Beth Cunningham 

A conversation with the executive director of the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Beth Cunningham

courtesy Beth Cunningham

Beth Cunningham

A giant aerial photo of the Idaho Capitol sits behind Beth Cunningham's desk at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, waiting to be framed and hung. It's not just any photo of the Statehouse: In it, nearly 1,000 people stand hand-in-hand encircling the Capitol as part of the July 2015 commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I'm in there somewhere," said Cunningham, who is beginning her second year as chief administrator of the Idaho Commission for the Blind.

Cunningham has championed the rights of people with disabilities for most of her life. Her father was a professor specializing in rehabilitation counseling, and her mother was a special education teacher. From an early age, Cunningham wanted to be a counselor, but also loved the outdoors, so when she got the chance to move from her home state of Tennessee to Colorado to pursue a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling—all while working as a river guide in the summer and at a ski resort in the winter—she took it. In 1994, she moved to Idaho to work for the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, followed by a 12-year stint with Community Partnerships of Idaho and teaching graduate courses on rehab counseling at the University of Idaho-Boise campus. A year ago, Cunningham became the latest executive to oversee the ICBVI, which has been serving Idahoans since 1967.

What encouraged you to pursue this job?

I feel like I've always been an advocate for people with disabilities. When they hired me, they added a special stipulation. Are you familiar with something called "shades training?" [Cunningham reached behind her desk and lifted up a white cane and eye mask]. The commission board said I should undergo 150 hours of shades training.

I didn't know it was called "shades training" but, yes, I've seen your staff and clients wearing the mask, using the cane and navigating their way across downtown Boise.

Most of the people you see are students. Maybe it's someone who is going blind or someone who has always been blind but may have partial sight, but that can be deceiving, and the individual may rely too heavily on their limited vision. So, we wear the mask. It starts with mobility where an instructor walks with you and helps you cross a street. After a while, the student is given an address where they have to find it on their own. The instructor is usually across the street or a short distance away.

This time of year, particularly with this record setting snowfall and ice, must be a nightmare.

It's difficult. Even one of our staff members took a fall this past week. There's a state of emergency, but people still have to get to work or go to the store.

How many Idahoans do you serve annually?

Last year, it was more than 2,000. That number goes up every year. In 2013, it was 1,660.

Do you have a sense of how many Idahoans are blind?

According to the National Association of the Blind, about 2 percent of the general population is legally blind.

This will be your first year to go hat in hand before the Idaho Legislature's budget writers, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

My day is Wednesday, Jan. 18. It will be my first experience. They're changing the format a bit this year. They don't want extended presentations with PowerPoints. They want brief opening remarks and then they want to get right into the budget.

Good luck with that.

I'm getting advice from as many people as possible.

Can I assume that there is tangible joy in your work?

One of our former students—she's from eastern Idaho—sent us a video recently. She's getting ready to go off to college and she wanted to let us know how grateful she was for her time with us. Last May, three of our former students came back to share their own stories: how they felt hopeless and never felt normal. Then they were thrilled to share how our training allowed them to gain independence, go to college, get a job and rely on themselves. To see them gain their independence—that's pure joy.

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