Future Reflections                                                                                                           Fall 2004

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Blind Mechanic Had Magic Touch

by Bryan Corbin

Reprinted from the Edinburgh, Indiana, newspaper, Edinburgh Courier, Thursday, March 25, 2004.

Inside a Greenwood auto-repair shop, Curtis Blackburn works under the hood of a car, his nimble fingers expertly searching out oil leaks. He fixes brakes, rebuilds engines, and makes other repairs. Blackburn is a blind auto mechanic. Because of an eye disease, he can perceive only light and dark and can discern no detail. Yet his lack of vision does not hinder his ability to diagnose car problems and repair them. His boss at Moonlight automotive in Greenwood said Blackburn is as skilled as any sighted mechanic, and works faster.

“He is unbelievable, he really is,” repair-shop owner Greg Wilson said. “The one thing we’ve got to watch is (his leaving) fingerprints, because he can’t see them.”

Quick-witted and easygoing, Blackburn, thirty-four, has worked in auto repair for fourteen years, despite losing his remaining vision during high school. He’s been employed at Moonlight Automotive for the past eight months.

“I have to do it; I’ve got to have a job. It’s something I know how to do. It seems normal to me,” he said.

An uncanny memory for engines and the ability to form mental pictures of them enables Blackburn to fix vehicles with minimal assistance. “I’m pretty familiar with most all engines; I have a mind’s-eye picture of what I’m doing,” Blackburn said. By sense of touch he feels out the problem, such as a coolant leak. When he disassembles an engine, he usually can reassemble it without lining up the parts a certain way. “If it’s got a lot of internal parts, I keep all that stuff in an order; otherwise, if it’s just a general engine, I throw it in a pile,” he said.

Blackburn easily maneuvers around the Moonlight Automotive garage, locating whatever tools he needs. “I learned Braille, but after working on cars so long, my hands are so tough and calloused I can’t read Braille anymore,” he said.

A fellow mechanic, James McDaniel, marvels at his blind co-worker’s knowledge of makes and models. “Usually I’m asking him questions,” McDaniel said. “He gives me guidance. He’s amazing.”

Blackburn and his wife, Crystal, live in Greenwood. She drives him to work on the way to her job, then picks him up each evening. Aside from not driving and no longer being able to see text to read it, Blackburn’s life is quite normal. “I’m really amazed at what he does, even now, and we’ve been together six years,” Crystal Blackburn said. “To watch him (work on cars) still amazes me. He just uses his hands.  I thank God he is able to do it,” she said. “I think a lot of people would give up hope if they had a handicap.”

The Magic Touch

A native of Rosedale near Terre Haute, Curtis Blackburn got interested in auto repair as a boy while hanging around as his father worked on cars. Blackburn was able to see in childhood, but over time his vision deteriorated because of a genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. The disease is incurable, and by high school, Blackburn had lost nearly all his vision. In his auto-mechanics classes at Ivy Tech in Terre Haute, Blackburn was the only blind student. One accommodation was allowing written tests to be read aloud to him, he said.

After graduating from Ivy Tech in 1989, a vocational rehabilitation program helped match him with an employer: a Central Standard gas station with a single-bay garage in Terre Haute that was willing to take a chance on him. But that job ended a few years later when the garage converted into a mini-market.

“There wasn’t much for me to do then,” he said. “Terre Haute was such a closed-minded town, no one would hire a blind mechanic.”

Blackburn moved to Greenwood eight years ago, and after working for a competing garage, he applied to Moonlight Automotive eight months ago. Wilson, the owner, had reservations at first.

“I was worried about him knocking stuff over, tripping on something,” Wilson said. But he gave the blind mechanic a try. Blackburn performed as effectively as the sighted mechanics, and he worked faster. “He goes toe-to-toe with anybody who can see,” Wilson said. Wilson doesn’t allow Blackburn to take apart cylinder heads or steering columns because of the tiny parts involved or to balance tires. But other repair jobs are fair game. Although Wilson doesn’t hide the fact that one of his mechanics is blind, most customers of the AAA-certified shop aren’t aware of it.

Blackburn has an eleven-year-old daughter, Stephanie, from a previous marriage. He and his wife met six years ago through a telephone date line, he said. “We talked for awhile on the phone, and she came over and met me and we hit it off pretty quick,” he said.

Crystal didn’t realize at first that Curtis was blind. “I kind of picked up something was wrong, I just didn’t know what. The next time we had a date, I had questions, but I didn’t want to push,” she said. Once she understood, she was initially skeptical about the relationship. “I felt like it would tie me down,” she said. “I kind of learned quickly it doesn’t.

He is so self-sufficient, it doesn’t make a difference except for the driving.” They married in September 2000.

Something To Prove

Crystal, along with Curtis’ mother and grandmother, stays current on the latest medical research into retinitis pigmentosa. An experimental treatment, tried on a few human test subjects, involves implanting a microchip onto the back of the eye to perform the retina’s function. Blackburn has put his name on a list of willing volunteers. “Oh, I’d give it a whirl, at least on one (eye); and if that didn’t work, try the other one,” he said.

“I would love for him, if nothing else, to be able to see his daughter,” his wife said. Crystal said that by working and being independent, her husband has something to prove. “He cannot stand to be anything but busy, and I know he does not want to be on welfare, so he is a very hard worker,” she said.

Blackburn agreed he must prove himself and push himself onward. Yet he doesn’t consider his work as an auto mechanic to be all that remarkable. “It doesn’t seem amazing to me. It seems like my normal day today,” he said. “I’m just workin’.”

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