At age 23, Mark Wilkerson is looking toward the future with the kind of optimism you'd expect from a graduate of one of the nation's best schools.
Even though he is blind, he recently completed four years of study at Georgetown University and sees himself becoming a top-notch trial lawyer one day.
The only problem is that he can't get people to see him.
"Let me make one thing clear," he began during an interview at his basement apartment in Northwest Washington. "I am not looking for sympathy or trying to use my handicap to get a handout. But frankly, I could use some exposure because I am having a problem getting people to view me on my own merits."
Wilkerson has been looking for a job so he can save money for law school.
He says he'll do almost anything, but would prefer work as a paralegal researcher or in a position in telemarketing.
It is not hard to imagine what happens when he telephones prospective employers: They love him, at first. It's what happens after he leaves an in-person interview that gets him down.
"The interview process goes real well, shapes up nicely," he said. "It's just that I never hear from anybody again."
The bitter irony of all this is that a lot of time and money have gone into preparing Wilkerson, who was blind at birth, for the world of work. His mother, who died six years ago, was a medical technician, and his father, a boiler fireman. Each saved money for special teachers and instructional tapes.
They were so good at raising the young Wilkerson that he was admitted into one of the top private schools in the country, Delbarton High School in his home town of Morristown, N.J. Then he came to Washington to attend Georgetown.
Here was a city that prided itself on equal opportunity for the handicapped. Sidewalk curbs had wheelchair ramps, Metrobuses were outfitted with hydraulic lifts, and some buildings had talking elevators with Braille buttons.
But when it came down to actually hiring the handicapped, there was still a lot to be desired. But again, Wilkerson said he is not looking for sympathy.
"I'm a realist, and what I realize is that our system has built-in hurdles for everybody," said Wilkerson, who graduated with a B average in American government. "You can't put a finger on any one thing. It's a dynamic system, and you just have to keep on pushing."
Admittedly stubborn as he strives for independence, Wilkerson figures that all he needs are a few more opportunities.
But he needs them fast because, with the winter approaching and snow and ice on the way, walking the streets in search of employment takes on extra hazards.
It's not that he can't walk with the best of them. But as most everybody knows, a job hunt is tough enough when you can see. If you are blind, you must have friends come over to read the newspaper classifieds, you have to stop people on the street for address checks, and, on cold days, you have to make sure your ears don't freeze. A blind man's ears are his eyes, so they can't be covered up, either.
To close one's eyes and attempt even simple tasks is to get some idea about what it's like to be without sight. But to watch Wilkerson cook, clean house, shave and "do my running around," as he calls Christmas shopping, is to be truly amazed.
With arms and hands working like a water witch, he moves around as if guided by radar, which he is, in a way.
"I can sense the distance from one place to another," Wilkerson said, gliding through a doorway and dropping into a chair.
Listening to music on a radio and the sounds of a televised football game at the same time, he added, "I can block out what I don't want to hear and tune back in if something strikes the right chord."
While hosting a party for several friends at his apartment Friday night, Wilkerson paused while recounting his life's accomplishments to make a confident, street-wise evaluation. "Yeah, man, I'm baaad."
Now all he needs is a job.