“I decided not to look back, but to move forward,” said Jimmy Uharriet. Jimmy is a Teamsters SFO mechanic at United Airlines.
In March 2016, Jimmy’s entire life changed when an accident left him totally blind.
What’s interesting about Jimmy is that his is not just a story about a person overcoming incredible odds to get back on his feet and return to work, but also a story of an individual who took his new circumstance and turned it into something lifechanging for so many others.
“I had to be retaught everything,” said Jimmy. “There was a point when I wanted to give up, but I decided success was my only option, failure was not.”
Jimmy credits his family and friends for reminding him that he was still alive and he was still the same person he was before he lost his sight.
In September 2016, Jimmy went to the Vista Center — a nonprofit that among other things, teaches blind or visually impaired individuals orientation and mobility skills. Jimmy says staff at the Vista Center noticed how motivated he was to relearn and regain his independence and put him in contact with Project Invent at the Nueva School — a private school in San Mateo.
Part of the goal of Project Invent is to help high school students invent technologies to solve real-world problems. Students at the Nueva School wanted to develop a belt that would help prevent blind people from veering — an issue Jimmy understood very well.
“I used to walk to my local grocery store and barber shop, which were three blocks away from my house,” explained Jimmy. “I want to be independent, but as a blind person I can’t walk a straight line and doctors say veering can’t be fixed.”
Jimmy worked with the students at the Vista Center to create a prototype of the Stria Belt.
“There’s a zipper on the belt with motors on each side that vibrate,” Jimmy continued. “I switch the belt on and the two motors vibrate and set the straight pattern. The second I begin to veer, the belt vibrates on one side until I stop veering.”
After their success at the Nueva School, Jimmy worked with Project Invent founder, Connie Lu, at a camp for students at East Palo Alto Academy. Jimmy talked to the kids about the problems he had with his walking stick and they all got to work.
Together, they developed a prototype of a walking stick that uses flashing LED lights, tactile feedback, and shock absorbance to help users navigate safely and painlessly.
“I take everything as a blessing,” said Jimmy. “The Stria Belt won the top prize at South by Southwest’s Student Startup competition and Project Invent is now in eight states and over 16 countries.”
“Everything happened to me for a reason and I think that reason was Project Invent,” he continued.
On top of helping students develop award-winning technologies that will improve the lives of people with disabilities, Jimmy was also focused on getting back to work.
“There was a point in time when I was bedridden that I would wake up and rip everything off and say I needed to get to work,” he said.
The Teamsters Member Assistance Program (TMAP) offers United Airlines Teamsters with help when they need assistance with issues like getting back to work after an injury or illness.
“Our TMAP team communicated at different times with United to make sure the company was willing to go forward with getting Jimmy back to work,” said TMAP Coordinator Steve Loone. “We were there to be cheerleaders for Jimmy.”
The Teamsters contract with United Airlines provided Jimmy time to prove he could perform his work as a mechanic.
“I did the evaluation and even shocked myself,” said Jimmy who was able to return to work last June. “If you’d asked me a year and a half ago if I thought I’d be back at work, I would have said no.”
Before losing his sight, Jimmy worked on jet bridges, ground power, and locksmith work. “Now I do benchwork,” he explained. “I am brought electric motors, clutch brakes, and gearbox reducers for the back system to rebuild and overhaul.”
For Jimmy, transitioning to this new phase in his life has been about not allowing the smallest or the biggest things to bring him down. “I know this won’t be my hardest battle,” he said about being blind. “I also know I want to build something that will last forever. I think that’s why I’m here.”
Jimmy wanted to give a special thank you to the people who have helped him since he lost his sight: his parents, his brothers, and the surgeons to which he owes his life; Valerie Campos who trained him on using his walking stick; Cathy Abbott, Bill Quirke, Jeff Sanchez, Ed Tanaupol, Andrea Charles, and everyone in his department at United Airlines; and all of his friends and union family. Teamsters 856/986 shop stewards, Greg Sullivan and Steve Loone also advocated tirelessly on Jimmy’s behalf.