WASHINGTON—Stacy Cervenka often leads tourists from Kansas through the crowded halls of the Capitol, pointing out presidential busts, historic paintings and details in the huge dome that arches over their heads.
Leading tours is typical duty for Senate aides such as Cervenka, 26, a primly dressed blonde who works for Kansas Republican Sam Brownback. But she brings something extraordinary to the role: She's blind.
"My big fear was that I would point to a vending machine and be like, `And this is a picture of George Washington,'" she said in a recent interview.
To train herself to give tours, Cervenka explained, she researched the architecture on the Capitol's Web site using software that reads text aloud, called JAWS. She also followed other interns around on their tours, asking lots of questions.
She's an expert now. When she's in the Capitol Rotunda, Cervenka, who uses a cane, determines where she is—and which painting her group is looking at—based on the grooves in the stone floor. In Statuary Hall, she invites tourists to join her in discovering tactile details of the sculptured busts.
"When she first arrived as an intern, there were folks that questioned if she was blind," said Brian Hart, Brownback's spokesman. "There was no task she couldn't do. She makes sure she can do everything herself, almost beyond the threshold of what a sighted person would have done."
Brownback agreed, boasting recently that, "Stacy gives the best tours of anyone on the Hill."
Cervenka first interned in his office in the summer of 2004, through a program offered by the American Association of People With Disabilities. Each year, the program selects students to work in Congress, and Brownback seeks them out.
Cervenka wasn't always self-reliant enough to apply, however. At her high school in Chicago, she stuck to a group of friends and never crossed a busy street alone. She passed up study abroad because she didn't want to travel by herself. She resented the fact that she couldn't drive.
She figured that she had no choice. She was born with optic nerve hypoplasia in her left eye, leaving her totally blind in that eye. In her right eye, the optic nerve fibers were so deteriorated that she was well beyond legally blind.
After graduating, Cervenka attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., for two years. There, she started making connections with other blind adults through the National Federation of the Blind.
"We went dancing and took the subway, and that opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn't living my life the way I wanted to live it," she recalled.
So she went to the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, La., which she describes as "boot camp for the blind." She learned cane travel, home economics, shop, Braille and technology. She also went on mettle-testing excursions with her blind peers. They tried white-water rafting, rock climbing, even Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where they learned to cope with crowds.
She recalled the center as very demanding. It required her, for example, to prepare a "small" seven-course meal.
"The scariest part for me was not the rafting or the climbing, but I was really afraid to grill a steak," she said. "I thought I'd light myself on fire." Fire still makes her a little nervous.
After eight months at the center, Cervenka enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she lived off campus, tested herself with classes in judo and horseback riding, and graduated with a double major in French and Italian.
Coaches and professors were sometimes reluctant to give her a chance to prove herself, she said.
"You have to have high expectations for yourself because sometimes people are willing to let you slide with mediocrity.
"It is so important to get the training and skills you need," she added. "Reasonable accommodations (for physical disabilities) aside, how can you possibly ask people to hire you if you can't do what you need to do?"
Since interning, Cervenka has spoken out against accommodations that she thinks may stifle skills development. She's against audible traffic signals, which she considers a waste of money better spent on traffic-noise training.
"It never fails to amaze me the things people try to do for me," she said. "A few days ago, my shoe was untied and this guy on the subway bent down as if he was going to tie it. People think that you're going to be childlike and that you don't live in the world or share the same interests as anybody else."
She's been impressed with her experiences on Capitol Hill, however.
"When I started interning, the office manager said, `How are you going to give tours?' She didn't say, `We're not going to let you' or `Will you be able to?' She asked how."
Cervenka isn't sure what's next. She's considering public policy or a law degree. Her short-term goal, she said, is to get together with a few blind friends and go skydiving.
For more information on the Louisiana Center for the Blind, visit www.lcb-ruston.com
For information on the American Association of People With Disabilities and its internship possibilities, go to www.aapd-dc.org
The National Federation of the Blind site is www.nfb.org
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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