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The Braille Monitor,  November 2001 EditionThis is a line.

Carving a Niche: Blind Sculptor Steve Handschu Gives Hands-on Lessons in Empowerment

by Dennis Rodkin

From the Editor: The following story appeared in the June 24, 2001, edition of the Chicago Tribune Magazine. The author became so intrigued with Steve Hanschu’s attitudes and philosophy about his blindness that he decided to interview several people who shared his world view. Not surprisingly all five people profiled in this story are active members of the National Federation of the Blind. The article is reprinted with permission.

Mack Handschu never knew it, but a snap decision he made one day in the mid-1950’s set the course for his young son’s whole life. Handschu and his son Steve were spending the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enjoying an exhibit of ancient Egyptian sculptures. That would have been unremarkable except that Steve, then about seven years old, was nearly blind. He had been born with only five percent of standard vision, but he could discern the general outlines of sculptures he was allowed to get close to. To give him a better appreciation of the pieces, he and his father went to the museum gift shop to find a book on the exhibit. Looking at the oversized photos, Steve recalls he could make out the sculptures a little better, and one in particular moved him in a way nothing ever had.

“It was a phenomenally beautiful torso, this magnificent black granite flat relief of a woman’s torso draped, and it looks as if the drape is going to be blown away by a breeze,” he says. “Somebody who had been dead for 4,000 years had left something behind” that affected him deeply. “That was power.”

The boy asked his father, “How did somebody do this? How did they make something so magnificently beautiful, that looks so soft, out of hard granite? I would love to be able to do that.”

To which his father replied, “If that’s what you want to do, let’s find out how you can do it.”

Mack Handschu, an engineer and business consultant, died a few years later in 1957, but that one bit of encouragement had left an indelible impression on his son. Steve Handschu, now fifty-three and a working sculptor in Lake View, says his father would have been perfectly justified—and in line with the standard attitude toward blindness—if in answer to his little son’s questions, he’d said simply, “Most people who can see can’t even do that. There’s no way you can.”

Instead, when they returned to their Peekskill, New York, home from the museum, Mack Handschu gave his son a two-by-four and a hunting knife. Steve, who could hardly see either the wood or the knife, started carving. “I carved my fingers more than the two-by-four,” he recalls. “My mother asked if they should stop me, but my father said, ‘I don’t think so. I better teach him how to hold a knife, but we can’t stop him from trying this. He wants to do it.’”

Steve Handschu now sculpts images from natural wood using power tools that would intimidate many sighted people, and he has become an eloquent advocate for other blind people’s abilities. He is also an artistic mentor, helping residents of a Lake View homeless shelter express their own struggles— against drugs, poverty, powerlessness— in sculpture.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, about three-quarters of blind adults don’t work. Handschu, a member of the Federation, believes the key reason is that from earliest childhood most blind people are “custodialized. They’re told to ‘go sit over there and we’ll do it for you. You can’t do this, you poor blind kid.’”

Steve Handschu at work carving one of his sculptures.
Steve Handschu at work carving one of his sculptures, which he is calling “Detroit Birth Song.”  Tribune photo by Heather Stone

The message sinks in deep, says Stephen Benson, president of the Federation’s Illinois chapter. “If you don’t have chances to succeed on your own as a child, you learn not to try,” he says. “You don’t understand that there’s not only a possibility of success, but a desirability and a necessity, that you ought to go out and do it.”

There are compelling reasons that keep some blind people from working, other medical conditions and lack of transportation among them. But Handschu, Benson, and other blind Chicagoans who have careers say that what keeps them on the playing fields of professional life is the kind of simple empowerment that Mack and Ann Handschu gave their son.

What they did was really nothing more than good parenting—letting their son find what he liked and then cheering him on—but the current of conventional wisdom flowed hard against them. “They were always having to fight people who expected less of me than they would from a [sighted] child,” Handschu recalls. “They hated to hear people who were amazed that I could do some simple thing like tying my shoes or feeding myself.”

The Handschus’ confidence in their son even set them against the medical establishment. They sought “sightsaver” aids and classes designed to maximize his use of the little sight he had at a time when those things, now known as low-vision techniques, “were considered quackery,” he says. One result is that Handschu can read some printed materials using a pair of glasses fitted with what he calls a “telescope” in front of his one functioning eye.

The more pervasive social benefit of having such supportive parents is that Handschu became someone who habitually backs up others. Living in New York in the 1960’s, he threw himself into the civil rights movement, registering voters in Harlem and in Alabama. When he lived in Michigan from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s, he was an appointed state commissioner for the blind and an outspoken advocate for a Braille literacy law and other blind-rights issues. He moved to Chicago in 1997 when he married Linda Davis, who lives here, and last year launched a sculpture project to give homeless men a creative outlet for their troubles.

“What’s in Steve is compassion,” says Davis, who is Handschu’s second wife. “He’s very committed, probably overboard committed, to helping people get what they ought to have.”

Through it all there has been his own art. He has stuck with his initial medium, wood, rather than the stone that first lured him to sculpture, because it’s softer. It also lends itself to the fluid, organic, and often frankly sexual forms he creates, such as the subtly vaginal opening in a callused segment of a white oak trunk. Into the oak he’s carving various figures, and from another piece of wood he’s making a female form, a musician playing a horn who will lean through the opening. It’s a layered image that relates artistic creation to the act of giving birth, a theme Handschu works with often in his sculpture. Hands, too, figure into his art, not a surprise given that, as a sculptor and a blind person, Handschu is especially tactile.

Pat Daley, a Gallery 37 program coordinator, who also runs the Visual Arts Project, a private organization, says Handschu’s sculpture has an “organic and sort of ethnic feel to it, something that reminds you of indigenous sculpture because of the textures he gets from his material.”

Scattered around his spacious studio on the fourth floor of a former industrial building in Lake View are a few dozen partial tree trunks waiting to be carved. On a table lie at least three dozen chisels, which he keeps razor sharp, and nearby are table saws and other large power tools. “I’ve been using industrial power tools since the 1960’s, and I still have ten fingers,” Handschu says whenever someone expresses surprise that he operates dangerous equipment.

Handschu has mounted shows in Michigan, including a one-man exhibition at the Kalamazoo Art Institute, and this summer will have a piece—a coat rack in the form of a tree—in a furniture-as-art show at the Cultural Center.

The men who come in off the streets at the Lakeview Shelter, in the basement of a church on Addison Street, most likely don’t arrive in search of an artistic experience. But last summer and again this year Handschu has spent a few days a week there working with the men on their contributions to the Homeless Wall. It’s a series of square-foot concrete frames, each a sculptural statement by one of the men at the shelter. The men first make a wire form of the image they have in mind, then spread concrete over the form. Each one flashes a life story in one three-dimensional image.

One panel has two hands in it; in one hand is a crack pipe, in the other the initials of Narcotics Anonymous. Another shows a woman watching TV. “He was thinking of his wife or girlfriend,” Handschu says. “He talked to me about how much he wanted a home and a family.” There’s sculpture of a man fishing around in a dumpster, with a dog standing nearby to protect him; another of an old shoe with laces hanging out.” He said being homeless made him feel like an old unwanted shoe you’d throw away.” And there’s one of a person surrounded by waves at sea— “Is he drowning in life, or swimming through it?” Handschu asks.

Supported by grants from the private Visual Arts Project and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs Neighborhood Artists Program, the Homeless Wall generated sixteen pieces last summer and will support about the same number this year. Handschu envisions the wall becoming something like the AIDS Quilt, a national project that attempts to document the losses to AIDS by memorializing each fatality with its own panel. That possibility is distant for now, but the first entries in the Homeless Wall are compelling, if artistically simple.

For the artists themselves sculpting a personal statement under Handschu’s tutelage is cathartic, says John Calderon, the shelter’s day-programs manager. “They [think], ‘Here’s this guy, he’s blind and he made it in this world.’ They know he’s been on the other end of prejudice, that he had to get himself up. ‘Maybe we can do it too.’”

Last year Calderon was a resident at the shelter, recovering from cocaine addiction. His part of the Homeless Wall is a concrete rendering of a marijuana joint, “because that’s what got me started onto addiction,” he says. Sculpting with Handschu was just a part of the process of getting his life straight, but it provided encouragement at a crucial time.

Handschu provided the same pivotal help to Kyle Neddow, a blind Michigan boy he first met a decade ago when the child was three. Doctors, teachers, and others were telling Kyle’s parents that “a boy who is totally blind isn’t going to do much,” says his mother Dawn, “and they were labeling him as developmentally delayed. We were very depressed; we thought what they were saying might be true, that we’d have to send him away to a residential school, and he’d never fit into a community. But we just didn’t want that life for him.”

At a Michigan convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Dawn Neddow and her husband Sid met Handschu, and their attitude quickly changed “Here was this blind man who was so positive,” Dawn says. “Schools and others had put us in touch with blind people, and they were all so negative about the future for Kyle. But after we met Steve, we got our hope back that our kid could grow up and be a person with a normal, regular life.”

Handschu started working with officials of the Neddows’ small-town school district to get an education plan in place for the boy and at the same time tutored Kyle in life skills such as using a cane, making friends, starting a conversation. Handschu became a kind of adjunct parent, bringing in insights that fully sighted parents can’t come up with on their own, Neddow says.

Ten years later Kyle is a seventh grader who competes on the school wrestling team, rides his bike and jet skis with his five siblings, is into music and, his mom points out, “gets good grades in all his classes.”

The biggest thing Handschu taught the Neddows, she says, “is that Kyle won’t get anywhere if you do it for him. He can do it, and you can’t pity him and say, ‘Oh, this is going to be harder because you’re blind.’ Let him try it. If you let him take the easy way, he’ll become somebody who waits to be helped, who expects there to be an easy way for him because he’s blind.”

At wrestling events, if a coach or official offers to let Kyle skip something because of his blindness, “he jumps up and says, ‘No, wait a minute, if they do it, I have to do it too,’” his mother says. “He gets that straight from Steve.”

On Their Own

Four Chicagoans show how blindness is no barrier to success. Since 1978 Debbie Kent Stein has published seventeen novels and some fifty books of non-fiction, all written for children and teens. Her first book was an autobiographical tale of a New Jersey blind girl going into a public school classroom for the first time, but the others include “a lot of fluffy teen romances, and some that are heavier.” This summer she’s working on a novel about a child dealing with juvenile diabetes.

Blind since birth, Stein had one brother who was fully sighted and one blind. “With two blind kids, my parents had a choice, I guess,” she says. “They could either collapse under it or figure out a way to cope.” Surrounded by a supportive extended family and encouraged by a New Jersey public school system that advised mainstreaming for blind kids, the Kents gave their children all the opportunities they could.

“And there were some very positive things my parents did instinctively,” recalls Stein, who is First Vice President of the Illinois chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. “My mom would take me for walks and show me mailboxes and telephone poles and split-rail fences and fire hydrants and all the things along our path. It might take us an hour to go a block, but she understood it was important for me to experience those things again and again, just like a sighted child would see them every day.”

She says she felt welcome in the public schools and at Oberlin College in Ohio. She considers herself lucky, given that “blind kids so often get these messages that they need to be in a separate school, or if they’re in a mainstream classroom, they’d better have an aid by their side. If they grow up with adults hovering around them all the time, they learn to think they need special help all the time, that it’s inherent in blindness that they are unable to support themselves. That’s one reason the unemployment rate [among the blind] is so egregious.”

It wasn’t until she started applying for jobs as a social worker that she hit serious discrimination. “I had a degree and a resume, so I’d get the interviews,” she recalls, “but when they met me and found out I was blind, they’d freak out.” She landed a job in a New York City settlement house and kept it for four years before taking off to write her first book.

Stein and her writer husband Conrad live in Norwood Park with their seventeen-year-old daughter Janna, a senior at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. Aside from having a household with two full-time writers, theirs is an ordinary life. She likes that. “Everyone thinks it’s wonderful if you’re blind and you have a life. But if you’re blind and you’ve been given opportunities to do things yourself, then you’re going to be able to make a regular life like anyone else.”

Motivated by Faith

Tony Burda was a twenty-one-year-old pharmacy student at the University of Illinois at Chicago when he lost his sight. He had more than a year left of school, and considered dropping out, but decided against it. “My thought process was that the health-care industry was this multitrillion-dollar industry, ten percent of the gross national product. It had to be big enough to accommodate me in some niche.”

His religious faith also motivated him to stick it out. “I have a great deal of faith in a God who’s really interested in the smallest details of my life,” says Burda, who is forty-six. “I was at a crossroads, and a process of prayer led me to stay in a medical profession.”

Burda became a toxicologist, an expert in poisons and their remedies, and eventually became an emergency specialist at the Illinois Poison Center, fielding dozens of calls a day about swallowed cleaning supplies, medical overdoses, and hazardous chemical spills. He has been in the job for two decades.

In his off hours Burda is a serious fitness buff. In 1990 he was the first blind person to compete in a triathlon in Chicago. He has also competed in bike rides across Iowa and through the Colorado mountains. “But I’ve tapered off now,” he says. “I have a treadmill and weights at home. The way I blow off steam is pumping iron.”

Burda grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side and now lives in Oak Park with his wife, Marilynn, and daughters, Natalie and Valerie. “I’m what you’d call a plain-vanilla Joe trying to do what’s right for my family, and I just happen to be blind,” he says.

Burda says his life had been guided by a favorite Bible verse, Proverbs 23:7, which he renders as “As a man thinks, so he is.”

If you’re told you’re not going to amount to much on your own, and a lot of blind people are told that from a very young age, you’re going to view yourself as just the recipient of other people’s benevolence, or always a client of government services, and not somebody who can tow your own weight.”

Taking the Ball and Running with It

On the Lincoln Park block where Stephen Benson grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, a group of boys around the same age liked to play sports together. Their games usually had one special adaptation to accommodate Benson, who has been blind since birth.

In softball “I would always pitch, and I learned to pitch inside and outside, so the kids wouldn’t crack the ball straight back at me. They’d hit it on the ground so I could go left or right to field it,” And in football, “Whoever held the ball during a play had to make some audible sounds so I could tell where the ball was.”

When he was twelve or thirteen, Benson and another boy bolted parts of two bikes together and rode their hybrid all summer.

The other kids made room for him, “because kids are curious. They want to explore and stretch. Accepting me was just a way of doing that,” says Benson, now the press officer of the Harold Washington Library’s Talking Book Center for blind services.

Benson, fifty-nine, lives in Edgebrook on the city’s Northwest Side with his wife Margaret and teenage son Patrick, but his childhood experiences in Lincoln Park are with him almost every day. He still stays in touch with his former streetmates and paid tribute to them in an article he wrote in a motivational publication for the blind.

“Growing up that way taught me—and them—flexibility and creativity,” says Benson, who is the Illinois chapter President of the National Federation of the Blind. “In the workplace I can take whatever circumstances exist and try to mold them into something that will work.”

Benson’s artist mother, who was single and managed the rooming house they lived in, encouraged her son to get involved in all kinds of activities, from the Cub Scouts to puppetry. “She knew there would be a tendency to leave me on the sidelines, so she made sure that didn’t happen,” he says. His career has included teaching honors English at Gordon Tech, selling insurance, and ten years at the library, where he has also hosted a cable-TV program interviewing authors.

“Over and over again,” Benson says, “I’ve had to be creative and figure out a way to make it work.”

Living With Great Expectations

As you’d expect from the second in command in the City of Chicago’s legal department, Patti Gregory-Chang moves fast and isn’t one to let little things slow her down. That attitude comes straight from her mother, who Gregory-Chang says made a point of not slowing down for her blind teenage daughter.

They’d run errands in Harbor Springs, Michigan, where she grew up, and her mother would park the car, then walk off down the street at a brisk clip, confident that Patti could find her way and keep up. “A lot of people would see her do this and think she was just awful. It did look really mean, but it was great. It taught me to travel well.”

It’s a skill the thirty-four-year-old Gregory-Chang needs now, with her ten-year-old son, Jonathon, and his sister, Julia, four, in different schools and the usual run of activities, birthday parties, and other kids’ events. When husband Francisco or car pools aren’t available, “I use cabs.”

Beyond the ability to get around, her mother’s attitude taught Gregory-Chang “that nobody was going to bring anything to me. I had to get out and get it.” She has done that in her career, repeatedly stepping up for more and harder assignments, she says. “I was supposed to shoot for whatever I wanted to shoot for. My mother had high expectations for me. She pushed me, and if she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have pushed myself.”

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