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Local News

Engineer Travis Spier Refuses to Let Legal Blindness Take Control of His Life

After working with Santa Barbara’s Braille Institute, Santa Barbara County manager returns to full-time job supervising solid-waste operations

After losing his eyesight and leaving his job for eight months to attend classes at Santa Barbara’s Braille Institute full time, Travis Spier is back as Santa Barbara County’s operations manager for solid-waste transfer stations in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. “I’m not looking for a free ride,” he says. “I came back here and I work hard and I make decisions, and I love what I do.” Click to view larger
After losing his eyesight and leaving his job for eight months to attend classes at Santa Barbara’s Braille Institute full time, Travis Spier is back as Santa Barbara County’s operations manager for solid-waste transfer stations in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. “I’m not looking for a free ride,” he says. “I came back here and I work hard and I make decisions, and I love what I do.” (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

As the operations manager in charge of Santa Barbara County’s solid-waste transfer stations in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley, Travis Spier supervises a staff of more than 40 people and an annual budget of around $8 million.

The civil engineer’s facilities collect smaller quantities of materials for recovery as recyclables or for transfer to the Tajiguas Landfill, whose operations he also manages.

Unlike the vast majority of people in his profession, however, Spier is legally blind. He has been for two years.

“I kept working (as) it progressed,” he told Noozhawk. “Like a lot of people who go blind later in life, it’s not just day and night.”

Last year, Spier dropped out of work, but despite losing a sense most would deem critical to their profession, he was back on the job less than a year later after taking classes full time at Santa Barbara’s Braille Institute and rejiggering some of his work arrangements.

A San Bernardino native, Spier studied civil engineering at Cal Poly Pomona before going to work in the Inland Empire and Orange County.

He worked at Santa Barbara-based MNS Engineers until the economic downturn, and then joined the county as a civil engineer in 2009.

Four years ago, an autoimmune disease began stealing his eyesight. Three years later, he became too incapacitated to work.

“It really felt like I was 36 and retired, sick and blind,” Spier said.

The sickness was cured by new medicines, he said, while his ability to manage work, everyday life and recreation was vastly improved by the Braille Institute, whose local branch is at 2031 De la Vina St.

Spier had started going to the Institute when he was declared legally blind, but during his eight-month hiatus, which began in March 2016, he took on yoga, cooking, ceramics and the ukulele. He got into audiobooks, joined a men’s group, and saw an orientation and mobility specialist.

Especially crucial to his professional rebound were technology and computer classes with Greg Benavidez, an Institute teacher who is also blind, but “can take a computer apart and put it back together,” Spier said.

“The biggest part, even then and now at Braille, is the camaraderie,” he said. “The meeting with other blind people, sharing stories, sharing laughter, sharing your hard times, sharing stuff that works for you or doesn’t work for you, or complaining about people saying, ‘Forks are over there’ — stuff like that.

“All the little stuff that vision people don’t get — you get that camaraderie, and we get to empathize.”

Some 3,500 people a year from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties take part in classes, groups and programming at the Braille Institute Santa Barbara, according to its executive director, Michael Lazarovits.

“Our goal is to give a person back their confidence, their dignity and their independence,” he said.

Only about 10 percent of those his organization serves are completely blind, Lazarovits said, while most retain some residual vision. He estimated that 80 percent to 85 percent began experiencing vision deterioration later in life.

The success of the Braille Institute, he said, revolves around both teaching new skills and techniques for common tasks as well as transforming participants’ mindsets and confidence.

“They absolutely work hand in hand,” Lazarovits said.

Nowadays, Spier takes an Uber to and from work, uses a screen reader called Window-Eyes on his computer, and follows tactile paving between his office and the facilities he supervises.

He does the majority of his work on his iPhone, which he said is “great for blind people” with its variety of accessibility features.

“I could pick up some technology, and basically as a manager of the county, I get information ... and then I delegate and I make decisions,” he explained.

But Spier has had to depend more on his colleagues’ opinions and on more-thorough descriptions from them of engineering plans.

“The county, probably partly because they want to be ADA-friendly and stuff, took me back no problem, and partly because I do believe I’m a valuable asset to the county,” he said.

“I’m not looking for a free ride. I came back here and I work hard and I make decisions, and I love what I do.”

Spier, who brings a good sense of humor to his work and disability, is also candid about the realities of losing one’s vision.

“I think most vision people would see going blind as a very scary and shitty thing, for lack of a better word,” he said. “And it is — it sucks. I’m not going to put a spin on it.”

He can watch his two children when they visit on the weekends from their mother’s, he said, but, like many routine activities, that requires extra, continuous concentration.

The common notion that the other four senses — taste, touch, smell and hearing — are heightened among those with sight impairments is not quite accurate, Spier explained, though they are utilized more.

Since losing his sight, he said many of his cognitive abilities have improved markedly, including his spelling and his ability to remember names and recount memories.

And because he can’t make assumptions about someone based on their looks, he says he’s become a less judgmental person.

“I was going about my apartment the other day — and I was sharing this with my men’s group — and I forgot I was blind for a while,” he recalled. “It just became natural.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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