Future Reflections        Summer 2012

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Gauges, Tires, and Pistons

An Interview with Bart Hickey

Bart Hickey changes a tireFrom the Editor: In the National Federation of the Blind we often state that, with the proper training and attitude, a blind person can perform any job that does not inherently require sight. Bart Hickey is a fine example. In an interview he told his story to the readers of Future Reflections. To watch Bart in a video, go to <www.vimeo.com> and type the Intimidator into the search box.

Deborah Kent Stein: Please tell me a bit about the work you do.

Bart Hickey: I'm an auto mechanic, and I run my own business in Alsip, Illinois. It's called Bart's Automotive and Towing Company.

DKS: I bet people are surprised when they find out what you do. Not many blind people are working in that field.

BH: Well, they say it isn't normal, but I'm definitely not normal!

DKS: How did you learn so much about cars?

BH: My dad worked on old cars a lot when I was growing up, and he would show me everything he was doing. I loved getting my hands on the engines and learning how they worked. I was very lucky, because Dad wasn't afraid to let me do things. He never saw my blindness as a problem that would get in my way. I rode a bike, I swam, went skating--I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and I did whatever they were doing.

Bart Hickey working on an engineDad died when I was eleven, and my family went through some tough times. When my mom had car trouble, I'd pitch in and troubleshoot, the way Dad used to. After a while, other relatives and friends started asking me to help them out with their cars. The more I worked on cars, the more I learned. A friend's grandfather was an auto mechanic, and he taught me a lot. I learned by doing. I hung around his shop, and people got to know me. I built kind of a network.

DKS: Where did you go to school?

BH: I attended a resource room in one of the Chicago public schools until I finished eighth grade. That's where I learned Braille and cane travel. I've always been totally blind. I was born premature, and I developed what they call ROP [retinopathy of prematurity]. After grade school I went to an all-boys Catholic high school.

DKS: What did you do after high school?

BH: I attended a community college for two years. My second year I signed up to take a couple of courses on automobile mechanics. The instructor really didn't want me to be in his class. He kept trying to get me to quit.

DKS: Did you stick it out?

BH: Oh, I sure did! We had a big project where each student worked as part of a team, rebuilding a motor. Ours ran when we got done. That was so exciting!

DKS: Where did you work when you finished school?

BH: I tried to get a job with a garage, but nobody would hire me. They just didn't believe a blind guy could do the work. I spent five years knocking on doors. In the meantime, I had to have a job, so I went to work as a darkroom technician in a hospital, developing X-rays. I knew I wasn't going anywhere with that job. New technology was coming in, and darkroom work was a dying career.

Meanwhile, I kept working on cars in my spare time. That's what I really wanted to be doing. Finally, I figured out that if I couldn't find a job working for somebody else, I might as well go into business for myself. I opened Bart's Automotive in 1992.

DKS: What methods have you found for doing your work without sight?

BH: I use a lot of tools that have sound or speech. One of them is a talking volt meter. There's one called a variac that gives tones to indicate different resistances. I use an audible photo cell for detecting lights, and I have a talking air gauge for testing tire pressure.

I've added Braille labels to a lot of the things I use. For instance, I have a lot of rolls of wire of different types and thicknesses, so I mark them with tape that I label. I cut little notches for the marks on my measuring tools.

DKS: I know that computers control more and more functions in cars these days. Do computers make your work easier or harder?

BH: For me, being a mechanic has gotten much harder. To diagnose a problem today, I need to read the code that the computer puts out. The check engine light is one example. It can mean a lot of different things.

At this point, I've been in business long enough that I have people working under me. They tell me what the lights show, and I tell them what we've got to do. I have enough knowledge that I can supervise their work and make sure everything is running properly when we're through.

DKS: What are your plans for the future?

BH: I've got a 1969 Dodge Dart, and I've been rebuilding it. I want to go out to Utah and drive it on the Bonneville Speedway. A blind guy drove a car at the Daytona 500, and I want to drive at Bonneville. It's wide open desert, nobody out there, nothing to get in my way. I'm trying to make it happen.

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