Article Originally Appeared in The Columbus Dispatch – Eric Lagatta
One by one, the children took their mark in front of Ray O’Neal and awaited his countdown.
On a mild, sunny day last week at Ohio State University’s Woody Hayes Athletic Complex, 250 individuals with developmental disabilities from around the state had gathered for a football camp run by Buckeyes players and other volunteers.
O’Neal was in charge of the 40-yard dash. With a gusto rivaling the eagerness of the runners, he would call out “Three, two, one, go!” as each took off at full speed to the end zone.
His contribution was modest, O’Neal recognized. But it was a contribution that meant the world to him.
As someone who has lived with blindness for years, O’Neal, 65, couldn’t help but feel an affinity with the children and the various physical or mental impairments they had learned to live with.
“I can’t do much but say ‘go,’ but I enjoy it,” he told another nearby volunteer between waves of runners. “My heart goes out to them because they don’t know any different; it’s who they are.”
Although the West Side resident is passionate about helping all no matter their disability, the day spent outside with the young athletes wasn’t a typical day of volunteering for O’Neal. For years, he has primarily dedicated himself to both helping those who are visually impaired and also educating the public about those who live with blindness.
“I feel like sometimes when people have a disability, they want to say, ‘I’m done, I can’t do anything, I don’t want to do anything,’ ” O’Neal said. “I thought, I want to help as many people as possible, and if I can change somebody’s life for the good by what I do, then I’ve left my mark on this world.”
After all, he knows all too well the struggles of navigating a world in the dark.
At just 8 years old, O’Neal was badly injured while trying to extinguish a fire started when strike-anywhere matches accidentally ignited on a lacquer-covered shirt in his father’s bedroom.
With 57% of his body badly burned, O’Neal was in a coma from December 1962 to March 1963. When O’Neal woke up, the physician informed him that the injury triggered retinitis pigmentosa, meaning one day he would be almost completely blind.
At age 12, he started noticing the symptoms. As he went for a rebound while playing basketball during gym class, the lights washed out his vision.
By 34, his vision was mostly gone. He can still detect sunlight, but that’s about it.
Though he tried to hide how badly it had progressed from both his wife Debra (so she wouldn’t worry) and his employer (to maintain a steady income), two years later, in 1990, he was officially diagnosed as blind.
That year, he had no choice but to retire from his longtime job as a custodian.
Considering his years-long ordeal, O’Neal would have been forgiven for feeling discouraged, depressed or even angry. Yet neither the prospect nor the eventual reality of life without sight dampened O’Neal’s spirits.
“I never thought about going blind,” he said. “I just never paid attention to it.”
Even when Debra passed away in 2001 from cancer, O’Neal pressed on. In 2002, he received workforce-development training through Goodwill Columbus, which hired him in 2004 to work as a call representative for auto auctions and donations.
O’Neal had always intended to volunteer through Goodwill, and the organization happily accommodated that desire.
“Ray wants to help people see things like blindness as attributes rather than disadvantages,” said Jane Carroll, a spokeswoman at Goodwill. “Ray is a born teacher and wants to help make people comfortable with things that make them uncomfortable, and he is brilliant at it.”
A member of the American Council of the Blind of Ohio, O’Neal has spent years hosting various workshops, expos and training sessions centered around visual impairment. One week, he may be assisting those who are blind to find services that can help them. Another week, he might be educating people on how to be sight guides.
Elizabeth “Boo” Krucky, a friend and co-worker of O’Neal’s, works with him to host sight-guide training four or five times a year. She said that his affable demeanor makes him approachable to those who are curious about his daily challenges.
“I look at things differently now because of the time Ray and I spend together,” Krucky said. “His openness for sharing his story takes away others’ fear of asking him questions.”
For the last two years, O’Neal has led “Seeing Life Differently,” a program through Seeds of Caring, a nonprofit organization that provides community-service opportunities for children.
The idea came about when Seeds of Caring founder Brandy Jemczura’s young son, Eliot, struck up a conversation with O’Neal outside of Goodwill. The questions the 5-year-old boy asked O’Neal about his blindness prompted him to understand the value in a larger program.
Twice a year, O’Neal and others he knows in the blind community lead an afternoon session teaching children and their parents how the visually impaired get from place to place, find jobs and shop for groceries. Participants also learn how they can approach a person who is blind and, if needed, guide them across a street or through a bustling crowd.
Up to 20 families attend each session, Jemczura said.
“The idea is to help kids develop empathy for people who face additional challenges, but also to help kids understand that it doesn’t have to be something that’s scary,” Jemczura said. “It’s a different way of living life.”
A different way of living life.
That’s certainly emblematic of O’Neal’s outlook on his circumstances. Despite his blindness — or, more accurately, because of it — O’Neal has lived a life full of meaning and purpose.
“I’m a happy man,” O’Neal said, “and I want to pass this on to everyone: Life in the dark isn’t that bad.”