Fighting Blindness And Fighting Crime

Submitted Article

OSWEGO, NY – SUNY Oswego criminal justice major Erin Scala faces challenges head-on.

When retinitis pigmentosa began to seriously affect her vision two years ago she grieved, then picked herself up and made plans for her future.

SUNY Oswego student Erin Scala works at her computer at the Onondaga County Probation Department.
SUNY Oswego student Erin Scala works at her computer at the Onondaga County Probation Department.

She’d wanted to be a police officer since childhood, and in high school she did an internship with the Baldwinsville Police Department.

She thought she’d have to give up the idea as her vision deteriorated.

Now 22, Scala, of Baldwinsville, is legally blind, but she hasn’t given up her plan for a law enforcement career.

She successfully completed a summer job at the Onondaga County Probation Department in Syracuse.

She wasn’t too optimistic at first. “I thought they’d have me just sitting doing paperwork,” she said with a laugh.

She got more than she’d hoped for.

“She worked with our DWI team, our city team, and pre-trial release. Erin is very adaptable,” said her supervisor, Ed Detor.

She made late-night home visits and came in early to work at the jail. She followed some clients over time from the jail interview to court. She did ride-alongs with officers during her free time.

“I was nervous at first,” she admitted. “But now I feel a ton of confidence. I’m more aware of my surroundings.”

Scala uses a white cane.

She wore a bulletproof vest and always traveled with at least one other officer.

When she did have to do paperwork, she worked on a computer equipped with Jaws, software that lets the computer speak.

She also took a self-defense class at Premier Martial Arts in Liverpool.

She reasoned that the class would help her in a future law enforcement career.

The New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped agreed, and approved funding for the class.

“I’m so much more confident with it,” she said.

Scala visited the FBI in Washington  D.C., where she met some blind FBI agents.

She also spoke to the FBI’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator.

She returned to AURORA of CNY, where she had taken pre-vocational workshops, to address the current pre-voc students.

AURORA is a non-profit that serves Central New Yorkers who are blind, deaf, visually impaired and hard of hearing.

“Erin used to be shy. In the beginning, she focused on her disability rather than on her capability,” said Connie Cottrell, AURORA’s pre-vocational coordinator.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without my disability. Without it I might still be shy,” Erin said.

“It’s fuel and motivation,” Cottrell added.

Scala is on track to get her criminal justice degree in December 2009, and she gives credit to SUNY Oswego’s disability services office for making her time there easier.

“Starr Knapp (the office’s coordinator) is amazing. She helped with classes, with books, with test-taking accommodations. They scanned books – they go above and beyond,” she said.

After graduation she wants to return to the Onondaga County Probation Department.

Mary Winter, commissioner of probation, said she is pursuing a waiver of the probation officer firearms requirement.

“Governor Paterson is blind. No one is going to turn us down. Erin can do the job, except for firearms,” she said.

Scala said her parents are encouraging and supportive.

“I know my parents worry, like all parents do, but they don’t let on,” she said.

Erin is the youngest of Barb and John Scala’s four children.

“I like to think that their mother and I provided all of them with the basics, if you will, for how to survive in our world. I sometimes would say to friends, when we would discuss how independent our children have become, that we teach them to be independent and then, when they are independent, we don’t like it,” John Scala said.

He said he thinks, almost daily, about how Erin will “get along in this crazy world of ours,” facing the usual challenges added to those of a visual impairment.

He praised his daughter’s focus and organization. “She seems to know what she wants and then goes about getting it. Worry as a parent, you bet I do, but I am getting out of Erin’s way because she’s always moving forward – and at quite a pace!” he said.