Three years ago, Debra Erickson walked into the offices of the Oregon Commission for the Blind.
A degenerative disease had left her vision nearly completely gone. She’d been hesitant to use a cane in the past, and she couldn’t read Braille.
Erickson, now 57, needed help.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said.
She underwent job and life skills training, preparing her to navigate life without her vision. But it was a cooking class that sparked something in her.
On Thursday, she’ll graduate from Clark College with a certificate in cuisine fundamentals, with dreams of becoming a culinary instructor for blind adults. She joins 850 students slated to receive 2,500 associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, certificates or high school diplomas at the college’s graduation ceremony.
“I really worked hard on this,” she said.
Erickson has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes the cells in the retina to deteriorate. Her vision has steadily declined since she was a young adult, but for years, Erickson rejected the diagnosis, refusing to use a cane and once walking out of a support group. She was mostly able to manage her disease with help from friends, she reasoned, and she didn’t want more people to know she was blind.
IF YOU GO
What: Clark College commencement ceremony.
When: Gates open at 5 p.m. and the ceremony starts at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday
Where: Sunlight Supply Amphitheater, 17200 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.
A decade ago, she was laid off from her job at Oregon Health and Science University. She worked odd jobs afterward, but she never settled into a new career. Then three years ago, her vision took a turn for the worse.
She started using services at Oregon Commission for the Blind, which provides services and training for blind and visually impaired Oregonians. It was there that she met Char Cook, a rehabilitation teacher who worked in the kitchen with Erickson. Cook described Erickson as an “elegant, brilliant woman” who was dedicated to the difficult task of learning to navigate hot pans and sharp objects in the kitchen.
“We are asking people to look fear straight in the face and embrace it and go forward, and she did it,” Cook said.
Erickson started classes at the Clark College Tod and Maxine McClaskey Culinary Institute last September. It was a learning curve for both her and the college, which had to modify the kitchen so it would be safe and accessible for her.
“You have to make everything equitable,” said Earl Frederick, a culinary instructor at Clark College. “It’s been great. It’s heightened awareness.”
Erickson navigates by feel and sound in the busy kitchen. She’s secured sticky rubber dots on the temperature gauge of her induction burner so she knows what temperature it’s on. Her meat thermometer and kitchen scales read out loud to her. Spices are labeled with electronic stickers she can run a pen over, which will read to her what’s contained in the bottle.
“Anything I asked for, anything that would make it easier, they didn’t say no,” Erickson said.
Erickson’s brought the same energy to Clark College as she did to her classes at the Commission for the Blind. Her husband joked to her that she studies more in a week than he did in four years of undergraduate education. For Erickson, that was the only way to pursue this second chance at an education.
“When you’ve got that many people investing in you and caring about you, if I were to slack, it would not be my way,” she said. “I really am proud.”