COLUMBUS, Ohio –
Tom Comeans never let go of his vision for the future even when his eyesight failed him.
For his dedication, the Secretary of Defense honored him Oct. 5 with the Department of Defense’s top award recognizing the contributions of employees with disabilities.
Comeans, who is legally blind, received the Outstanding DoD Civilian with a Disability Award during a presentation at the Pentagon attended by DLA Land and Maritime Commander Navy Rear Adm. Michelle Skubic, Small Business Office Director Coleen McCormick and Comeans’ wife, Kathy.
“The mission of personnel and readiness is to enhance the readiness of the all-volunteer force,” said Anthony Kurta, performing the duties of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. “One of our key strengths in that all-volunteer force is our diversity. The advancements all of you have made to increase the employment of individuals with disabilities across the department is therefore critical to our mission’s success.”
Kurta, representing the Secretary of Defense, presented Comeans with the award for his work as a Small Business specialist responsible for reviewing and approving small business coordination records on proposed acquisitions for DLA Land and Maritime – including four naval shipyards located across the U.S. Last year, he reviewed 1,640 proposed contract actions with a value of over $945 million – making him the second-highest work producer in the organization’s Small Business office.
And he did it all without sight.
He’s a huge contributor to our office, and a contributor in things that can’t be measured,” said McCormick, Comeans’ nominator for the award. “Here you have this gem that may have been under-utilized in the past because he didn’t fit the mold of what others might think a model employee needs to be. But other than his vision, that man has got everything heads and shoulders above so many people.”
“The thing about Tom is he’s the kind of individual that – although he can’t see – he’s constantly showing other people what right looks like,” said Small Business associate Jon Ferguson, who assisted with Comeans nomination packet. “He has the ability to demonstrate what work ethic is.”
A life-style change
Doctors discovered the eye disease that would eventually claim Comeans sight during a routine eye exam in the early 90s. Comeans learned the disease – retinitis pigmentosa – was genetic, though he is the only person in his family ever diagnosed with it. The condition is incurable and can take many years – even decades – to develop into complete blindness. It generally starts with peripheral vision loss known as “tunnel vision” – as it did in Comeans’ case – before eventually eclipsing the entirety of the person’s vision.
The news devastated Comeans.
A career public servant in his early forties, he’d spent the last decade working his way up the ranks of DLA Land and Maritime. In fact, the Whitehall, Ohio, native grew up just outside the gates of the Defense Supply Center Columbus where DLA Land and Maritime is based.
Worried for the future, the married father wondered if he’d be able to continue to build his career, save for retirement and put his daughter through college. Medical retirement would’ve been a significant financial loss for Comeans, who was the family’s main breadwinner.
“Vision loss is a complete lifestyle change – but giving up was not an option,” said Comeans, who was determined to continue his career.
Comeans said his never-quit attitude as well as the support of his family and colleagues got him through those early days. The DLA Land and Maritime Equal Employment Office worked to provide innovative equipment that kept Comeans working as his eyesight deteriorated – screen-reading software and color-coded specialized keyboards among others.
In 2007, he made the difficult decision to turn in his driver’s license when driving became too dangerous because he no longer had peripheral vision. He now relies on public transportation to make his daily commute between his home in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and DSCC.
His vision deteriorated further in the ten years since to the point that his center vision is now also gone – the final stage in the disease.
A new path
There have been difficulties, Comeans said, in the 27 years since his diagnosis but he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Comeans traded in his position as a supervisor once his vision problems became too great. Over the years he’s shuffled through several offices at DLA Land and Maritime. When he transferred to Small Business, he felt he found the right fit for his “new normal.”
In the best times, he received promotions as new opportunities opened up and the technological advances of the time allowed for adaptations and accommodations to his work as his vision declined. In the lowest times, his ever-diminishing eyesight led to severe injuries that kept him bedbound for months at a time recovering.
In one recent episode, Tom fell down the stairs inside his home and broke his leg in several places. He underwent surgery and then needed several months of rehabilitation.
However, even in dark times, Comeans found that he and his family weren’t alone in their struggle.
His Small Business office teammates rallied together when they heard about Comeans’ injury.
The office of nine got together and donated over 100 hours of leave to help him when his leave ran out during the months of rehabilitation. Team members visited several times over the course of his treatment. One of his colleagues, Jon Ferguson, brought an audiobook to help Comeans pass the time.
“When we first found out about the fall, I didn’t know if Tom would ever come back,” said Ferguson. “I honestly thought it was a career-ender because I’ve injured myself and I know what it takes to recover from that. But he’s resilient, and thankfully, he was able to walk through our doors once again several months later.”
Comeans said it meant the world to him to know everyone cared so much.
Despite the challenges and setbacks, Comeans refused to give up.
He credits his Small Business colleagues and the DLA Land and Maritime EEO staff with providing him the support to continue working.
One conversation Tom recalls clearly was between him and the EEO office’s Allen Gambrell.
“Allen said to me, ‘you can’t just keep increasing the screen size, you need to move to JAWS’,” said Comeans, who’d been concerned about a recent spike in his vision loss. JAWS – or Jobs Access With Speech – is a screen reader software created specifically for users whose vision loss prevents them from seeing the screen content or using the mouse. As Comeans vision deteriorated, he could no longer see the mouse cursor moving on the screen and needed a solution to continue opening and reviewing emails. It was one of many conversations with EEO over the years about technologies available to him and ways to help him continue working.
For Comeans, sight is now a memory but that won’t stop him from getting up in the morning and going to work – as he’s done the last 39 years.
“It’s a strange world,” he said. “It certainly takes any prejudice away from you when you can’t see a person and you don’t get any kind of preconceived opinion about them – because all you know is their voice. Maybe we all would be better if we just heard each other’s voice.”
If you want to watch Comeans accepting his award, the livestream from the ceremony is archived here: https://www.defense.gov/Videos/videoid/556281/.