The Challenge of Running a Business Blind, Literally
Two small business owners with the determination to go after the careers they wanted despite their impairments can serve as an inspiration to budding entrepreneurs with disabilities. Cheryl Echevarria is blind. Sarah Nelinson is deaf and is rapidly losing her vision. But these two women did not let these limitations keep them from creating their dream jobs.
Their determination to go after the careers they wanted can be an inspiration to budding entrepreneurs with disabilities. These women did not let these limitations keep them from creating their dream jobs.
A resident of Long Island, New York, Cheryl Echevarria is unable to see out of her left eye. Sight in her right eye is similar to looking out of a “telescope with a piece of plastic over it,” she says.
In October 2009, she launched Echevarria Travel. The company sells leisure travel, with special attention to those who are deaf and blind.
“It is an Internet-based business and I love it,” she says. “I am also a real advocate for people who are deaf and blind. I’m the president of the travel and tourism division of the National Federation of the Blind.”
It hasn't been long since Echevarria lost her sight and battled kidney disease. On December 10, 2001, 34-year-old Echevarria was on her way to work when her eyes went cloudy. A Type 1 diabetic since the age of 12, she had developed diabetic retinopathy, a disease that leads to blindness.
“[The doctors] couldn’t give me an exact date when I would go blind, but I knew it would be soon,” she says.
Soon after her sight started to go, Echevarria was diagnosed with kidney disease and, in early 2002, she went on dialysis. In 2005 she had a successful kidney transplant.
In 2007, Echevarria decided to start a new career. “I went to Branford Hall Career Institute, graduated in 2008 and became a medical biller and coder,” she says.
Echevarria worked for the next few years at a laboratory on Long Island. Then she decided to take her professional life in a different direction: travel.
“I was feeling good, not working, not going to school and not on dialysis, so I wrote down all the things I enjoy in life and travel was one of them,” she says. “My husband and I love going to Disney World, so I decided to get my certification to become a travel agent.”
Looking ahead, Echevarria wants to expand her business.
“In five years, I’d like to be offering the same service, but with hopefully more clients and more disabled clients,” she says. “I also really want to continue my advocacy work.”
Nelinson, a Baltimore resident, was just 18 months old when her parents realized something was seriously wrong.
“They were banging pots and pans and I wasn’t responding,” she says. Doctors determined that she had been born deaf. As Nelinson approached her teens, her eyesight progressively got worse and she was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a disease that causes both deafness and blindness.
The diagnosis was difficult for her parents to accept. But through it all, Nelinson thought about her future and her deep passion for cooking.
After high school, she enrolled in Baltimore International College as the first deaf-blind student in the school’s history. She graduated as a pastry chef in April 2010 and launched Silent Sweets, a gourmet catering company.
Today, things are going well for Nelinson, 24, in business and in life. She spends most of her time working on the business, with her service dog Jax by her side. Nelinson makes her creations at home and her mom delivers them to clients.
“In the future, I’d like to buy a bakery shop and have a couple employees,” she says.
Starting your own business, no matter what
Budding entrepreneurs with disabilities can find inspiration in Nelinson’s words of wisdom.
“Don’t let your disability impair you. Never give up your life dreams over something that silly,” she says. “Positive thinking is really powerful. Don’t let other people pull you down and go out and do what you love.”
Photo credit: Echevarria Travel, Silent Sweets