Blind in Reno

One man’s story of what it’s like to be a visually impaired resident of the Truckee Meadows

Mobility and transportation are important issues to most people, perhaps even more to blind men and women.

Mobility and transportation are important issues to most people, perhaps even more to blind men and women.

Photo by David Robert

• • •

my wife carol and i moved to reno in september 1983, and within two weeks, i learned that there was always a friendly person around willing to offer help when necessary.

and sometimes when it wasn’t necessary.

one evening, carol left me at the corner near harrah’s while she went to retrieve our car. as i stood at the corner, leaning on my white cane, the light at the crosswalk turned green. i was surprised to feel a huge hand suddenly close firmly about my elbow. a voice said, “here, i’ll give you a hand,” and i was crossing virginia street. before i could protest, my “benefactor” and i stepped up to the opposite curb. he gave me a gentle slap on the shoulder and, in a boozy drawl, said, “y’all have a fine night, partner!”

i thanked him. then i returned to my corner when the light changed, and i hooked up with my wife as planned.

in addition to the comic element, this memory really illustrates the overall friendliness and helpful attitudes of northern nevadans.

• • •

living within borders
Our decision to settle in Reno was one of the most fortuitous that Carol and I have made. Reno has always impressed me as an enjoyable place, both in the abundance of entertainment and good people.

When I arrived in 1983, I had been legally blind for nearly four years as a result of diabetic complications. Previously a California resident, I was then relocating from New Orleans. In both of those locations, I’d started learning that life’s rules remain the same, even after the lights on the playing field are turned off. My interests were still the same, but my active role in things needed to be adapted for me, or I to them. I found it helpful and necessary to learn about our society’s efforts to help me live within its borders.

My wife and I lived in California when my visual impairment became total. I quickly began to familiarize myself with personal and emotional survival skills that I never imagined I would need.

I contacted California State Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and I was offered training in mobility and reading and writing Braille. I learned to use Bay Area Rapid Transit to travel north from my home in Fremont to Berkeley for typing classes. I was off to a good start, but by 1982, Carol and I needed a change, so we left California to spend a year in Louisiana as missionaries affiliated with a non-denominational church.

During the year Carol and I spent in New Orleans, the group Louisiana Services to the Blind supplied items that I needed to perform my work as a telephone solicitor and minister. I used Braille to make notes, but using a metal slate and stylus to punch one dot at a time was slow and caused my hands to cramp.

One morning, I was visiting my counselor’s office when he placed a large and surprisingly heavy travel case on my lap. It held a Perkins Brailler, an expensive but marvelously durable mechanism that writes Braille characters on heavy card stock, producing high quality pages of tactile text. It is actually hand built by blind engineers at the Perkins Institute in Massachusetts. I’ve used this machine several times each week, sometimes for hours at a stretch, for 19 years, and it has needed repairs only once.

New Orleans was a great place to visit and fish, and Mardi Gras was definitely the biggest street party I ever attended, but we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy any of these activities if I hadn’t found work—and Blind Services was able to refer me to only one job opportunity the year I lived there. After spending an entire day waiting for the pre-arranged interview, I was told the position had never been open. I have never embraced the concept of government being a source of supply, so it was only natural that I eventually brainstormed my own part-time employment in telephone sales.

By June 1983, we were growing tired of the sub-tropical humidity, the odor of bayou and open sewage canals and bombardment by dive-bombing 3-inch cockroaches. Our brief time in Louisiana was interesting, even inspiring at times, but we knew it was time for us to hot-foot it to the Silver State.

moving to nevada
By the time I landed in Nevada, I had thoroughly tested my sense of self-reliance, but I didn’t lose sight of the fact that my life was still my responsibility. Learning to be mentally tough while intellectually flexible became my goal. I found that living with a disability is not always life’s greatest trial, and Nevada became both my home and classroom.

In the nearly 20 years that Northern Nevada has been my home, many changes have taken place that benefit the handicapped. Prior to the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Reno and Sparks were already installing aids for disabled folks, such as ramps at street corners. Most casinos had started building ramps. Nearly every elevator I used had Braille labels—some even had spoken vocal prompts. It seemed that the Biggest Little City had been considering and implementing quite a few advances and was well ahead of other communities we had visited.

During our first few weeks in Reno, I had two major priorities—looking for a job and figuring out how to get there and back. One of the first state services I used was mobility training. I practiced using a white cane to safely travel about my north Reno neighborhood each morning, enjoying the perfume of sage and the sound of hunting kestrels nesting in our eaves. I soon mastered the proper path to the nearest bus stop, as well as the bus routes to and from my job.

In November 1983, I enrolled in guide dog training at Guide Dogs of America, formerly International Guiding Eyes, in Sylmar, Calif. After four weeks of rigorous training with David, a large and friendly German shepherd mix, I was ready to begin a more independent mode of mobility.

Seventy percent of all blind people are unemployed, even though nowhere near 70 percent of blind people are unemployable.

Photo by David Robert

By the time I was using the Citifare system daily, David was guiding me. His presence boosted my confidence to an amazing degree. I was surprised, however, to find that a large number of people were ignorant of Nevada’s assist and guide dog laws. My German shepherd and I were almost routinely stopped in clubs and dining establishments.

One hostess at a Reno restaurant looked at David and said, “Would you like me to tie your dog outside?”

Not often described as reticent, I explained, “My dog and I have a legal right to enter any place of public access.”

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “Let me check with my boss.”

The delicious smell of sizzling steaks and the hunger gnawing at my stomach made the wait seem like hours, and other customers were lining up behind us. I was just about to leave when our hostess returned.

“I’m so sorry!” she blurted. “Let me personally show you to a nice table.” As David slipped out of the way beneath the table, we took our seats. She leaned over my shoulder and sheepishly whispered, “We’ve never had one of these dogs in here before.”

After several incidents of this type, I began carrying a photocopy of Nevada’s statutes regarding free public access to guide and assist dogs. But to the credit of the casino workers and restaurateurs, I never actually needed to show anyone the NRS statutes. After explaining myself, David and I were always allowed to enter.

I never really considered this a chronic problem. It was something these people had just never been exposed to, and it was indicative of the lack of awareness among the general public at the time. Most of the clubs and virtually all forms of public transit now provide some level of specialized training for employees so they can address the needs of disabled patrons without compromising the customer’s dignity. Mobility and transportation are important issues to most people, perhaps even more to blind men and women.

getting around town
Since visually impaired people can’t drive, getting around independently can be a real problem. Since the early 1980s, the Regional Transportation Commission has sponsored Citilift (originally known as Elderport), which offers affordable transport to seniors and those who can’t drive or use a bus due to a disability. When I first arrived in Nevada 18 years ago, the system was still in its infancy, and the few people using the service could not count on it when timing was paramount.

It wasn’t uncommon for people to find themselves waiting more than an hour past their expected pickup time before the ride would show up. It was far from perfect, but it was what was available at the time. Fortunately, Citilift riders offered plenty of feedback, and the RTC quickly learned which improvements deserved primary consideration.

Since then, the entire system has gone through several complete overhauls since 1983 and is now touted as one of the most efficient para-transport systems in the United States.

Lea Rogers, regional manager for the RTC, says para-transport is now available 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, with a 98 percent on-time rating, allowing 15 minutes leeway in each direction.

Drivers of both Citilift and Citifare buses are regularly tested for level of skill and receive special training at Northern Nevada Center for Independent Living to learn to assist passengers with various needs. The fare for disabled passengers using Citifare buses is just 60 cents. Eligible Citilift riders pay just $1.25 in each direction. Citilift’s vans are also equipped with the most modern safety options, are clean and comfortable, and the system is among the most-cost effective of any in the country. I can readily recommend Citifare buses and Citilift as convenient and reliable services.

nevada’s non-visual scenery
The outdoors has always fascinated me, and I’ve had a big interest in animals since I was a child. In 1986, one of my wife’s framing customers was admiring my German Shepherd and began to describe the photos of a bighorn sheep hunt she had framed for him.

John Zenz, a licensed Nevada hunting guide, got me interested in attempting to hunt big game. His brother, Bill, invented a device that assists me in safely and accurately shooting a rifle. In 1987, John and I worked as a team, and I became the first blind hunter in Nevada history to take a pronghorn antelope. I’ve also hunted elk and mule deer.

I still love hunting. It’s a monumental physical, emotional and spiritual challenge in which I find a powerful allegory for all of life. I treat a kill with the respect due the marvelous animals whose lives become a part of mine. I use virtually every piece of edible meat and hide, feeding scraps to my dogs. The taxidermied heads on my wall are definitely not displayed as trophies of some testosterone-bloated ego, but in tribute to the animals and to the rugged Nevada country from which they were harvested. This is not the sort of interest one expects a blind diabetic to enjoy, yet I have a unique passion for this facet of my life.

Of course, Nevada has other things to offer besides outdoors activities, and even a person who cannot see will eventually frequent one or more of Nevada’s casinos. I don’t gamble much anymore, but among my blind associates, blackjack tends to be the game of choice.

Dealers are trained to assist visually impaired guests who enjoy gaming by calling the cards of both the players and the house as they are turned up. I’ve played 21 in several Nevada casinos, and I’ve never had a problem.

However, playing poker seems a bit far-fetched from my vantage point, unless a blind player can convince the rest of the table to use Braille cards. They do exist, but the Braille bumps make them hell to shuffle.

I’ve been to restaurants that added entrance ramps that were so steep and narrow that no motorized wheelchair in existence could possibly use them.

Photo by David Robert

The ever-present slots and roulette or craps are also easily accessible. One convenient feature of Nevada casinos is that they always have a restaurant of some kind on premises, so even if a visually impaired diabetic is playing, he or she can grab a bite when necessary.

finding a job
Nevada State Bureau of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired is responsible for providing vital mobility training and other services to those medically certified to be at or below acuity of 20/200 after best corrective options. I have been a client of BSB several times since settling in Reno.

Kelly Cross, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with BSB, said the agency has always, as a primary objective, helped clients who want to work and make a living find jobs.

This is a societal issue of no small concern, given that 70 percent of all blind people are unemployed, even though nowhere near 70 percent of blind people are unemployable.

Finding employment can be a daunting endeavor for the visually impaired. But technology has not left blind people behind, as synthesized speech can be added to almost any computer. Today, there are many computer programmers who are totally blind, and if you can handle the somewhat robotic voice quality of most screen readers, it’s a solid career choice. Unfortunately, when I lost my eyesight, I had to be more pragmatic.

When I reached Reno, I found that Blind Services here had an approach to employment for the disabled that was more proactive than the similar services in the two states where I had previously lived. The staff sought to better define my career objectives and offered limited but helpful assistance toward the realization of employment goals. Also, when I found myself in need of a hearing aid, a device critical to my auditory balance but not covered by Medicare, Blind Services bought it for me.

Our first year in Reno, I worked for Checkmate magazine, a free want-ads publication, selling advertising space and producing a feature article on guide dogs. The pay was only slightly above minimum wage. When I walked into the office of Checkmate, they wanted to see me do my “stuff.” I sat down, listened to the other sales people selling ads, and had a new customer for Checkmate within 20 minutes. As I signed the new customer up for a quarter-page display ad, the owner, Rawn, leaned over and quietly asked, “So, you want the desk up near the front? It’s got a better view!” Almost 20 years later, Rawn and I are still good friends.

I also worked as a telephone salesperson for nearly three years. I have a good rapport with most people, and my communication skills served me well in this capacity, but the opportunities for advancement and a better wage were slim. I knew several visually impaired individuals who were doing well running Business Enterprise Program (BEP) vending stands in government buildings, so I applied for entrance into the program through Services to the Blind.

In the Blind Vendor program, originally established in the 1930s under the Randolph-Shepherd Act, persons who are legally or totally blind can be trained to run their own businesses in sites established by the BEP program in their state. Federal, state and county buildings are all locations that may provide a venue for BEP vendors if the building has the ability to support such a business.

After several months at a training facility, I took over the contract for the concessions in the Reno Department of Motor Vehicles office on Galletti Way. For nearly eight years, I sold sandwiches, snacks and soft drinks, as well as license plate bolts and frames, to thousands of Nevada citizens.

You don’t work eight years behind a counter at the DMV without good survival skills, and once again adaptive technology served me well. I kept a compact bill identifier below the counter, a machine that could read aloud the denomination of any paper bill from $1 to $20. Normally, my civilian customers never even knew they were doing business with a blind person, but a few who realized it couldn’t resist the temptation to cheat me. I kept the bill reader’s volume low, but when someone asked for change for $20 and then handed me a $1 bill, I’d turn the volume up to maximum and make sure everybody in line knew what had just happened. The humiliation to the would-be cheaters was effective enough that, out of 20 such incidents, I felt the need for the police to be involved only twice.

In 1994, a joint decision made by the Nevada Public Works Department and the DMV closed the concession, but they allowed me to install a bank of vending machines in a newly built snack room. I traveled to Minnesota to study machine-vending routes run by the BEP in that state, and I returned to Reno ready to implement new ideas for my business. I now have vending machines in several government buildings in Reno, and I look forward to adding at least one additional site in the future.

the fight continues
The progress made in disabled equality is plainly evident, but further advances are still needed before our country will be “disability friendly.”

In December 1991, I was invited to demonstrate a new ADA-compliant ATM machine for a local television news crew. When I arrived at the bank that had installed the unit, it turned out to be at a perfect height to accommodate people in wheelchairs—but each of the Braille labels above the buttons on the voice-equipped ATM were inaccessible to human fingertips, and thus could not be read by a blind customer.

Such inadequacies point to a lack of foresight in the machine’s design and development. Perhaps blind ATM users were not contacted during the machine’s design phase, or advice from a visually impaired consultant may have been ignored. It was frustrating to the bank and the media, but it was obvious that theoretical compliancy had overruled any concern for functionality.

I’ve also been to restaurants that added entrance ramps that were so steep and narrow that no motorized wheelchair in existence could possibly use them.

Recently, members of the Randolph-Shepherd Vendors Association, an organization of participants in the Blind Vendors program, lobbied to stop a House bill that sought to revise federal policy concerning concessions on federal properties. The bill would have placed the jobs of all blind concessionaires on federal properties in jeopardy. These blind entrepreneurs would have been replaced with sighted government employees and privately owned espresso carts.

The bill was vigorously supported by then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, but it was successfully defeated due to the direct involvement of Randolph-Shepherd vendors. When our own government seeks to keep disabled individuals from becoming taxpayers, these men and women remain tax liabilities.

I am certain that some disabled individuals can be found who, although able to work, would like nothing better than to sit at home watching soaps and collecting disability checks. I’m proud not to be among them. I enjoy my vending company, and I love my growing career as a writer. There’s no sense of satisfaction like getting paid for a job well done, and many disabled Americans embrace similar values. Disabled people aren’t all trying to make their country, communities and neighbors pay for their livelihoods. Most of us only want an equitable chance to take part in pulling our own weight. We do occasionally need a little assistance, and most of us aren’t too proud to ask for it when it’s necessary.

a part of Nevada
Even though I’m a “transplanted native,” I’ve never lived anywhere that felt more like home than Nevada, and I’m still excited about the prospects for personal growth in my adopted home. I do my best to remain proactive, not only for my sake, but with a view to changes that will affect this community in years to come.

The phrase I use most often to describe living in Reno is, “We’ve been real blessed.” I’m thankful for all the incredible changes that I might not have experienced elsewhere. Here it feels perfectly natural for me to remain a person of vision despite my lack of sight. I’ve had plenty of help along the way, and sometimes it’s been a struggle, but in the process of overcoming obstacles, I’ve also become a part of Nevada. Maybe it is more accurate to say that Nevada has become a part of me.

The place agrees with me, and I’m just glad to be home.