New episodes of the Penny Forward podcast return next week. In the meantime, we're rerunning one of our most popular episodes. We hope you enjoy this interview with Chris walker. Chris tells us how unexpectedly losing his vision changed his life, but didn’t keep him down. Chris is a prominent figure in the blind social media community and, in just a few short years, has become a respected leader in the National Federation of the Blind. We hope you love hearing his story in his own voice as much as we do. A full text transcript of this episode is available at https://pennyforward.com/penny-forward-transcript-episode-32-chris-walker/ The Penny Forward podcast is about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. Subscribe by searching for “Penny Forward” using your favorite podcast app, ask your smart speaker to play the podcast, “Penny Forward”, check out the Penny Forward YouTube channel, or listen to all of our past episodes or read transcripts at https://pennyforward.com
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Chris: Welcome to the Penny Forward podcast. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their families, and friends who share an interest in financial independence. Join us now, as we meet people like us, who are working towards their own success.
Chris: My guest today is Chris Walker. Many of you may know him as "Chef Christopher," because he's very prominent on social media, especially with his "What is Chef Christopher making for dinner" posts. But he's also very active in his local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, and he lost his sight later in life. So he's here to tell us about that story, and how he became active in NFB.
Chris P: Chris, thanks for being here.
Chris W: Hey, Chris. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.
Chris P: You lost your sight later in life, and I want to learn a little bit about what your life was like just before that.
Chris W: Just before I lost my eye sight, at the end of 2009, I was living in Los Vegas at the time. I'm originally from Northern Virginia area, close to the DC area. And I decided to move out to Los Vegas to work, basically to go work in the casino and to see what that was like, and to see what the Vegas life was about. So when I was working one day, I was working a slot tournament, and I noticed that my vision was blurry. And I told my boss, "I'm having a hard time seeing the name badges." On the people that were in the slot tournament. So that kind of gave me a clue to go in and see an ophthalmologist. So I went in and made an appointment with the ophthalmologist, they took a look at my eyes, and they were saying to me, "You need to go see a retina specialist, right now." So I got into see a retina specialist the next day, and the next thing they told me was, "You need to get to the hospital, right now." So I went into the hospital, and my left eye basically went first. So, went totally, I couldn't see anything out of my left eye. And they had run tests, and they were just trying to figure out what was going on, why this had happened, and so I spent about a week in the hospital. And I left out of the hospital because they really didn't have an answer for me at that time. And I figured I had my right eye still going on, so I went home. I was at home about a week later and I was on the computer, and I noticed that my right eye was going in and out blurry. So I went back to the retina specialist, and that's when they put me into the hospital again, and I spent about a month and a half in the hospital. From there, the retina specialist was seeing me on a daily basis, they were running tests, they had run spinal taps, they had done all the blood work, trying to figure out why I was losing my eye sight so fast. But unfortunately, they didn't find the cause of it. So I went on for about ten years almost, up until last year, to find out really what diagnosis... What happened to me as far as, I went blind, and what was the cause? But they never found what really happened, they basically told me that something attacked my retinas and detached them. After that, about a month and a half in the hospital, I basically left out of the hospital, I was totally blind. So I couldn't drive anymore, I had no clue on what I was gonna do, the next step on how to be a blind person, how to live as a blind person, I didn't even know anything about a white cane, about any type of training, I had no clue about blindness.
Chris P: And you had no warning, right? You were healthy as far as you knew, and everything was okay?
Chris W: Yup. I was healthy, I was working, and ... (chuckle.) And then all of a sudden, it's just like my world turned around in like a month and a half. It was very quick, very fast, I didn't even have time to really think about what was really going on. I was just like, "What happened here?" From there, luckily, I had a co-worker who reached out to me and said, "They have services for the blind." And so, right away, I had an assessment. The first thing I started doing was to learn orientation and mobility. That was part of the process that I had to go through. So I was learning how to cross streets, and how to navigate my surroundings, on how to use a white cane. It was definitely a scary time, because I was like "Oh my gosh, I can't see what's going on." So I had to use my listening skills and my training skills from how to use the cane. Then from there, I went through many different multiple situations and they took me different places around the city, different scenarios on how to use my white cane. Then, I went into the assistive technology part of it, where I was learning how to use the Jaws and Window Eyes, which are screen readers. I had no clue what that was at the time, but then I finally understood what was going on, so I was there.
Chris P: Was this all in Vegas still?
Chris W: This was all still in Vegas. I went into services like right away, 'cause I was trying to figure out how to ... I used to love to cook, I did all the things. "How do I do the things that I used to do?" So then I had a rehab person come to my home and teach me about certain things about how to mark my kitchen with bumps. I got into the NLS, the National Library Services, about audio books and cassettes, things like that. So, once that happened, I decided it was time to go back to Virginia, where my family was. I was out there with my partner, we were out there by ourselves, and we decided to come back to Virginia where our family was. And so we ended up coming back home March of 2011. And we ended up going to his parents' home, with his family. and we were just going there to get settled, and trying to figure out what to do next and where to move, when unfortunately, three months later, June of 2011, he passed away suddenly. And I was kind of like newly blind and trying to figure things out. So I ended up staying there with his family for about a year. I signed up for services again back in Virginia. So I ended up picking up my orientation and mobility, trying to figure out where ... Well, my main goal was to get out. To be out on my own, independently. So I ended up living in a rural area where I really couldn't walk around. I couldn't do the things I needed to do to be independent. So my goal was to go out and get an apartment or a place to live, and be able to do things on my own, and to live the way I wanted to live, independently.
Chris P: Was that always your goal, or was there any point in your life where you just didn't know what the possibilities even were?
Chris W: Well, yeah, that was my goal. Once Jo died, and I figured I couldn't live there, I was forty-five at the time. I did not want to live with my parents. (Chuckle.) I had been independent most of my life, and I was either gonna wallow and stay there and be miserable, or pick up the pieces of my life. So I gave myself a year. I asked them, I said "Please give me a year to stay here." I was able to get my emotions and everything in check from everything that had happened, and unfortunately, ... I had a cat too. And he was a big savior being there, and unfortunately, in January of that next year, he passed away. So I had a lot of things going on with losses. And so I got signed back up, and then I went to Winchester Virginia, where I currently reside now. A friend had invited me out there, and there was a big festival. They have what's called Apple Blossom festival. About a quarter of a million people come, and it's a small, little, rural town just over the mountain from the big city of Washington DC. I came out here, it felt good, I felt like I belonged here, it was a small, rural town, I wanted away from the big city. I didn't really want to be close to the big city anymore. And I was able to navigate the sidewalks. The city was just big enough to where I can get around. So I found a roommate, that was sort of a stepping stone into my new life. And I was actually going to head back to Los Vegas. I don't know what crazy thing I was thinking, but I was wanting to go back there, but fortunately, I met somebody here, and so I ended up staying here in Winchester.
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Chris P: I feel like Los Vegas is a very chaotic and noisy and overwhelming place. And you started learning orientation and mobility there. What was that like? Was that hard?
Chris W: It was ... It's a busy place. (Laugh.) It's definitely, you know, because Los Vegas is a twenty-four-hour city. Very transient city, very fast paced, everything was going all the time. It was different, because there was lots and lots of traffic, and just trying to navigate, ... Luckily, I had vision at the time, before I went blind, so I kind of could picture things in my mind. I think everybody goes through different things, phases, or how they feel about orientation and mobility, and I just had to suck it up and say if I wanted to get out there and be independent and go out and be able to travel freely on my own, that I had to go out and do it. Basically I had no choice.
Chris P: Sure.
Chris W: So I don't think there was really a yay or ... either way, was it hard or not. [Chuckle.) I just wanted to go out and learn and do it the correct way and be safe in my environment, and just to kind of ... You know, if I had to stand out on the corner for a half hour to cross that street, I was gonna do it. I wasn't gonna put myself in harm's way. But I just had to use my listening skills and figure out the traffic pattern and if it was a light, if it was a stop light, so all these scenarios set you up to kind of run through your head.
Chris P: Yeah.
Chris W: As far as what you have to do to get it. But then, of course, I learned, there were certain places I wanted to go. So if I wanted to go to the store, I practiced on going to the store. From my house to the store and back. So I kind of learned different ways of doing things, getting through the mall, if I wanted to go to the mall. So they took me all over the place. On the bus. Just everywhere. Crossing streets. So, it was fine, and I got used to it, and eleven years later, I'm fine. (Chuckle.) So, I mean it was just a different way of getting around independently and safely.
Chris P: Well, on the other hand, do you think that, maybe, gave you an advantage over, say, someone who might have had a similar experience but was in a rural town like Winchester?
Chris W: Yeah, I mean the environment's different. In a rural town it's smaller. Depending on where you're at out here, we have the country, there's no roads, there's dirt roads, but when you get into the rural city, and it's a small town, they do have sidewalks like in the big city. Like if you go into DC, DC was just so overwhelming for me because of the noise. Like I couldn't tell what was what, because ... (Chuckle.) The buses and, just, everything was going on. And so, when I came to Winchester, I was like, "I could deal with this." Because of the ... you know, it wasn't as loud, it was still where I had control of my environment, and I can listen around easily. Now some people, you know, everybody's different. Some people do perfectly in the city. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just basically getting used to your environment and being comfortable, and being able to get out there, and be able to get out there and do your thing, without being stuck in your home. ‘Cause that was one thing I did not, did not want to do. Because I was like, "I have bigger and better things to do with my life than sit at home."
Chris P: So you knew for sure that you didn't want to be stuck at home, that you wanted to be independent. Were you thinking about work or anything at that point, or ...
Chris W: I was, but you know, at that time, I was so excited about going back to work right after I went blind, but, of course, things changed, and I was like, "You know, I've worked twenty-eight, thirty years of my life right now." At this point, I decided to volunteer. Give back to my community. I wanted to find an organization that could kind of help me inn the journey, and I found the National Federation of the Blind back in 2014. I didn't realize we even had a chapter out here, and I had joined the at large, where they served the whole state of Virginia. And so I began there, and I started meeting other blind people. I" listening to them, and their stories, and how they were doing their thing, and so after that, I had found there was a local chapter here in my area. And so I went to my first meeting, and I was very excited, because I was like, "Oh! Other blind people!" And then I really wanted to do outreach. I really wanted to learn about the organization. Go out and talk to the local organizations in my area, to bring awareness about my story, and how the National Federation of the Blind had changed my life. Because I had a lot of opportunities, and I still have a lot of opportunities to get involved with the blind community, and also teach the public awareness about blindness. So, from the Winchester chapter, I became the outreach coordinator. So I did that for a couple years, and then I was voted in to be the Vice President of our chapter. And then I served as Vice President for a couple years, and now I currently serve as the President. And I've been doing that in my capacity for three years. I truly enjoy it. It gives me an opportunity for our chapter and our members to get out there, and talk about the rights for blind people, what we go through on a daily basis. Letting people know, you know, "Don't feel sorry for us going blind. Don't have pity on us. We're going out and we're doing things like everybody else, but we do them in different ways," and educating. So I've been very passionate about that. I've had a lot of great people just surround me, support me, mentor me, I've met a lot of friends here in Virginia, and don't realize there's a lot of blind people that are around. So what I do now is I make sure that we do outreach within Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley area, to let people know, you know, if you're losing your vision, if you have low vision, if you're blind, to come join us, because there's support. Because a lot of people have questions. They don't know how to get services. They don't know how to do a lot of things that I didn't know eleven years ago. So we're there to help and support them, to move them along in their lives. People are losing their eye sight at later ages because of the macular ... There's different eye diseases. RP, there's diabetes, I mean eye sight loss is different for everybody. So we kind of take people for where they're at at the time, and we kind of guide them, like I was guided, helped, and I asked a lot of questions about things. I learned about the organization. The organization is an advocacy organization, so they do fight for the rights of the blind. They're a strong organization. They're fifty thousand plus across the United States, including Puerto Rico and Washington DC. They have a national convention where thousands of blind people come together every year. We also have a state convention, there's like fifteen chapters within Virginia. So there's a lot to do. We do what's called a Washington, and a Richmond, seminar, where we go out and speak to our local legislators about the rights of blind people, what things we are encountering as far as voting, blind parents bill, blind parents can parent, things with technology and how things are not accessible to the blind, there's a lot of things that we do. But we're also ... You know, we make friends through all this. And there's always a place within the organization if you want to get involved, with a division, or a committee, or you really want to do something, there's always a place within the organization to put your feet down, and really show what you can do. Because that's what we want blind people to do, and we put you to the test. You know, they put you to the test, and they challenge you, and they make you think of ways of doing things, you know, of being independent, being self-sufficient, being all these things that I wanted for myself, and then hopefully, that I could also pass on to other people. To say, you know, "blindness is not an end to all." And they really taught me that, and I love serving, and I serve with humbleness, and gratitude, and all the things that I've had the opportunity to do. I think that was just one part of me that's always been in my nature, was to help people, and, to wherever they're at and how they're going as far as, you know, their blindness. So that's basically where I've decided to put myself at this point. I'm fifty-five now. I may think about doing something different, or going back to work, but at this point, I'm really good with my life. I was able to buy my own home, and I sort of have my own family here. My family supports me and loves me and they don't think of me any differently, and that's what I wanted. I didn't want them to feel sorry for me. I didn't want people to feel like, "Oh, poor blind Chris. He can't do things." And I do cook my own meals. I can do my laundry. I do all the things. I pay my bills. Like, I do all the things that I was taught. So I've used these skills, and I continue to use them, and the things that I've learned, I pass on to other blind people who are newly coming into it. And I do get a lot of calls from people. Hey, you know, I'm out on social media, I do serve on the diversity and inclusion committee also. We want to make sure that we are a diverse organization and we include everybody. No matter what your background, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, all those things that are other characteristics of just the blindness that brings us together, but also with different ways we come together and different intersectionalities, and things like that. So it's not just ... It's not a one size fits all. It's sort of like we want to bring everybody in. We want people to share those stories. Because how they overcame certain obstacles, you know, other people had gone through the same thing, or have an understanding of what we've been through with certain situations. And, yeah, there's just the whole gamut of different types of scenarios that we've run into.
Chris P: It sounds like a very fast-paced life for you, and I imagine that your life in Vegas was kind of fast paced too. I want to go back to your story. Because I sort of interrupted you when you said you had moved to Winchester, you had a roommate, so you were living independently, you had accomplished that goal, and then you met someone. And then we stopped there, and I want to know what happens next.
Chris W: Okay, so I met my husband now Jim. He and I got together, and it was funny because I had just gone through all this sadness, and I had asked him. I said, "Do you have an issue with me being blind or anything like that?" (Chuckle.) He's like "No. Why would I? I like you for the person that you are.) And so, we ended up going out together and stuff, and we kind of got to get to know each other, and then we decided to make a life together, and so that's what we did. So we sat down, we talked, had many conversations about where we wanted to go within our life, and what dreams and goals we had, and we basically sat down and we made them happen. So we've been fortunate that Winchester's now, I actually consider it home. For many, many years I never felt like I was ever settled, even when I was sighted, and then, after so many years, it just ... everything just kind of fell into place. And so that's where we're at now, and we've been in our home for about six years now, and we have two dogs, and we're just doing things within our community, and things have slowed down now because of the Covid virus. But once things start clearing up, we'll start getting back out there. Because we do a lot of outreach. We do a lot of just letting people know that we're here, and people recognize us, and we have much respect for the small town that we live in because we've been able to help so many people. And Jim was also a big volunteer in the community, and in the recovery community. So, now he takes a big part of being part of the NFB, and what I do, and he serves as our treasurer. So, yeah. So we're just making things move along here, and we're hoping that the Covid virus will get cleared up and we can all get back out there and start doing things again.
Chris P: We all are, and you did say that before you lost your sight, you love to cook. And I know that you eventually did learn how to cook again, and you cook quite a lot, don't you?
Chris W: Oh yes. That never stopped me. ‘Cause that was one thing I was like, "This is not gonna stop me." So I marked my stove, I have bumps on my microwave, I have bumps on some of my stove, I have bumps on my ice maker, so there are things that help me mark, and also I can label things. As you know, or some people know, there's a lot of neat gadgets out there for us to do the things we need to do. So I'm able to label my cans, and my clothing, and basically anything with Way Around. So there basically is an app that you download, and use magnetic tags, or buttons, they have different types of tagging systems. And so basically you just record it, and you basically open the app up, record, and then, like if I want to find out what a certain item is in my kitchen, spices, things like that, I have them marked, and then I can say, "Oh. This is oregano, or this is ... seasoning spices." But I do cook everything. I mean I use an air fryer, I bake, I use the stovetop, I just do things, I ... you know. Measuring cups, I do everything like I did when I was sighted.
Chris P: If you follow Chris on social media, you will often find out what he's making for dinner.
Chris W: Yes. So if you see a Chef Christopher update, like tonight, I am making dinner, so I'm making roasted potatoes with dill weed, and I'm making pork chops and some perogies. So that's on my menu for tonight. But yeah. Definitely, that's one of the things I love to do. I like to bake things too. I like to make things for people. I know that, because I like to bake as well, I always do things for fund raising events, and raise money, and just get out there and participate in society. And be a part of society. And being part of the world.
Chris P: So what advice would you have for somebody that is in your position? That maybe has lost their sight later in life and is not as sure as you obviously were?
Chris W: Keep your head up to the sky, and seek help. Seek support. Find out from other blind people how they do things. There's social media, if you're on social media, there's a lot of blind groups out there that will help you. There's ... Like I said, join an organization if you want. There's NFB, ACB, American Foundation for the Blind, there's anything that you want to direct yourself that really keeps you in line with what you want to do. Now I'm not gonna say everything's cheery and rosy and all that, it's not. Life is life, and I do get depressed at times, even though I do all these things. But as long as you have a good head over your shoulders, and you're thinking right, and, you know, we're not gonna get it right all the time. And I always say, "We're always allowed to feel what we feel at the time, but don't make it a point to feel that way constantly." Because that's not healthy for yourself. It's not healthy for the people around you. I know a lot of people have good intentions for what they want to do, to help you. It gets frustrating at times when sighted people think that they know they're doing the best thing for you, but they don't really know. And you get frustrated with that, but you know, at the end of the day, teach yourself, learn from others, and take it with stride, and just keep moving along. And I always say there's more good days than bad days. cause that's just the way I roll.
Chris P: So what are some of the dreams of goals that you and Jim are working towards in the future?
Chris W: Retirement. (Laugh.) Because we do really want to travel. I still want to go see the world. I still want to go and travel. I want to go to Thailand, where I'm originally from. I would like to go overseas, visit different countries, Germany, different islands, I mean I just want to go and explore even the fifty states. If I don't get to go overseas, then one of our goals is to go travel, and go see the fifty states and what they have to offer, and whatever things. I would really like to go out to different countries and try their different foods. cause we're both foodies and we like food, so that's one goal that we have, and basically enjoy life. And whatever you enjoy doing, whatever direction, I always tell people, "If you enjoy doing certain things, go do it. If that makes you happy, go do it." I always say, "You don't have to keep up with other people, what they're doing, you do what you want to do that makes you happy."
Chris P: Well Chris, it's gone by way too fast. And I just want to thank you for being here, telling everybody your story, you're an incredibly positive person, and I hope that you continue to do outreach, because you're about the best example I can think of, for someone to look up to.
Chris W: I appreciate it, Chris, and I thank you so much. I'm very humbled that you reached out to me on social media to give me this opportunity to have this platform, and to hopefully let other people listen at least to my story, and I'm always out there listening to others. And I'm always ... I don't want to say "amazed" or all that, but we all have a story to tell. And I really do appreciate you giving me this time and opportunity.
Chris P: I hope you enjoyed this week's episode and will tune in again next time, but before you go, my credit score increased 32 points this week. What did I do? Absolutely nothing. I carried a small credit card balance over the holiday season, and the only difference between then and now is that I made the final payment to pay off all of my credit card debt that I had accrued by buying Christmas presents. By making on time payments consistently, you will pay off your debt, and your credit score can go up just like mine did.
Chris P: That concludes this episode of the Penny Forward podcast. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their families and friends, who share an interest in financial independence. Join us, and we will work together to avoid financial obstacles and target our goals. To learn more, visit
Until next time, I'm Chris Peterson. Thanks for listening.