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Running Blind, and Blindfolded

Visually impaired alum prepares to defend her national title

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Joseph Quintanilla (left), a visually impaired runner and director of development for the Carroll Center for the Blind, helped start the Vision 5K to change the perception of what blind people are capable of. Photo by Norman Lang. Below: Cheryl Hewitt (SPH’03, MED’10), who is legally blind, running the Nahant 30K last year. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Hewitt

When Cheryl Hewitt was in grade school, her gym teacher refused to put her on the field during soccer games because of her diminished eyesight. Instead, she was conscripted to be a goalie.

“That was the worst place they could have put me, having the balls fired at me 100 miles an hour when my vision wasn’t as sharp as everyone else’s,” recalls Hewitt (SPH’03, MED’10).

This Sunday, the legally blind Hewitt, a dietitian and senior analyst with Abt Associates Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., will defend her title in the 2009 Vision 5K road race, the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes national championship. More than 150 blind and visually impaired athletes from around the world are expected to lace up, including such elite runners as Kurt Fiene, winner of the 2009 Boston Marathon men’s visually impaired division, with an American record time of 2:43.44.

Sighted and blindfolded athletes will pin on bib numbers, too. In all, some 1,000 runners and walkers will gather at the starting line on the campus of Boston College in Chestnut Hill on Sunday morning. A $7,600 purse will be split among the top 10 visually impaired runners — 5 women and 5 men.

Hewitt (right), who won last year with a time of 25:06, has enough vision to run without a guide. Her main drawback, she says, is not being able to drive. Legal blindness is defined as vision impairment ranging from no light perception to visual acuity of 20/200, meaning the smallest letter she can read at 20 feet could be seen by someone with normal eyesight at 200 feet.

The point of the Vision 5K, organized by Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray, is to demonstrate that blind and visually impaired people are as capable as sighted people.

“I’m now working on my second graduate degree, with an academic record I’m incredibly proud of,” says Hewitt, who for the past three years had worked as nutrition manager at BU’s General Clinical Research Center. “Obviously, there are barriers that can be overcome, and having faced this challenge my whole life has made me the person I am.”

A distinguishing feature of the Vision 5K is the Blindfold Challenge, where sighted runners and walkers compete blindfolded, teamed up with a sighted guide.

Joseph Quintanilla, director of development at the Carroll Center for the Blind, in Newton, Mass., has been running for 18 years. He helped start the race eight years ago to promote awareness of the capabilities of visually impaired people within and outside of the blind community. He suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and can make out only shapes and colors.

“I learned to use a cane when I was seven years old,” Quintanilla says. “One of the things that it gave me was a lot of confidence. I was able to get from Central Square in Cambridge, where I grew up, to Fenway Park because I love baseball. None of my friends who were seven, seven-and-a-half years old, were allowed to leave the house by themselves. That gave me a lot of confidence to try out for track in high school, to go to college.”

Quintanilla has run eight marathons, with a personal best of 3:11.34. He also plays in a blind baseball league. He notes that visually impaired athletes ski, sail, bowl, and cycle. About the only thing they can’t do is drive, he says.

Still, misconceptions abound. At a recent training session he was leading for blindfolded runners and their guides, Quintanilla tells this story: last year he was minding his own business on the T when a lady asked if he needed help. “Because she saw a cane,” he says, “she assumed that I must not know what I’m doing or where I’m going, or was uncertain of what I was supposed to do.”

“What it comes down to is that the talents of someone who is blind or visually impaired aren’t less because they can’t see,” he tells the group. “It’s about what opportunities are available to them that will maximize their skills and talents.”

In this case, it’s a shoelace. Runner and guide will be tethered, each holding one end of the string.

“While it’s your guide’s eyes that are getting you from the start line to the finish, it’s your legs, your arms, your lungs, your talent still doing the work,” he says. “The guide is providing the opportunity. The shoestring, or tether, helps facilitate.”

Barbara Salisbury (CAS’69), CEO of MAB Community Services, in Brookline, Mass., was diagnosed 12 years ago with macular degeneration, a condition that can lead to a loss of vision in the center of the visual field. So far Salisbury is problem-free, but she worries.

“It was very scary for me, thinking that this is something that’s going to be part of my future, and it led me to find out a lot more about vision loss,” she says. “When you think about what you’re willing to give up, vision loss seems the most horrifying. You feel like your life is over.”

Founded in 1903, MAB Community Services is the oldest social service agency in the country. Helen Keller served on the first advisory board. MAB teaches compensatory strategies, from reconfiguring stoves and measuring devices to mastering audio e-mail and GPS units.

Salisbury has again signed up for the Vision 5K’s CEO Challenge, which encourages business leaders to run blindfolded and raise funds for one of the race’s four sponsoring charities. Last year’s top fundraiser was guided by four-time Boston Marathon winner and running legend Bill Rodgers.

“The thing that most people don’t realize is if you live long enough, odds are you are going to lose your vision,” Salisbury says. “About half of people 80 or older have vision-loss diseases like glaucoma, macular degeneration, or diabetic retinopathy.”

More people are functionally impaired than totally blind, she says, but in either case, “we see people with disabilities frequently as being something less. There are a lot of groups we see that way — the homeless, the blind, any group that has ‘the’ in front of their name.”

“We have a receptionist who is totally blind and has been blind most of her life,” Salisbury says. “I love coming in on Mondays, when she brings in cookies she baked over the weekend, totally from scratch.

“The saddest thing I’ve seen is people who are losing their vision and their families are so interested in protecting them and just make them helpless. These people never go through what’s called vision rehabilitation, and instead get 24-hour care and life becomes very boring and unsatisfying.

“A runner I was talking to told me he became incredibly depressed about his life and had sort of given up because of his vision loss, and then when he started running, he realized, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ He went and got vocational training and has had a very satisfying career.”

Online race registration ends today, Friday, June 5, at noon. Sign up here. On Saturday, June 6, you can register at Pearle Vision, 300 Needham St., Newton, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. On race day, June 7, stop by Gasson Hall at Boston College, between 8 and 9:30 a.m.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Running Blind, and Blindfolded

  • Allison on 06.09.2009 at 12:05 pm

    I applaud all of these athletes, but take issue with one comment – I see nothing wrong with politely asking someone on the T with visual impairment if he or she could use any assistance. Many people may be capable, but I’ve seen too many riders be ignored when they were obviously seeking the letter of the train on the green line, or the new location of a card scanner because of construction, or simply a way to get through a very crowded car. While I’m sure it can get tiring if others ask if they can assist all the time, I don’t think they mean to diminish the person with the impairment – just simply to help.

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