Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

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Florida Man Has Vision of His Own Role in Society

by Jay Arrington

Rick French buffs out the wax that he has applied to this car
Rick French buffs out the wax that he has applied to this car.

From the Editor: The following article appeared March 11, 2004, in the Jackson Independent newspaper.

Rick French has a vision for his future--return to his home state of Florida, get more training in the field of auto body repair, get a job, and become a productive member of society. But the twenty-two-year-old will never get to see the fruits of his labors because a bullet took away his eyesight three years ago.

As part of a program with the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, French is currently working in Hodge at Smith's Wrecker and Body Shop, doing what he enjoys, working on cars. "I was going to school to be an auto body technician when I lost my sight," he said. "I am really happy that (Wayne Smith) gave me a chance to work. I was at another body shop, and they wouldn't let me do anything."

"He is doing really well," said Smith. "We've been impressed. All of the body shops in Ruston turned him down, but we put him right to work."

Smith said French works by touch. He sands damaged cars and trucks, applies Bondo, and tapes areas for painting. "He has a great attitude," Smith said. "He was here two days, and he could find anything in this shop. In fact his first job was sanding a truck. And he reached over and felt the truck and told us what make and model it was. We were amazed."

"Instead of looking at dents and things through my eyes," he said, "I have to look at them through my hands. The idea of the program is to find out exactly what kind of work he can do," Smith said. "Every day is a challenge for the student, because he sees just how much more he can do."

Smith said he learned about the Ocala, Florida, native through a woman at his church. She was telling him about the problem she was having placing French in a work environment as part of his studies at the center.

Smith said he told her he was interested, and they contacted him back saying that the program was free to him and that they were fully insured. "We were skeptical at first," he said, "because we do so much with sight. But we have learned about the things that he can do."

Smith said at first all the other shop employees didn't want to work with French because they were just not sure what he would be able to do. After a couple of days, however, everyone wanted to work with him. "His attitude is just so good," Smith said. "He came in saying, `what can I do?' and `put me to work.'"

French said it has been hard at times, especially after he went blind. But it didn't take long for him to realize that there was more to life than being disabled. "When I woke up in the hospital," he said, "I was just happy to be alive. Being able to see was the last thing on my mind. They told me I was blind, but I was alive."

After getting out of the hospital, he said he sat around his house trying to get his life together. It took him a while to make that decision. "You can only walk around and listen to music for so long," he said. "I decided I needed to learn my Braille and sharpen my computer skills," he said. "Being blind is like starting over. It is like being a child. Everything is a new experience."

French has been at the school for nine months. In a few weeks he will complete his education and head back to Florida. He will try to re-enroll in the auto tech school, graduate, and get a job.

"I want to work," he said. "Seventy percent of blind individuals are jobless. I want to work in the auto body field. It is something I enjoy. I want to be a productive individual in society. Getting a Social Security check is not my idea of a life. You have to be working. The day goes by so much faster. I also want a normal lifestyle. A person with sight is expected to get off his butt and work. It should be the same for a person without sight."

The work has had a positive impact on French. But has French had an impact on his coworkers at the Hodge shop? He believes it has. "I think I have changed their opinion of blindness," he said. "They are still kind of leery, but they are positive about it. In three weeks, when I am finished, I will have completely changed their minds."

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