do you do your makeup? suddenly loomed over her. Her mom envisioned something bigger for her daughter: “I'm gonna pray you do big things for the blind.”
In the decades since, Virginia has led Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the largest nonprofit in Florida for blind and visually-impaired people. And its programs, which range from music education to employment preparation, have earned the organization a place among the nation’s top 1%, according to Charity Navigator. One pair of glasses, one class session, one conversation at a time, they’re chipping away at the stigmas and challenges our societies have created for those who are visually impaired, a population that makes up almost 8% of the US.
Virginia’s voice rings with pride as she details Miami Lighthouse’s work. And as she speaks, two ideas come up again and again: equality and ability. “A blind person can do anything a sighted person does, but they might do it a little differently,” Virginia says.
By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project
Miami Lighthouse isn’t just making sure kids have accommodations for their visual impairments. They’re cultivating a new generation of kind, thoughtful, empathetic people who are inclusive by nature. How? With the Miami Lighthouse Academy. This school for students pre-kindergarten through second grade runs in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Early Steps, and the Early Learning Coalition. Its classrooms are filled with children playing with blocks and learning to write their names. Some students wear colorful glasses and others don’t. Half of these learners are visually impaired and half are typically-developing. Virginia says this setup places all students in a powerful environment for social-emotional learning, and that the resulting behavior they see in these four-, five-, six-, and seven-year-olds would be exemplary at any age.
“We're practicing inclusion, but it's happening automatically at a very young age,” she says. “It’s not Hey Mom, I want to invite that blind kid over, it’s Hey Mom, I want to invite my friend Jose over.”
That’s the kind of perspective Virginia says she wishes to see more of in adults, and that so often, even well-meaning people make harmful and unfounded assumptions about people who are blind.
According to the American Community Survey, the majority of working-age people who are blind or visually impaired are out of the labor force. Only 44% of them are employed, compared with 79% of those without disabilities.
“I find it extremely annoying. So many corporations, they talk about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), they talk about ESG (environmental, social, and governance). But when it comes to employing people with a vision disability, they, for some reason, have a preconceived idea of what they cannot do,” she says. “Blind people can be successful. Blind people can be outstanding on the computer. They can live independently. They just need to have the skills.”
Miami Lighthouse is a one-stop-shop for all kinds of life-changing tools and skills development. Their Vision Solution Center helps clients with everything from providing big, non-smearing markers that show more readable contrast for those with low vision, to color-identifiers that help clients choose what they wear. Their computer training courses open doors to new opportunities for employment, communication, and connection. And their job-readiness classes don’t just help clients acquire menial positions – they help students develop plans toward fulfilling careers.
For many people with disabilities, life is about survival – making a living, filling prescriptions, getting to and from important appointments. But, as the U.S. Surgeon General recently reported, everyone’s health, especially those with disabilities, depends on so much more. Human connection is essential to our well-being, and 1 in 2 American adults aren’t feeling it. Many assistance organizations don’t – or can’t – provide much beyond these basic needs. But the story is different at Miami Lighthouse.
By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project
In an increasingly isolated world, Miami Lighthouse guides its students, clients and residents to community and joy. They’re connecting people with solutions to everyday problems, but they’re also connecting people to other people, and they’re doing it in ways that acknowledge our innate desire for fulfillment. Miami Lighthouse’s weekly schedules are filled with activities like arts classes, exercise groups, trips to parks, and choir rehearsals. They’re helping people discover passions they’ve been needlessly excluded from and unearth identities they never thought possible.
“We have adults in our senior group activities that didn't know despite being low vision, that in their heart and in their mind, they were an artist,” Virginia says.
It’s this idea that Virginia and so many advocates for people with disabilities want others to understand: our communities are filled with all kinds of passionate people – artists, leaders, parents, singers, scientists, teachers. And sometimes, they happen to be blind.
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