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How An Accessible Photography Class Ended Up ‘Raising The Bar’ For Blind People And Their Teacher

Although Dr. Elena Espinal has a background in science, having received a doctorate in Dentistry and a Master’s degree in Pathology from Buenos Aires University, her work nowadays blends science and the humanities. Dr. Espinal is a credentialed coach through the International Coaching Federation, or ICF. She became accredited in 1990 and was licensed in Psychology five years later. Over the past three decades, Dr. Espinal has dedicated her life’s work to helping companies spanning various industries improve their leadership skills and, by extension, their business output. A win for the client is a win for the business.

Life coaching is a fast-growing profession, particularly over the last several years; since 2015, there has been a 36% increase in coach practitioners. To date, there are over 77,000 coach practitioners worldwide. In 2020, the ICF released results of a study which summarized the coaching profession’s standing as an industry.

Despite her extensive scientific acumen, Dr. Espinal craved deeper understanding.

“Despite my background and 15 years in the field, I realized that I had not looked at the other aspects of human beings, beyond what could be understood scientifically,” she told me in an interview via email. “I had completely neglected her human emotions and the purpose that each person chooses for their life. Once I realized this gap in my understanding of humankind, I began to dedicate my time to being trained as a coach through a program accredited by ICF.”

Dr. Espinal’s passion project today is Coaching With Vision. What originally began as a game has transformed into an accessible avenue by which Blind people can become life coaches. Dr. Espinal’s coaching of her focuses on future design and culture change, which she describes as “[allowing] business leaders to delineate the future they want for their organizations.” She worked three years for the Canadian government, pioneering the concept of helping business leaders be more relatable to their workforce. About a decade ago, she was asked by Gina Badenoch, a woman who helped the Blind with learning photography, to help design a workshop in which Blind people would be taught how to turn their photographic skills into a sustainable living. Blind and low vision people, and everyone with disabilities, have long struggled to find gainful employment, if any, due to societal stigmas around disabled people’s capacity to contribute meaningfully to the economy. It felt important to Dr. Espinal that she undertake this mission to dispel the notion.

A video detailing Coaching With Vision can be seen on YouTube.

“At [the] time, neither myself nor the photography students had ever thought this would be anything beyond a workshop to help them hone their skills to open photography businesses,” she said of the class’s prospects. “Our plan was to design games and team dynamics that would include taking photos with the eyes closed, led by the photographers with visual impairments, to allow companies to create an increased awareness of diversity and the value it brings to the workplace.”

Dr. Espinal would eventually ask her son, fellow coach Eloy Bicondoa, to work with the students. He was captivated by their capabilities. “They are quite possibly the best team I have ever worked with. They talk! They listen to each other, coordinate actions, laugh at their mistakes and learn together,” Dr. Espinal said her son told over the phone. After hearing him gush, Dr. Espinal resolved to be more personally involved in the project. It changed her outlook on everything.

“I was inspired to see this for myself and began working with them,” she said. “We accompanied them on different initiatives and in just a short time, I realized that we were raising the bar for what they felt they could achieve.”

The workshop’s successes motivated Dr. Espinal to take things to the next level. She wanted to train the students to be coaches. It wasn’t an easy journey, however, as Dr. Espinal worked up a PowerPoint presentation for class only to realize it wasn’t accessible to her students; it provided her with a pointed lesson in humility. “To my dismay, it wasn’t until I arrived that I realized my own social ineptitude in thinking a visual-based lesson would be of value to this audience,” she said.

From that moment, the class “quickly evolved into a deep discussion” about how students navigated a whole world built for vision by people who had it. It was an enlightening, revelatory experience for Dr. Espinal. She would learn how Blind people get around, from home to school to the bathroom and beyond. Students revealed intimate details about themselves, such as “their dreams of not feeling like burdens to their families and being able to offer their children bright futures.”

“We knew coaching could be a solution [towards independence],” Dr. Espinal said.

As for Coaching Con Vision’s mechanics, Dr. Espinal explained it pairs visually impaired coaches with first-time managers at various companies. There are ten sessions divided into three phases: one where they review the commitments from the previous session; one where new competencies are discussed; and one where a plan is hatched for achieving said competencies. The program has grown from featuring an initial dozen competencies to 23, which includes topics like developing active listening and empathy skills. A virtuous circle has been created: students’ confidence has “skyrocketed” because they find gratitude in their work, which in turn strengthens the relational bond between coach and client. “[Coaching Con Vision] has changed the lives of these coaches with vision impairments, who today have sustainable income and are recognized as admired and respected professionals,” Dr. Espinal said. “In turn, it also has changed the lives of those who work with them. Forward-thinking companies that understand the value of DEI have been early adopters to work with these coaches, and almost all extend the programs due to the incredible and measurable positive impacts.”

She added: “Not only does [the] program add value in the training of leaders, but it works deeply on the foundation of inclusion and diversity because it drives us to make contact, to re-evaluate our perceptions of those who can be made to feel invisible: those who we do not understand in depth, those who we approach from pre-judgments, and those whose greatness we may have overlooked.”

Feedback on Coaching With Vision has been overwhelmingly positive. The path towards a coaching career has enabled participants greater autonomy, especially financially—leaving one’s family home, for example, was something many thought impossible prior to Dr. Espinal’s vision. She shared an anecdote of one student who lost everything after being robbed at gunpoint and losing his vision of him after being shot in the forehead during the robbery. Coaching Con Vision has “completely altered the state of his life for him” and opened numerous new opportunities for his rebirth for him. “As he is getting his life back on track, he attributes his success to his newfound confidence and ability to make a living and provide for a family. This is a direct result of coaching,” Dr. Espinal said. “Through the program, he has even met someone new, fallen in love, and now they live together.”

As for Coaching Con Vision’s future, Dr. Espinal is succinct in her hopes and dreams for the program. “Our goal is to eventually create a world where there is space for everyone to achieve and be appreciated,” she said.

Expounding on that sentiment, Dr. Espinal went on to say a big goal for the program going forward is expansion. The hope is to move it out of Latin America and to other parts of the world. Ultimately, Coaching With Vision exists to humanize leadership—to build a world where “we appreciate each other, valuing the gifts that we each bring to the table,” according to Dr. Espinal.

Dr. Espinal stressed disabled people are man above all else.

“Our culture leads us to believe that those with disabilities ‘lack something’ when [that’s] simply not the case,” she said. “What people fail to realize is so many people are compensating for their disability by developing extraordinary abilities. We learned from clients through their way of listening and trusting; even today, they push us to be the best teachers we can be through Coaching With Vision.”


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