Instructor – Counselor – Servant – Example: Kati Ottman Lear In The Spotlight

By: Sila Miller

"I have a twin brother named Kurt," begins Kati. "My mom didn't know that she was going to have twins. She went to the doctor on Halloween, and the doctor said, ‘I do believe you're going to have twins.’ My mom looked at him like he was crazy, and the next day, she had us." Enthralled by Kati’s story, I asked, “Are you and Kurt identical or fraternal twins?” “Gotcha!” she quips. “You have no idea how many people ask us that. We aren't identical because we have different body parts.”

Kathryn Ann Ottman-Lear and her older twin, Kurt, were born on November 1, 1953, two months and a week early in Cleveland, Ohio. They grew up with an older brother, Bill. Tragically, their mother passed away when the twins were only four, leaving them to be raised by their maternal grandparents, Martin (Bud) and Margaret Ottman.

Kati and Kurt’s eye condition is Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a potentially blinding eye disorder that primarily affects premature infants weighing about 2-and-3-quarters pounds or less that are born before 31 weeks of gestation. “I wanna say that also applies to my mental condition, but nobody will believe me,” jokes Kati. According to the National Eye Institute, ROP was first diagnosed in 1942. Several complex factors may be responsible for the development of ROP. The eye starts to develop at about 16 weeks of pregnancy when the blood vessels of the retina begin to form at the optic nerve in the back of the eye. The blood vessels grow gradually toward the edges of the developing retina, supplying oxygen and nutrients. During the last 12 weeks of a pregnancy, the eye develops rapidly. When a baby is born full-term, the retinal blood vessel growth is mostly complete (the retina usually finishes growing a few weeks after birth). But if a baby is born prematurely before these blood vessels have reached the edges of the retina, normal vessel growth may stop. The edges of the retina (the periphery) may not get enough oxygen and nutrients. Scientists believe that the periphery of the retina then sends out signals to other areas of the retina for nourishment. As a result, new abnormal vessels begin to grow. These new blood vessels are fragile and weak and can bleed, leading to retinal scarring. When these scars shrink, they pull on the retina, causing it to detach from the back of the eye.

An ROP epidemic occurred in the 1940s and ‘50s when hospital nurseries began using excessively high levels of oxygen in incubators to save the lives of premature infants. During this time, ROP was the leading cause of blindness in children in the U.S. In 1954, scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health determined that the relatively high levels of oxygen routinely given to premature infants at that time were an important risk factor, and that reducing the level of oxygen given to premature babies reduced the incidence of ROP. With newer technology and methods to monitor the oxygen levels of infants, oxygen use as a risk factor has diminished in importance.

The Ottman twins began school in a class with other blind students where, in addition to regular school subjects, they were taught Braille, slate and stylus, and other skills specific to people with little or no sight. In fifth grade, Kati and Kurt were main-streamed into the general student population. They enjoyed an all-American childhood. "After we got done with middle-school, Grandpa retired and we moved to Sarasota, Florida," Kati says.

In Florida, the kids enrolled at Riverview High School where they attended all but their 11th-grade year. The Ottmans learned about a summer program offered by the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB) in St. Augustine. During the summer following their sophomore year, Kati and Kurt attended the program, both enjoyed it, and finally talked their grandparents into letting them attend FSDB for their junior year of high school. "We both wanted to get specific instruction on orientation and mobility, me in cooking and Kurt in woodworking and those kinds of things," explains Kati.

The year 1972 brought high school graduation and enrollment into Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, Florida for the Ottman twins. Kati's major was in Visual Disabilities Rehabilitation Teaching, while Kurt originally chose to pursue a major in history. He later changed his course of study to Visual Disabilities. In 1976, following college graduation, Kati took a job at the then-Lions Industries for the Blind, now Lighthouse of the Palm Beaches where she taught for a year. "I worked primarily with older blind people. But after a year, I felt like I needed a little more counseling training because so much of teaching is listening and counseling, and I was only in my 20s," Kati relates. So, it was back to FSU where she obtained her Master's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling.

After completing graduate studies, Kati served an internship at the Rehabilitation and Conklin Centers in Daytona Beach, Florida. When the Conklin Center opened for service in 1979, it was the only organization in the United States whose adult services were devoted exclusively to the vocational rehabilitation needs of adults who were blind with coexisting disabling conditions. In a pioneering collaboration between the Conklin Center and the Florida Division of Blind Services (DBS), the Conklin Center was established with the goal of helping adults who are blind with coexisting disabilities to become employed, live independently, and be in control of their lives.

The Rehabilitation Center for the Blind is a place where people who are visually impaired or blind can reside temporarily while they learn to lead productive, self-sufficient lives. The program incorporates instruction in a variety of independence skills, as well as case management, including home management, cooking, cleaning, personal care, labeling, orientation and mobility, Braille, access computer technology, adaptive equipment and devices, college prep, job readiness, home repairs, adaptation to blindness, and many other skills that contribute to independence and the confidence to seek the highest level of employment possible.

Following her internship, Kati was hired fulltime at the Conklin Center teaching adult basic education that included Braille, abacus, and math, as well as other adult academics. There, Kati shared a common wall and thermostat with a co-worker who would frequently come in to adjust the setting as he was always too hot. Soon, she and Mark Howard Lear would share much more! Before long, Kati transitioned to the Rehab Center where she also taught basic adult education.

“Mark and I got married on July 4th, 1981,” reflects Kati. “We left our reception in red, white, and blue outfits on a decorated tandem bike. The bike had streamers, beer cans, and playing cards in the spokes. Before we left on our honeymoon, a relative set off a firecracker in the parking lot.”

“Around 1983-84, the center began working with Apple computers. I got interested and took classes thru Nova University,” says Kati. “I learned everything from word processing to basic computer programming. I do not like computer programming. I would not want to get a job doing that,” she emphatically declares. “But, I wanted to learn about computers and how they worked.”

Kati took classes toward an Education Specialist degree while pursuing a working knowledge of computers. “When I was in college, I went through school—all blind people did at that time—using a tape recorder, Braille writer, readers, and a typewriter. We didn't have all this wonderful, fancy equipment. So when I was taking classes, I learned how to use the Versa Braille. It looked like a shoebox. We'd write the information down, and it was saved onto a cassette tape. I'd use that to take notes in my classes. I remember one day, my teacher said, ‘Kati, what'd I just say? You write everything down that I say.’ So I read it back to him, and the whole class started to laugh. That began my love of technology,” proclaims Kati.

With the phasing out of the Police and Fire Dispatch Training Program came Personal Computer and Assistive Technology training. “My first computer that I taught on had two 5-and-a-quarter floppy drives,” chuckles Kati. “Then we transitioned to small hard drive computers. It just got better and better—we began using 3-and-a-half floppies. We did a lot of computer training for job placement in customer service, and I traveled all around the state with Greg Luther in the mid-‘90s,” Kati reminisces. “Then we began the Medical Transcription program and had it for 10 years. After that program ended, I continued to teach computers. About four or five years ago, they built a new building—the Technology Center – and put all the technology teachers in one place. MTTL (Manderfield Technical Training Laboratory) basically stood empty for a year. They tore it down about a year and a half ago,” says Kati, a bit of nostalgia in her voice. The Manderfield Technical Training Laboratory was the training site for hundreds of individuals with blindness and visual disabilities for many years. Understandably, it represents a milestone in the hearts of many, offering the path to self-sufficiency and independence.

After 27 years as a technology instructor, something she dearly loved, Kati was ready for a change. Upon the retirement of Amy Williams, a longtime Braille instructor, Kati saw that opportunity and began teaching Braille, a position she held until her retirement in the fall of 2015.

“So I retired and was doing alright, but I felt like I needed a purpose. I went to the FCB convention in Jacksonville. While I was reading the program, I saw that Sally Benjamin was retiring, and her job was being advertised. I said to myself, ‘That looks really cool. I think I'd like to apply for that.’ And I did, and I got the job, which I'm really thrilled about,” Kati says, zeal ringing through loud and clear. Kati began as Florida Council of the Blind’s Administrative Assistant on June 15th. She answers the Project Insight line and takes care of various other FCB-related duties—everything from general correspondence to providing resource information. “I'm enjoying working from home in the mornings from 8:00 – 12:00, and I have my afternoons to basically do whatever I want—go out to lunch with friends, work out, swim, read books. Sometimes, I truly veg out and just take a nap,” confesses Kati. “I figure that's ok, cause I'm semi-retired—I can have a nap if I want one!”

Kati’s first encounter with a dog was less than ideal and resulted in a long-lasting fear. “When I was a little girl, my family visited with friends at a lake,” begins Kati. “They had a happy, exuberant lab who came over and knocked this little 4-year-old girl over who didn't know it was going to happen. Later, Kurt got a big, calm yellow lab from Seeing Eye, Nibblet. He was just as friendly as he could be, and he taught me not to be afraid of dogs.” From there, Mark and Kati decided to raise a guide dog puppy for Southeastern, and Jazmin came into their lives. “We thought maybe if I had a puppy from the beginning and it grew up with me, I wouldn't be afraid,” explains Kati. “At the same time, we got an 18-month-old dog from the Humane Society. I gradually learned to not be fearful of dogs, and then I went to Southeastern Guide Dogs and got Hunter, a black Labrador in 1991. Jasmin didn't make the dog guide program and came right back to the Lear pack. Sometimes things just aren't in the cards,” Kati matter-of-factly says. “So when I came home with Hunter, we had three dogs. Within a year, we went from a no-dog family to a three-dog family,” she chuckles. “Then, when Hunter retired, we still had the three dogs and I came home with Kate, a sweet little black lab. I used to say, ‘Your job, Kate, is to keep those guys young.’ And she did a good job! We were known as the "K Girls". After Kate retired, I got Sofi who’s now 10 and recently retired. Now I work with Cameron. He’s a smart boy. He’s lying here on the bed chewing his bone. Both he and Sofi are yellow labs. And, I love them all dearly,” concludes Kati.

Kati and Mark are longtime members of the Halifax Council of the Blind chapter.

"I am the helper—I'll do pretty much anything I'm asked to do. My favorite committee was the Entertainment Committee. I like organizing parties and fun activities. I'm the party girl,” says Kati, a smile in her voice. “But, when I don't understand something, I'll speak up and ask questions for clarification because I know if I don't understand, somebody else will be having the same problem.”

Huge bowling enthusiasts, Kati and Mark bowl every Saturday from September through April. “We go to lots of blind bowling tournaments and really enjoy that. It’s a great social sport,” Kati says. When asked if she uses any adaptive assistance to compensate for her lack of eyesight, Kati responds, “The American Blind Bowling Association frowns on using bumpers (gutter guards sometimes used at little kids’ birthday parties and the like) but I do use the hand rails.” A hand rail goes from the approach to the foul line and serves to orient a person who can't see. Additionally, the Lears enjoy walking, swimming, socializing and eating. “We basically want to stay active,” clarifies Kati. “I also like to cook when I have time.”

“I really believe we were put here to serve,” Kati shares. "Always be true to yourself and treat other people like you'd like to be treated.” Great advice for anyone and from her upbeat, positive, involved, and caring demeanor, she clearly takes those words to heart.

Thank you, Ms. Sunshine, for sharing your life and your story with FCB. Thank you for teaching hundreds of us about technology, and thank you and Mark for your no-nonsense advocacy efforts on behalf of us all.

Kati welcomes contact and may be reached at (386) 763-3836 or floridacouncil@comcast.net.