Larry Johnson, one of our guest writers sat down with co-founder Jason Harris to talk about the active and fulfilling life he’s enjoyed along with being blind since birth.
JASON: TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE BEING BLIND. CAN YOU GIVE US A SHORT HISTORY FROM CHILDHOOD TO PRESENT RETIREMENT?
LARRY: Oh, a short life history. Wow! How about, let’s see, I was born and now here I am! I was born in Chicago, Illinois, eighty years ago. I lived in Chicago during my childhood, my adolescence, and my young adult life. I moved to Mexico City when I was twenty-four, because I guess I wanted to sprout my own wings. I felt like I was being stymied living in Chicago, and I wasn’t satisfied with my career growth, and so I decided I needed to go somewhere different – kind of like trying a new fish pond. And so, I had to have an excuse to go to Mexico, and so I had completed my Bachelors degree at Northwestern University in Chicago. So, my excuse for going to Mexico was to get a Graduate degree, and that was a legitimate reason to go. And I was fortunate – I was able to get financial assistance, and so I went to Mexico City and I enrolled in a college there – which was an American College. The Graduate program that they offered was in Economics and Latin American Studies. So, I said “Okay, I’ll study Economics,” which I did, and I’ve never used it, but I got my degree in it. But that was okay. And while I was going to school, I met a beautiful girl from Yucatan, Mexico, and we fell in love and got married and we had six children. I have twenty-one grandchildren. I moved back to San Antonio because I wanted to have my children learn about life in the United States. So, they are bi-lingual and bi-cultural, and the exposure for them of having lived in Mexico and growing up in Texas in the United States, I think was very, very important for them.
I moved with my family to San Antonio and started up a business with a friend of mine – and after two years, the business went kerplop! We lost all of our money, went into debt, and I had to live on food stamps and unemployment checks for a while. That was a little hard with a family. But, eventually I got some part-time work, and then I eventually got a job offer with a telephone company called Southwestern Bell, which is now back part of AT&T. I worked for them for twenty-one years and also did some work in radio and television. I retired in 2000, and now I am doing what I enjoy doing, which is I do training, public speaking, and workshops. I write when I feel like it. I enjoy my children and grandchildren and travel. I was able to travel to Spain last year, which had been a life-long dream of mine. Last May, I went to Rome, Italy, and I had the incredible experience of meeting the current pope, Pope Francis So, I’ve been very fortunate, very blessed that I’ve done many of the things that I kind of set my mind to doing, and so I’m very satisfied with life and what has been given to me.
I will say this, in my early years my mother was probably the most important figure in my life because she understood how to raise a child with a disability. Even though she only had a high school education and no special training, her intuition was that I should, as far as possible, live a normal child’s life. She encouraged me to go out and run into trees, trip and fall and scrape my knees, and get up and keep going. She was an eternal optimist and always encouraging all of us children to pursue our dreams. Because of her influence and her belief in us, I think I was able to accomplish all of the things that I did. I feel that she was of paramount importance in my life. I’m sure most people say that about their moms, but mine was the best.
JASON: WHEN YOU WERE STUDYING ABROAD IN MEXICO CITY, THAT WAS SOMETHING, AT THE TIME, A LOT OF PEOPLE WEREN’T DOING.
LARRY: Well, yes. That’s very true. In fact, I will back up even further and tell you that when I went to Northwestern and I enrolled in the School of Speech, my chosen area was radio broadcasting and the dean of the School of Speech tried to talk me out of it because he saw that there were too many obstacles for a person who is blind to become a radio announcer. So, I had to overcome his doubts and opposition, and that made me try even harder. I was fortunate that I was able to do that. In fact, I did radio work on the university’s radio station pretty soon after I was there and then commercial stations in and around Chicago. So, by the time I got to Mexico, I was pretty confident of my abilities. While I was going to school and studying, I found a bi-lingual radio station and that’s where I talked my way into getting a job with them on a part-time basis while I was going to school.
JASON: IT SEEMS LIKE YOU GOT SOME OF THIS FROM YOUR MOTHER, BUT YOU WRITE ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DISABILITY AND PERCEIVED INABILITY. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS TO THAT PERCEPTION AND WHAT ARE WAYS YOU USED TO COUNTERACT IT?
LARRY: Well, obviously attitude is the biggest barrier that people with disabilities encounter. The attitude of parents sometimes of wanting to protect too much, the attitude of teachers who don’t expect enough, the attitude of employers who don’t want to give that person a chance. So, all along the way, it’s the attitude of doubt, and that is what is the biggest barrier and obstacle for people with disabilities of being able to have the chance to demonstrate their abilities. Because even if you have the abilities, if you’re not given the opportunity to demonstrate those abilities, then no one knows that you have them.
JASON: IN YOUR PERSONAL LIFE, HAS HUMOR HELPED IN THE PROCESS OF GETTING TO KNOW PEOPLE BETTER AND SHOWING THEM WHAT YOU ARE ABLE TO DO?
LARRY: Well, you know, you’re educating and advocating all of the time, every day of your life. You have to be able to educate and to be patient in explaining and answering questions and in demonstrating your capabilities. It is a daily experience; it never stops. Even though we just celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there still is a lot of discrimination and there still are also a lot of myths and misconceptions that people have about those of us with disabilities. So, our challenge and our commitment has to be a daily intent to inform and educate and persuade the general public that we may have some limitations, but we also have many capabilities.
JASON: WHAT IS AN EXAMPLE OF AN ASSUMPTION THAT OTHERS MADE ABOUT YOU THAT YOU’VE PROVEN THEM WRONG AND SHOWED THEM YOU ARE CAPABLE OF DOING?
LARRY: Oh, sure. One time I was at an airport and I was going to a business meeting so I was dressed in a suit and tie. I was minding my own business and a gentleman came up to me and said, “Hello, how are you? I bet you’re a computer programmer.” I said, “No, I’m actually not a computer programmer.” And he said, “Well, I have a friend who is blind, and he is a wonderful computer programmer. You do use a computer, don’t you?” I said, “Yes, I do, to some degree.” He said, “There. I knew it! All blind people are good with computers.” And with that he walked away. So he had his mind made up about what I could do or could not do. And probably if it had been twenty-five years earlier, he would have assumed I was a piano tuner or maybe I sold brooms, or I was a lawyer, because those were some of the popular professions back then. Of course, the assumption the dean at the school made was, well, you’re blind, how are you going to be able to tell time. Or, you’re blind, how are you going to read a commercial on the air? So, I had to demonstrate those things to him. And all along, you had to educate by example, not just by words, but by doing the job and then people say, “Oh! Oh, you can do that!” Yes, I can.
JASON: WHAT ARE SOME ADAPTING TECHNIQUES YOU USE TO BE ABLE TO READ A COMMERCIAL ON AIR?
LARRY: What I did there was pull out a piece of paper with Braille on it and I started to read it to him and I said this is how I would read the commercial or the news. I took out my watch, which was a pocket watch and I had had the front removed and put on a hinge and I had the front removed so I could feel the hands of the watch and I showed him that. Even though he saw those examples, he still had his doubts.
JASON: DID YOU FIND YOU MADE A LOT OF ADAPTATIONS?
LARRY: Well, you know it’s one person at a time and one experience at a time. You don’t change the world in one day. You have to change it in little pieces. He allowed me to enroll and I took my first announcing class. The instructor gave me the opportunity to participate with the other students, and they saw that I could do this. So they allowed me to do more and more, and eventually I produced programs and I cued up records. We used the old LP records back then and we had to find the track. I could feel the track with my fingers – I could tell where one song ended and the next began – so I was very good at being able to cue up the records. On the console, which is where you had to monitor the volume, you learn when you turn the dial so much that that is a good volume, or that’s too high or that’s too low, and so you memorize how much you turn the knob. I learned as I was doing, and as I was doing, I was teaching.
JASON: YOU’VE BEEN A DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST AND WRITER AND SPEAKER. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU’VE WRITTEN ABOUT OR DISCUSSED OVER THE YEARS?
LARRY: Well, I don’t consider myself a journalist. I’ve written, yes. Actually, I didn’t like to write in the very beginning. I liked talking; that was my goal; my career was speaking. Of course, as you know, if you’re going to speak, you sometimes have to write what you are going to say. So, I began to write commercials for many of the companies that advertised on the radio station where I worked. I would go to the companies and sell them advertising time on the radio station and then I would write and record their commercials for them. So, it was doing it all. Then, eventually, when I got back from my adventure in Mexico and I would tell people some of the stories, some of the anecdotes, and they would say, “That is interesting; why don’t’ you write that down?“ I thought, I don’t’ want to do that. I resisted for a long time, but eventually I began to write little episodes and I put it into chronological order and that is how my first book was born – which was called Mexico by Touch. The book took a long time to write because I didn’t have the knowledge or experience with a computer early on, and so I had to rely on other people to proof read and to correct what I wrote. After I did the first book, I thought, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I can write another one.” I really wanted to tell people in my family about my incredible mother, and so I wrote the second book which was about my growing up years in Chicago. My third book was basically a how-to book, a self-help book based on workshops that I did, so that was really my third book. Mostly I like to write short things. I don’t like to write long manuscripts that take a long time. I enjoy writing the column I do for the newspaper, or I’ll write speeches that I’m going to give and I enjoy doing those much more than writing long manuscripts.
JASON: IT SEEMS THAT YOU ARE VERY FAMILY ORIENTED. ARE THERE CERTAIN THINGS YOU LIKE DOING WITH THEM? DID YOU ENJOY HAVING A LARGE FAMILY?
LARRY: Oh, absolutely yes. A large family is challenging because you have all the different personalities. They all are different. Of course, when you have a large family you have a lot of economic pressure. You have to earn enough money to pay for all the expenses of raising a family. So that is a challenge, but once you learn to handle that, it really is exciting, it’s fun because of the variety of personalities you deal with. We have big family get-togethers. I enjoy them very much. They are very noisy and fun-loving. They are very expressive, and all the grandchildren are now growing up so they’ve become a very active part of it as well. Every one of our holidays is a big party.
JASON: YOU TALKED ABOUT IT A LITTLE BIT, WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR INTERESTS AND HOBBIES OUTSIDE OF WORKING?
LARRY: Well, one of my hobbies – which I don’t practice really any more – was bike riding. I loved tandem bike riding. I became interested in it about twenty-five years ago. I went with a group of other blind tandem bide riders on a trip down the Mississippi River. We started in Minnesota near Duluth, and we biked down to Minneapolis. It was about one hundred thirty-five miles, and we camped out every night in tents and we cooked our own food. It was a wonderful trip; I really enjoyed it. We had volunteer captains they were called – the people who pilot the bike – and the stoker, which is the person who sits behind the captain was the visually-impaired person like myself. There were sixteen of us.
We weren’t in a competition; we were just out to have fun and exercise. It was an entire week we did that. So, I enjoyed tandem bike riding, and for many years I had friends who were willing to be my pilots – my captains – but it has become very dangerous to bike ride on the streets anymore. So, you pretty much have to load up the bike and take it to a trail or a park. Since it was a tandem bike, you need a big vehicle to be able to transport it. My neighbor who was my partner has gotten busy with other responsibilities, so he is not available. But there was a time when we were biking maybe two or three times a week and we got pretty good at it. I had only one accident in all the years I rode a bike. It was kind of a freakish accident. We were riding around the neighborhood and one of the neighbor’s little dogs came running out from between two parked cars and we hit the dog and flew off the bike. Nothing happened to the dog, but I smashed my right hip and had to have a hip replacement as a result. That really didn’t stop me; about three months later I was back on a bike, so that didn’t slow me down, but I do have a titanium hip. I also enjoy bowling and I still do that maybe a couple of times a month. I’m not really good, but I enjoy it; it’s a good exercise. I like reading and I like walking. I really enjoy conversation. I like sitting around drinking coffee and talking with people about anything and everything. So that is important as well. I think you can really learn a great deal by talking to people who have knowledge, talking about subjects – not about other people.
JASON: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO MEET POPE FRANCIS? I’M SURE SINCE HE IS A VERY POPULAR POPE, PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW.
LARRY: I didn’t have that much time with him. It was a very special experience but it was very brief because there were many, many people and he was greeting them. He was very patient and he was very kind. He gave me his blessing. I spoke to him in Spanish because that is his native language. He is from Argentina. I said some words to him in Spanish, and he was very kind and waited until I was done. I didn’t feel rushed at all, quite to the contrary. He took his time and he was very patient with everyone. I’m very impressed by his whole manner and his whole attitude – not just towards Catholics but toward non-Catholics as well.
JASON: WHAT IS ONE THING YOU WOULD LIKE OTHERS TO KNOW ABOUT YOU OUTSIDE OF ANYTHING TO DO WITH BLINDNESS OR DISABILITY?
LARRY: Hmmm. That’s a tough question! I guess one of the things that is very important to me is to enjoy where you are and whomever you are with. I think that we are maybe too much in a hurry and we don’t take the time to be in the moment. Along with that, I think it is important to be able to laugh – to laugh at yourself and laugh with other people about circumstance. Laughter is a very, very healthy thing to do. It relieves tension and it brings people closer together. So, I enjoy laughing not at people but with people or even laughing at myself.
Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University. He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View.
Larry Johnson is a San Antonio based Journalist who regularly contributes to the Jason’s Connection Magazine. This article first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on September 27, 2014 and has been republished with permission from the author. Contact Larry Johnson via email at Larjo1@prodigy.net or visit his website at www.mexicobytouch.com