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How a Blind Man Will Lead a State

  • March 14, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

March 13, 2008,  12:12 pm

In a few days, New York will have a new governor who also happens to be legally blind.

12061683119002Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson
(Mike Groll/Associated Press)

For people with sight, it’s hard to imagine how a person who is blind copes with day-to-day living, let alone the challenges of running a state. But over the years, in various interviews, Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson has given us glimpses into how he has managed his education and career in politics without sight.

As an infant, Mr. Paterson developed an infection that left him legally blind. The Poughkeepsie Journal notes that the lieutenant governor has no vision in his left eye, and 20/400 vision in his right eye, meaning he can see at 20 feet what someone with perfect eyesight could see at 400 feet.

The Wall Street Journal’s health blog notes that Mr. Paterson can read for brief stretches by holding a paper very close to his face. Mr. Paterson refused to learn Braille as a child and has never used a seeing-eye dog or a cane. The Times has reported that his impaired vision has helped make him a good listener. Aides brief him by leaving lengthy voice mail messages, and he memorizes his speeches.

Earlier this year, Danny Hakim, The Times’s Albany bureau chief, spoke with Mr. Paterson at length on various topics, including specifically how much he can see. Mr. Paterson replied:

I am legally blind in my right eye, and totally blind in my left eye. I’m looking at Armen [Meyer, a press aide who was in the room]. I know he has a white shirt on, I know he has a tie on, but from this distance I can’t tell you what color it is. I think it’s a darker color?

When I am in places where I am familiar, I will appear to see better than in places where I’m not. If I walked around my house, and you didn’t know, you’d probably think I have no vision problems.

When I say I saw something, it’s more like I sensed it. So when I said that we were on a plane with the Clintons, and we’re all eating pizza, I knew that I was eating pizza and I knew they took pizza off the tray, so I assume they’re eating it. I think people’s perception of me sometimes is that I see more than I actually do.

But I play basketball, and I’ve done things that people with my vision aren’t supposed to do. I’m in this interesting sort of zone between the sighted and the unsighted, and have never really met anyone who I visually relate to, I’ve never met anyone who is kind of like me.

Mr. Paterson also shared interesting insights into how people with disabilities are treated if they appear to be coping well.

My truest disability has been my ability to overcome my physical disability. So in other words, as soon as people see that I can be independent, then they hold me to the standard that everyone else is. So I remember once I told the airlines that I had a sight problem, and they put me on this bus to go to a hotel because there were no other flights out of the airport that night. \”?Then like this 90-year-old woman, who was trying to get up the steps. \”?I couldn’t take it anymore so I helped her up the steps, gave her my seat and took another seat. First stop, the bus driver tells me to get off. And I know that he’s doing this now because he thinks I have no problem. He goes, \”Go that way.\”? And I almost fell in the wishing well in front of this hotel. That’s because he saw me able to fend for myself.

And I think that’s been my greatest disability, that as I’ve overcome my physical disability, it just leads to other problems. So I think I have now learned \”” and I’m not doing this to be deceptive \”” but I don’t act the way I did when I was 17, like I can do everything myself, because I realized the minute I do that, no one helps me. So I learned to be a little more pragmatic about life.

As The New York Times also reported, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo recalled playing basketball against Mr. Paterson in a charity game a decade ago.

\”David was on the other side,\”? Mr. Cuomo said. \”I said: \”˜What are you doing here? You\”™re supposed to be blind.\”™ He said, \”˜I’m guarding you.\”™ Just what I wanted: a blind guy to guard me. The second time down the court, he stole the ball.\”?

A 2002 story from The Associated Press also quotes Mr. Cuomo discussing Mr. Paterson’s basketball skills. \”He’s got some kind of sonar for the basket,\”? Mr. Cuomo said.

The advocacy group Lighthouse International offers this detailed list of the causes of childhood blindness.

The Web site Political Graveyard offers this list of politicians with various disabilities, including blindness.