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Despite His Blindness, Caseworker Thrives in Job With Congressman

December 25, 1987|RENE ROMO | Times Staff Writer

When Louis Lucero wakes up in the morning, he walks in darkness to the bathroom. He doesn't turn on the lights, though he usually keeps a living room light on so that people "don't think I'm a weirdo."

He keeps his toothpaste, toothbrush and other items in the same place so he can find them. When he stands before the mirror, he doesn't see his reflection as he slicks back his reddish hair and smoothes it with the palm of his hand to make sure every strand is in place. When he shaves, he runs a finger over his cheeks and chin to "see" that no stubble remains.

When he is finished, he does what many other blind people don't--he goes to work.

Five days a week, Lucero rides the bus to the Montebello district office of Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Monterey Park).

"I love the freedom of the buses," Lucero says. "I don't have to depend on anyone for a ride. I think it's very important for blind people to be as independent as possible."

Lucero, 31, has always been determined to make his blindness unobtrusive. When he left his last job, as a counselor for the blind in Ruston, La., he wanted so much to work for a Democratic congressman that he sent 309 resumes to virtually every state and the District of Columbia. He received 80 replies but only two invitations to interviews.

The resumes did not mention that he is blind. "I'm not too sure how open-minded people are going to be. I want to get in the door," Lucero said.

Born with less than 10% of normal sight, Lucero is one of a handful of blind people who work in congressional district offices nationwide. Aided by an IBM computer that has a Braille keyboard and "speaks" when data is entered, he helps Martinez's constituents deal with a variety of problems. He specializes in answering questions about the Veterans Administration, Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service.

Todd Bullen, who manages the office, said he discovered while interviewing Lucero that he "had the kind of thinking and the tools that we needed." But Bullen wondered how Lucero would perform tasks considered simple for the sighted, such as reviewing written case histories.

"It became apparent to me very quickly that the other things I was worried about were just obstacles that he deals with in his everyday life," Bullen said. "I give him no slack, believe me. I treat him like anybody else."

According to the National Federation of the Blind of California, 70% of blind people eligible to work do not. And of the 30% who do work, 70% are "underemployed," said spokeswoman Sheryl Pickering.

"Many employers have preconceived ideas that . . . a blind person can't do a specific job," Pickering said. "Or if they do hire him, they ask him to do a lesser job, a job that he is overqualified for."

For Lucero, the Montebello job is a dream come true. "I love it. As far back as I can remember, I loved history and (politics). I worked on campaigns, and I even used to talk with my mother about being a (congressional) page."

Lucero types up cases on a computer program that he designed. He prints out copies of his files so that co-workers can read them. If he needs to review an old case history not printed in Braille, an intern reads it aloud.

He keeps clients' Social Security numbers in the upper left-hand drawer of his desk and important phone numbers in the right-hand drawer. He identifies clothing and food and locates important documents with his fingertips.

Said Lucero: "It's hard to find an employer to give you a chance. And the other thing is a lot of blind people don't believe they can do it. So you have both things working against you.

"I believe a blind person may have to go the extra mile. I told (Martinez's staff): 'I'll do whatever it takes . . . to pull my share of the load.' If it means coming in early several days a week, so be it."

Anyway, it could have been worse, he jokes. "I could have been born a Republican."

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