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John D. - Katrina Survivor and Successful Peer Counselor

John Duplessis

– Working with and advocating for people with disabilities.

Background

“Down, but not out for the count” describes John D’s tumultuous life before and after Hurricane Katrina. A champion boxer since age 10, John, or ‘Super D’ as he’s known to his many fans in New Orleans, has never let adversity keep him down for long.

In 1995, a career-ending injury in the boxing ring left John legally blind and limited his peripheral vision. He returned to school, pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice and continuing his education at Southern University in New Orleans. As a full-time student, John took courses at a slower pace that accommodated his limited vision. After graduating with a B.A. in psychology in 2002, he continued at Southern University earning his Master’s Degree in Social Work in 2005.

At the same time, from 2000-2005, John worked as a Case Manager for Armstrong Inc. Family Services, assisting people who were homeless and/or had disabilities. Then Katrina blew through, he says, “and turned my whole life around.”

John, his mother and her fiancé evacuated New Orleans “at the 9th hour,” managing to make it to Grenada, Mississippi, where they stayed in an emergency evacuation shelter for three days before returning home. John had no sooner returned, however, when the police came through telling everyone to leave because the levees were starting to breach.

With no way to get in touch with his mother because landline and cell phones were not working, John got in his car and headed north to Birmingham, Alabama, where his wife had evacuated a week earlier. Although John has a valid drivers license, his lack of peripheral vision meant that he had to pull off to the side of the road repeatedly in order to read the road signs. Terrified and frightened, John crept along at the minimum speed limit, taking 16 hours to complete what is normally a six-hour trip.

Like other evacuees, John found shelter at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, where he also met with various service providers. The irony did not escape him: he had once worked with people who had disabilities and were homeless; now it was his turn to seek the same services.

A Vocational Rehabilitation counselor helped John find assistance and told John to call her once he got stabilized. John called and was offered a job through a one-year FEMA [federal] grant awarded to the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. John’s new job as a Reintegration Counselor for his fellow Katrina refugees included working closely with the One-Stop Career Center staff, assisting evacuees with job-placement, assessment and referrals for childcare, transportation, housing and income support.

When the FEMA grant ended, John was unemployed again, but not for long. John was hired as a Disability Program Navigator at the One-Stop Career Center through the Easter Seals MAPS project (Mapping Access to Programs & Service), a three-year grant funded by the Social Security Administration. For the past three years, John says “my daily life has been consumed with trying to help individuals with disabilities find employment and helping career center staff to better serve job seekers with disabilities and provide resources and access to special programs and services.” This project has now ended, and John is once again trying to figure out what he will do next.

John has become deeply involved in his adopted city of Birmingham. He continues to advocate for people with disabilities, serving as Chair of the Birmingham Mayor’s ADA Compliance Committee, on the Alabama State Independent Living Council, and on the boards of Independent Living Resources of Greater Birmingham and the Alabama Asset Building Coalition. Despite these deep connections, John is willing to relocate — and he hopes it won’t take another major disaster to move him into his next job.

Assistive Technology and Reasonable Accommodations

“When I first became legally blind, it was devastating. As an adult, it was very hard to accept and cope with. I learned different techniques for accommodating myself — how to travel, and to know my limitations [of] what I can and cannot do.” John uses assistive technology, including a tape recorder that is “glued to my side for dictating notes and recording conversations that I need to remember.” He uses Zoom Text software to enlarge text on his computer screen; he also uses its speech function to read aloud what is on the screen. John uses glasses with magnification to read printed documents and to write. Even so, he notes wryly, “I don’t write quickly and my penmanship is not very good.” John has talking Caller I.D. on his landline and cell phones to announce the name and number of incoming calls.

John has found that assistive technology has helped him to be successfully employed and live a productive life.