Claims rep not handicapped by blindness

Tom Martinez uses a Braille pad below his keyboard that transcribes the text on the screen and a computer that speaks to him to perform his work. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

by Ryan Lengerich

There is a good bit of irony each morning when Claims Representative Tom Martinez arrives at the Social Security Administration office in Clovis.

The 68-year-old is first to arrive — about 30 minutes early at 6:45 a.m. He unlocks the door, warms up the copy machine and turns on the lights.

Not that he needs light — Martinez has been completely blind since age 5.

But his handicap has not slowed his work ethic. Martinez was honored last month for 30 years of dedication to the Social Security Administration.

“If you enjoy your job I guess you stay with it,” he said. “I enjoy working with the public.”

With thick, wrap-around sunglasses, Martinez sits at a desk with what amounts to a talking computer. A synthesizer repeats everything he types, and describes every option on his computer screen. A braille pad below his keyboard transcribes the text on the screen.

Martinez manipulates the technology effortlessly, reaching for the scanner to his right that reads text from paper and prints it in braille.

Working in a profession heavy in paperwork and ever-changing governmental code would seem impossible for a blind person, but all his life Martinez has beaten his handicap.

In 1942, when Martinez was 5, a discarded can of lye exploded, severely burning his face and leaving him blind. As a high school student at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped in Alamogordo, Martinez won the state wrestling title — then the national title — in three different weight classes. He was his school’s valedictorian.
He took a job with Social Security in 1974 in Fresno, Calif. He was moved to El Paso then to Clovis in 1983. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Raton native.

Tony Romero has been manager at the Clovis branch for eight years. He was promoted from claims representative, a job he learned from Martinez.

“He is the one who helped me become successful,” Romero said.

Romero called Martinez a dedicated employee who rarely takes time off work.

“He is very productive. For the handicap he has he is just as productive as any employee in the office,” Romero said. “He is an inspiration to all his coworkers.”

In April the department moved into a new building on the town’s north side. While exciting for most workers, it meant Martinez had new corners and doorways to navigate. His co-worker, Andy Chavez, said it only took about two days for Martinez to pace off distances and take command of the office layout.

“That guy is amazing,” Chavez said.

Martinez doesn’t use a seeing-eye dog or a cane. He softly feels the walls, and can sense when someone is near him. Coworkers are vigilant not to leave delivery boxes or obstructions in the office. Sometimes he bumps into things, Chavez said.

In addition to top-of-the-line handicap technology, Martinez has a personal assistant called a “reader.”

Marie Blea has worked part-time for 10 years taking care of Martinez’s incoming and outgoing mail. She reads him any necessary forms.

Sometimes she forgets he is even blind, she said, but his sense of humor shines through.

“I’ll tell him, ‘Oh it was so dark this morning, I just don’t like the mornings,’” she said. “And he will just laugh, and say ‘yeah, it’s so dark, isn’t it?”

Blea said she was a house wife until her baby was about 4, when she decided to pursue working.

“I felt like I was just a house wife and didn’t know enough to get a job like I have now with him,” Blea explained. “And when I came and saw what he can do, I said ‘well if he can do that I can sure do something.’”

Martinez has been married to wife Rita for nine years. He lived and traveled alone in Fresno and Los Angeles in the 1970s. In 1983 he received a disabilities worker award from late President Ronald Reagan — he called it his best day with the department.

Friends say he is an excellent automobile mechanic. Blea remembers when Martinez told her he had climbed on the roof to fix the air-conditioner.

“I told him, ‘you were on the roof with the air-conditioner?’” she said. “He said ‘yeah, I had to get it going.’”

Martinez has been eligible for retirement since age 60, and said he will most likely retire next year. He plans to work at a church or open a store.

Until then he will continue finding Social Security money for his customers.

“Some who do not have any benefits at all and are disabled and need to get back on their feet, I get to throw in my pitch once in a while and tell them not to give up,” he said. “If the milk is spilled you can’t pick it up, so you have to do the best you can with your life.”