When Susan Topercer was growing up in Orange, she loved to draw cartoons and illustrate short stories she had written. These even won her prizes.
"Ever since I was in second grade, I had been interested in writing and playing with words so they would come out clever and make people laugh," the 28-year-old Irvine resident said. "And I loved to draw pictures to go along with my my writing."
By the late 1970s, Topercer was studying biology and economics at UC Irvine, because she thought that the career prospects would be better than those in her favored fields. But she continued to enjoy coming up with catchy phrases and sketching accompanying illustrations.
As her studies drew to a close, she decided to become an advertising copywriter.
But the onset of blindness interrupted her plans. During a freak racquetball accident on the Irvine campus, the retinas of her eyes became detached, leading to total blindness two years later. Topercer's mother wanted her to return home instead of completing her senior year and discouraged her from post-graduate studies.
But Topercer chose to continue to live on campus through graduation, and in the fall of 1982, she began her studies toward master's degrees in business and public administration.
Rather than being defeated by her disability, Topercer has continued to push herself, testing the limitations of her impairment with the same intensity she had once brought to UCI's sailing and crew teams.
She has also refused to abandon her plans to become an advertising copywriter, a highly visual field. Topercer is now enrolled in the Advertising Center, a 1,000-student Los Angeles technical school that annually offers advertising workshops combined with tips on landing a job.
These students, experts say, are seeking to enter a field in which applicants far outnumber the jobs available.
Despite these odds and the fact that Topercer's instructors at the Advertising Center know of no other blind copywriters, they believe that she has excellent career prospects.
"From what I picked up teaching her (account management) and from the feedback from others (who have taught her), I feel that she functions visually and analytically as well as anyone," Wayne Mansfield, Advertising Center executive director, said in a telephone interview. "She knows what things and colors look like because she did not become blind until after she had seen for a number of years."
For 11 years the Advertising Center has offered hands-on advertising workshops. They are usually offered in the evening at advertising firms throughout Los Angeles, Mansfield said, and the technical school's teachers are copywriters, art directors, account managers and media strategists who work at the agencies.
Presentation to the Class
During a recent workshop on copywriting concepts, in which Topercer is enrolled, instructor Mike Whitlow told the class, "You are writers. So, it doesn't matter how you draw. What counts is how you visualize."
Topercer proved Whitlow right. On Monday night Topercer stood before the class, to the left of four drawings, and presented a mock advertising campaign to 12 fellow students, who sat around a table in a conference room of Foote Cone & Belding, a West Los Angeles advertising firm where Whitlow is a copywriter.
"My client is Traveling Pet Groomers," Topercer said in a full, confident voice. "The company sends out vans to your house, where they will groom pets. You don't have to go through the hassle of taking them to the vet yourself.
"As you can see in the first picture, there's a Pekingese with teased hair in the foreground. At the top is the headline: 'We go out of our way to tease your dog.' At the bottom is the tag line: 'Forget the vet, we'll do your pet. . . . Traveling Pet Groomers.' "
As Topercer went through her three other drawings over the next 20 minutes, the class responded with praise and criticism over how well her combination of drawings and words would do in persuading consumers to give the portable grooming service a shot.
"Three out of four of your concepts worked. That's nice," Whitlow said in summarizing his and the class's views. "And I think the one that fell flat can be salvaged with the reworking I suggested."
With her presentation complete, a quietly pleased Topercer motioned to her boyfriend, Bud Paul, 39, that her drawings could be taken down. He then escorted her back to her seat.
Until then, all in the room seemed to have forgotten that Topercer was blind. "Even the most cunning blind person can't map out all her moves," Topercer joked later in recalling her need to call on Paul for assistance.
She Has Matured
Topercer says learning to cope with her impairment has caused her to become a more mature person. "Actually being blind is good for me. I think I have become a fairer person. I evaluate people just like everybody else. But now I base my judgment on their character and not superficial things.