James “Tyler” Kirk walks the two blocks to his office at the Securities and Exchange Commission every morning, thinking about how lucky he is.
He’s 29, loves his work as an SEC lawyer and loves the life he has built.
But those two blocks can be dicey. “The most stressful part of my job is crossing Massachusetts Avenue. My heart is literally in my throat,” said Kirk, who lost his eyesight when he was 9 to Stargardt disease, a form of macular degeneration.
It never stopped him from pursuing his goals, though, and Kirk, with his black Labrador service dog Sailor, makes it across a busy thoroughfare every workday.
“I love economics, I love business, I love investment,” Kirk said. “This is my dream job, and how could you not be happy working in your dream job?”
Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of nearly 2.8 million employees are blind, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Since 2001, the number of workers with severe “targeted disabilities” such as deafness, missing extremities or paralysis decreased by 6 percent. Blindness is also a targeted disability, and in recent years the government has increased its number of workers in that category.
Although the EEOC has not set specific hiring goals for those with severe disabilities, a 2010 executive order called for an additional 100,000 workers with general disabilities by 2015.
“You have to set goals high, or nothing will ever move,” said Kathy Martinez, the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, who has been blind since birth.
“People with disabilities are part of the population, and we want to reflect that. We know the disability workforce is an untapped pool of workers,” she said.
Kirk began as an SEC intern in 2010 through the Workforce Recruitment Program, an effort sponsored by the Labor and Defense departments that recruits students with disabilities. He was a law student at the time.
After a summer working in the agency’s Miami field office, Kirk was hired as SEC Chairwoman Elisse B. Walter’s only intern in summer 2011.
“She and her staff interviewed Kirk over the phone, and they said, ‘We want him,’ ” said Laura Stomski, a former SEC disabilities program officer who helped recruit Kirk.
After graduating from the University of Miami Law School in May, Kirk took a job as counsel in the Enforcement Liaison Office at the SEC’s Investment Management Division.
“Our job is to facilitate communication between the enforcement attorneys and the special brain trust we have inside investment management,” Kirk said. “A lot of what I do is work with enforcement attorneys on how they frame their cases.”
His eighth-floor work area is unadorned and dark because he is sensitive to light. Sailor rests on a dog bed in the corner as Kirk works at the computer.
“I didn’t have a question whether or not I could perform the work. I knew I could handle it, but what did concern me was whether or not I could be provided with the tools that I need to do that job because of my disability,” said Kirk, who uses Apple technology because the hardware is equipped with accessibility settings that read text back as a voice-over.
The SEC was beginning an Apple pilot program when Kirk was hired, he said. “It definitely did help lure me in,” he added.
Stargardt disease was diagnosed in Kirk in 1992. He was living in Atlanta with his parents, Mike and Connie Kirk, and siblings Jerad and Katie.
The disease damages the macula, the tissue at the center of the retina. It is caused by gene mutation when both parents are recessive carriers. It rapidly destroys central vision but typically does not cause total blindness. The vision in Kirk’s eyes went to 20/200 within months of diagnosis.
Mike Kirk said that his son fought “to stay in the visual world,” retaining portions of his peripheral vision for years. Today, he distinguishes light and dark only.
“I remember sitting in the back of class and still seeing the chalkboard. I can remember being able to open up a book and read the page. I remember doing those things, and now the act of doing that seems completely foreign,” Kirk said.
He is mindful of eye contact, handshakes and posture, occasionally causing strangers to ask whether he is truly blind.
His parents helped prepare him for his new life.
“I tell all my kids: When you meet adults, you need to act mature. You need to reach out, give ’em a good handshake. Look them in the eyes,” Mike Kirk said. “And I told Tyler [that] nothing changes — it’s probably more important for you now than ever before.”
James Kirk attended public school and played sports.
“We let him figure it out, riding bikes and all,” his mother said. “He crashed and burned a lot. He came home bruised and bloodied more times than I can even think about.”
Atlanta school officials warned that Kirk might take longer to finish high school, but he became the Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s Senior of the Year, finished college early, then earned a master’s in economics and a law degree.
Kirk has mastered life’s routines. He shops for clothing online, organizing it based on color with Braille labels. Friends help with grocery shopping, but he prepares meals and does laundry. He and Sailor confidently navigate their Capitol Hill neighborhood. His barber, dry cleaners and favorite pub are close.
And he dates with a certain advantage, he said. “Let me put it this way: My situation incentivizes relationships that are not superficial.”
With Stomski’s help, Kirk and Sailor learned their way around the SEC.
“These buildings can be confusing,” Kirk said. “But Sailor — he can give tours of the place.”