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Program ‘frees’ blind

OCOEE RIVER, Tenn. – As two men waded with their rubber raft into the thundering Ocoee River for a run down its serious rapids, the younger man crowed, “If we survive this, we’ll be heroes!”

“Yeah,” the older replied, “but if we drown, they’ll call us dumb a— who got what they deserved.”

The older man is Jerrel Lambright, 57, a bass-voiced once-and-future undertaker. Like the other man, Harlon Cowsar, 35, a once-and-future college student, Lambright attends the tiny Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, La. With most of its 20 enrollees, they recently bounced, bucked and furiously paddled their way down 5 miles of the Ocoee’s Class III and IV rapids. Which they couldn’t see.

“I think it’s more exhilarating NOT to see what you’re getting into,” Cowsar, of Springfield, La., said afterward, showing precisely the pluck that the center promotes among its students.

The school’s purpose is to build the skills and confidence that free graduates to regard blindness as “not a tragedy or a debilitating disease, but a characteristic or maybe a nuisance,” director Pam Allen explained.

The approach, which draws students from across the country, is gaining favor for the best of reasons: its success. While nearly three-quarters of blind adults are unemployed, 9 out of 10 of the Louisiana center’s graduates find work or enroll in college. Two other centers founded on the same six-to-nine month boot camp approach – Blind Inc., in Minneapolis, and the Colorado Center for the Blind, in Littleton – enjoy similar success.

The private, federally subsidized schools train students to get around with canes, read Braille, shop, cook, clean and master software that turns computer-screen words and some images into audible speech. Confidence-building is the essential spice in everything, which is why Allen’s students spent three days in leafy eastern Tennessee riding rapids, hiking, teetering with arms outstretched across cables strung between tree trunks and skimming 1,000 feet down a mountain on a zip line.

“You know how they tell you never to look down? Well, we can’t!” Luke Cassi, 19, a brush-cut former high school jock from Ravenna, Ohio, said after his zip-line adventure.

Being blind may make it better, Cowsar ventured: “It’s less anticipation, more adrenaline.”

All the derring-do “gives people bragging rights when they get back home – that and ammunition when people tell you can’t do something,” said Jerry Darnell, the school’s pony-tailed shop instructor.

In fact, virtually all the school’s students bit on every excursion challenge.

“If you start saying no to the little things, it makes it easy to say no to the big things,” Darnell continued as, behind him, a young man dropped his cane in a memorable spot and started up eight flights of stairs to the top of a water slide.

Cane travel, home economics and deftness with computer software for the blind are among the center’s requirements of all students because they’re liberating. And liberation is the heart of the matter.

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