by Mark Patinkin
From the Editor: The following article about Robert Pires appeared in the Providence Journal on October 9, 2011. He is the husband of NFB of Rhode Island President Grace Pires. The story is the one we often tell of the average blind person going off to do his or her job in the average way—but here it is told by a reporter who is honest enough to ask his questions and really listen to the answers. Here is the article:
He caught my eye as I parked for work and got out of my car. He was a nice-looking man, clearly blind, finding his way with a cane. I was intrigued--Fountain Street is a chaotic, busy area in the mornings.
I was in a hurry, but, as I left the lot, I decided to put my morning on hold to see if I could chat with him. But he was gone. I headed to the Biltmore Starbucks to get a coffee. I spotted him at the front of the line. I heard him order a mocha latte and at last caught up with him as he went outside and began to walk back toward Fountain Street.
He gave his name as Robert Pires. He's thirty-nine and works for Services for the Blind on Fountain Street as a rehabilitation teacher. "I started losing my vision when I was about five," he said. “It's a syndrome called retinitis pigmentosa.”
He lives in East Providence with his wife, Grace, who is also blind and working at the same agency as a counselor. Together they have a son, now four. Pires went to East Providence High School and graduated from RIC with a bachelor's degree in economics. He uses RIDE, a state transportation program for the disabled, to get to and from work. I told him I always wondered how people manage to get around on foot in public without their sight. "Actually it's not that easy." He said you have to train a long time, not just in cane techniques, but navigating by what he called "soundscape."
We began the two-block walk back to his office. I watched as he tapped the cane side to side, searching for obstacles. He said he was listening to traffic to keep his bearings. A bus roared by. That kind of thing is challenging, he said--when loud vehicles drown out the more subtle "soundscape." He stepped onto a narrow crossing street, slowed down as he felt for the opposite curb with his cane, and stepped up.
We approached a corner where he needed to turn left, but he went a step too far, paused, searched with his cane, found a metal post by the street's edge, stepped back, and took the left on the sidewalk. He explained that he indeed had overshot but was able to self-correct when he realized traffic sounds were slightly closer than they should have been. I asked if obstacles are ever dangerous. "Sometimes.
Sure, there are trees with low-hanging branches." He paused and laughed. "Can't do much about that."
I asked if he could be on full disability. "Probably, if I wanted to." He said that a bad job market is always worse for the disabled, so you have to overcome that. But without a job, he added, he wouldn't have the same quality of life as he does now. "It's better for my future," Pires said. "I can do more with my life and give back."
Give back? He said his job is to help other blind people overcome and live fuller lives. We paused at a side street just as two loud trucks went by, drowning the sound of a big van that went within feet of us. I asked Pires how he could not be unsettled by it all. He said it can indeed be frightening at first, but, if you face those fears and keep training, you get more comfortable.
Does he ever resent having ended up with this handicap? He smiled. "That won't do me any good. I like to concentrate on things I can do and like to do." He likes music, including hard rock groups like Kiss. He likes spending time on the computer and going to restaurants. His favorite pastime is listening to audio books.
I asked about his son. Is he sighted? "Yes," said Pires, and smiled. "We're waiting to see when he's going to start using it to his advantage. He'll try to sneak things I'm sure. He's a kid."
He walked the final half block, avoiding obstacles and people. "It sure seems like it takes a lot of courage," I said.
"I could say that about a lot of things," said Pires. "It's easy to huddle in the corner and say, `Poor me,' but then, what do you have?"I thanked him for his time. He found his way to his building door, opened it, disappeared inside, and went back to work.