Written By: Johanna Weidner 25/9/15
For Dennis Atkins, nothing gets in the way of running. Not even all the obstacles and dangers he can’t see.
Despite being legally blind and seeing only light and dark, Atkins runs every day on the streets — on his own.
Since the Missouri man started running in 1979, he’s amassed nearly 134,000 kilometres and competed in 70 marathons. And he has no plans to stop, no matter how many times he loses his way and the many cuts, bruises and breaks suffered from falls and crashing into things.
“Even with all the broken bones, I won’t quit,” said Atkins, who is aged 60.
Once he ran right up a ramp into a moving van because he didn’t know neighbours were having furniture delivered.
The incredulous delivery guys helped Atkins figure out the dimensions of the truck to avoid trouble when the avid runner passed by again.
Atkins shared his story at a recent Wilfrid Laurier University event hosted by Eye to Eye, a student group raising awareness about the challenges and abilities of people who have impaired vision.
The evening included three speakers who have all excelled despite the great challenges of life with limited vision. All spoke of the importance of persevering.
“Accommodations and accessibility are extremely important, but you’ve got to find a way,” Atkins said. “That’s your choice.”
Laurier student Jack McCormick, one of the Eye to Eye co-founders, hoped the event would give people some insight into the experiences and challenges of people with visual impairment, as well as break down myths.
“A lot of people think people with disabilities and people with vision loss are unable,” said McCormick, a second-year business student. “I’m no less able than anyone else. It’s just there are some barriers I have to find my own way around.”
Growing up, McCormick was never told by his parents not to do something and he said that approach was influential.
“I realized I can do anything I want. Yes, I cannot see, but I can do anything else,” said McCormick, 18. Unfortunately, he added, “many people don’t have these opportunities.”
When Atkins was told in his early 20s he had a rare genetic condition that would take his vision in two years, he thought all his plans for the future would disappear with his sight. After a week of crying, he decided blindness wouldn’t stand in his way.
He worked for a large insurance company for 34 years, and then became the executive director of the Disabled Citizens Alliance for Independence. He got his MBA and doctorate in business administration after his diagnosis.
“Individuals with disabilities, you have to find the way to succeed,” he told the audience.
Many people, including university educators, balked at Mahadeo Sukhai pursuing science because he was legally blind. He was the first blind student in sciences when he started at the University of Toronto at 15, then became Canada’s first blind biomedical researcher.
“It’s really hard to be the first,” Sukhai said. “It required constant vigilance, but at the end of the day it was worth it.”
Sukhai, 36, said the transition into university is tough for people with disabilities because on top of the usual pressure they need to advocate for themselves to get the needed support.
Accessibility offices are relatively new on campuses, opening in the late 1980s and ’90s in large part due to the advocacy of students with disabilities. But because the demographics are shifting from physical disabilities to a host of learning disabilities or mental health issues, he said, students with special needs are still trailblazers today.
And that continues into the workforce, where myths about employing people with disabilities are still common. But Sukhai stressed they can be just as productive as their peers, if not more so, with the right accommodations.
“What we call a disability is a different way of interacting with the world,” he said.
Sukhai is now a researcher at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, but he knows most people with a disability don’t find the same success. Although post-secondary acceptance and graduation rates are rising, employment rates are dismal at just five per cent.
“Why are persons with disabilities underutilized in the workforce,” Sukhai asked.
Boosting accessibility in school and the workplace to incorporate people with disabilities only makes sense, Sukhai said. “By doing so, everyone benefits.”
Molly Burke shared the stage with her guide dog Gallop. At just four, Burke was told she would lose her sight due to the same genetic disorder Atkins has chosen to fight.
Burke started preparing for that dreaded day by learning Braille and other skills she’d need to navigate the world, along with getting her first guide dog at age 13.
Burke was bullied at school and became so depressed about her vision loss and treatment at the hands of peers that she considered suicide. Rediscovering hope saved her, but she said it is still a struggle at times to stay positive. “This journey, it was not quick … not easy.”
All the speakers urged the audience to look beyond disability. “I am not defined by my disability. I’m defined by the person my disability has helped me become,” Burke said.
McCormick said in an interview a disability is “just a physical characteristic.”
Born with a degenerative eye condition, he has a guide dog to help him navigate the campus and computer software that reads for him or enlarges text.
McCormick started Eye to Eye last fall with fellow student Dana Toameh, whose good childhood friend was blind. This was their first big event, following smaller ones like a dinner in the dark, with the ultimate goal of building understanding.
“Look at people for who they are,” he urged.
Source: The Record