Meet this year’s Team With A Vision

Post and map by Steph Solis

Over 65 runners entered the Visually Impaired Division of the Boston Marathon this year, according to the Boston Athletic Association. Most of them will be running as part of Team With A Vision.

Team With A Vision has been running to raise funds and awareness for blind and visually impaired individuals for 21 years. This year’s team is the largest yet.

We’re bringing in runners from all over the country, as well as some from Canada. Some are champions, others are newcomers, but they’ve all spent the last several months preparing to meet at the starting line in Hopkinton.

Below is a map highlighting the runners from Team With A Vision, including those in the Visually Impaired Division and the Open Division. Click on the link to see each runner’s bio.

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What you learn from Senior Connection and ‘Your Benefits Count’

Seniors entering LantanaOn June 12th, we held the 19th annual Senior Connection, inviting low vision support group members across Massachusetts for a day-long conference! Seniors arrived at the Lantana in Randolph, dressed in their finest attire, excited to learn useful information about coping with vision loss from experts and each other. If you couldn’t make it to our annual event, tune in to hear the fun facts we learned on tax exemptions, disability placards and accessible voting that could save you time, money and agony!

At “Your Benefits Count,” speakers Kathleen Colleary, Michele Ellicks and Michelle Tassinari updated us on the latest changes made in state agencies MA Department of Revenue, MA Department of Transportation and Office of the Secretary of State, which are especially beneficial to the blind and visually impaired community. A block of time was allotted for a question and answer forum where senior guests could share personal issues and concerns with our visiting experts.

Are you aware of the basic state tax exemptions available to the blind and visually impaired? If you are living with a disability, you may be eligible for basic home and vehicle exemptions! With the help of Colleary, seniors had the opportunity to ask specific questions about tax Kathleen Colleary speaking at Senior Connectionabatement guidelines. One senior asked, “Is exemption possible with a sighted spouse?” To his advantage, he learned that regardless of his wife’s vision condition, he should receive full tax exemption if all other qualifications are lawfully met.

Furthermore, Colleary explained that the elderly generally qualify for their own exemptions that may be even more favorable than those available to the blind and visually impaired community. If this applies to you, the MA Department of Revenue will determine which exemption is most valuable for you. For more in-depth information regarding tax exemptions, click here.

Guests listening to speakersGood news for all you travelers out there: The days of renewing disability placards are over! This may be old news to some of you readers, but it was certainly a piece of information causing a few ears to perk up at the Senior Connection.

Michele Ellicks speaking at the Senior Connection

Actually, the process changed a full two years ago. Michele Ellicks from the MA Department of Transportation explained that the registry now automatically updates the placard, mailing a new one out to the individual in need upon expiring. Our seniors shared personal experiences with their own placards where they had to sign or send money for renewals – Don’t be fooled, there is no reason you should be paying a cent! The one and only detail to remember is to immediately replace the old placard with the new one. More specific questions of disability placards can be answered by clicking here.

Michelle Tassinari speaking at the Senior ConnectionEver feel like you aren’t getting enough privacy when voting? Voting privacy is an ongoing concern for people with vision loss. Support group members spoke about feeling apprehensive about their privacy when submitting absentee ballots or having someone accompany them in the voting booth. Michelle Tassinari from the Secretary of State’s office gave us the full scoop on the state’s efforts to secure anonymity for absentee ballots and to place accessible voting equipment in all polling stations. She mentioned that with the accessible voting machines, you always have the option to turn the screen so it’s facing the wall, or shut the sound off altogether and use headphones. She urged voters who have specific concerns about their polling place to contact her office.  If you have any additional questions on accessible voting, click here.

This year’s event was a great success. The next Senior Connection, held the second Wednesday of June 2014!

Images courtesy of Darlene DeVita Photography

Two men, one vision: A running guide’s account of the Boston Marathon

Introducing Team With A Vision member Ray Charbonneau…   

The 2013 Boston Marathon was my 22nd marathon and my fifth Boston. This time I didn’t have a number. Instead, I ran with race bibs pinned front and back, reading:

Picture of Ray's Bib reading "Guide Blind Runner"

I ran as the guide for visually-impaired runner Mike. Mike’s sight is limited to a narrow window directly ahead of him, a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. We ran tethered together, holding on to opposite ends of a necktie Mike had borrowed for the occasion.

We spent the first mile slowly picking our way through the thick crowds while we worked out the details. The tether worked better if there wasn’t a lot of slack, so we ran side-by-side with less than a foot between us. That meant we bumped arms frequently, but the contact helped us keep track of each other’s location.

Once we had a little room, Mike starting turning in sub-9 minute miles, well under the 9:40s he’d need to finish at his stated goal of 4:15. We were passing people more often than we were being passed, so I was constantly scanning the runners ahead of us, looking for spaces wide enough for two people to fit through. When I saw something, I’d call out the direction and either tug on the tie or give Mike’s arm a nudge. When we were lined up properly, I’d say okay, give the opposite signal to stop our sideways motion, and we’d move through the gap.

Runners with guides at the marathonAs we got more comfortable running together, we got a little more aggressive. Sometimes Mike would see a gap ahead of him and he’d go for it, but since his field of vision was narrow, he wouldn’t realize that the gap wasn’t quite wide enough for the two of us. There were a few times I had to hold him back, but for the most part I just fell into line behind him until we made it through. Then I’d accelerate to get back to his side.

Once I realized Mike wanted to go for it, I started leading him through those gaps, darting into his field of vision and calling, “Follow me!” We’d shoot through, I’d slow down for a few steps so he could get back to my side, and then I’d start looking for the next gap.

Mike only had two collisions, both early in the race when runners directly ahead of us decided to stop suddenly. The first person was just oblivious (and wearing headphones), while the second had stopped to pick up a sweatband that another runner had discarded. In both cases Mike let me know he was okay and we got right back on track.

It was a warm spring day, and it got warmer as the race went on. By the time we reached Wellesley, I was sweating profusely and I had to throw water in my face to rinse the salt out of my eyes. Even Mike, used to the warmer weather in Texas, was getting a little too hot.

Luckily, a cool sea breeze started to provide some relief as we approached the Newton hills. All of Mike’s previous marathons were on flat courses, so the series of four hills in Newton between mile 17 and 21 would be a big challenge for him.

We rolled up the first two hills, passed the Johnny Kelly statue, and climbed the third hill. When we reached the top, I told Mike that the worst of it was over. Then we hit Heartbreak, which looked to Mike, “like a wall of people on a giant escalator.” Halfway up he was struggling, but he had enough breath to complain that I’d said this would be “just a bump.” I cheerfully admitted that I might have lied.

Once he crested Heartbreak, Mike sped up again, determined to finish strong. Whenever there was some space, he’d jump ahead, forcing me to accelerate to catch up. I was starting to get tired. Each time I had to break into a run to chase Mike down, in the back of my mind I wondered if I could do it. Happily, I answered the call every time.

As we zoomed along, we caught up with a slower woman runner so quickly that I didn’t have time to decide whether to go to the left or to the right. Instead, I shouted, “Up!” By this time we were working so well together that we both instantly raised our arms, split, and went around her on either side, our arms still connected by the necktie passing cleanly over her head. As Mike noted later, it was a good thing she was short.

I was furiously doing math in my head as we ran.  At mile 24. I realized that if we were able to finish strong, we might just sneak in in under four hours. Mike somehow increased his effort to meet the challenge.

Then we turned right on Hereford, left on Boylston, and Mike sensed the finish. He found a clear path down the middleRay and Mike running together of the road and charged for the line with me running alongside, struggling to keep up. Unfortunately, the reason there was a clear path was because there was a large group of cameramen in the center of the road. Most runners went to one side or the other to avoid them but Mike crashed right through with me trailing behind, thankful that we didn’t hit anything.

Mike crossed the line with a chip time of 3:58:47, placing him 11th in the Visually Impaired division.
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This post was written by Ray Charbonneau

The 27th Mile Book CoverRay Charbonneau is the editor of The 27th Mile. The complete version of this article is included there, along with works from Amby Burfoot, Lawrence Block, Kathrine Switzer, and more runners who write. Proceeds from sales of The 27th Mile go to benefit The One Fund Boston. For more information, visit the27thmile.com.

Celebrating Fran Weisse

Post by Nikita Singhal

After more than 40 years of service to the blindness field, much of it with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Fran Weisse is retiring.

Fran with members of her support groupFran attended the University of Connecticut, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English (I can assure you that if there is a split infinitive in this piece Fran will find it). She fell into her first job at MABVI in 1970—“My roommate got married and I took her job.” But soon she was at the heart of MABVI’s Community Services, and the people of the blindness community were entangled with hers. Literally. The soon-to-be-renamed Fran Alexander met Joe Weisse at MABVI’s Worcester office.

Fran having a discussion with co-workersBy 1978 she was the Director of Community Services, which in reality meant taking on a medley of jobs. As the retail store manager she bought and sold appliances designed specifically for visually impaired individuals. As the volunteer coordinator she trained fresh-to-the-field volunteers to help blind individuals with essential routine tasks. As the information and referral specialist, she was the first to be contacted when questions arose about how to live daily life with vision loss. The list goes on and on.

In addition Fran walking with blind and visually impaired individualsto her substantial contributions to MABVI, Fran worked with several other organizations over the years. At the Institute for Scientific Research she developed a curriculum about blind and visually impaired individuals to teach ophthalmologists in training. With Resources for Rehabilitation, she advocated for the needs of those with disabilities, providing training for both professionals and the general public. She also provided referral services for customers and professionals as the I&R Director of VISION Foundation, Inc.

Fran at the 19th Senior ConnectionWhen VISION merged with MAB in 1998, Fran’s professional journey came full circle and she was soon the Assistant Regional Director of the newly enlarged MABVI, administering the Vision Rehabilitation Program, Volunteer Services and the Peer Empowerment Support Group Program. In recent years her favorite day of the year was the annual Senior Connection, a day-long conference where experts in the field of vision loss and aging gather to engage in discussions with senior support group members. For the past seven years, Fran has served as the Greater Boston Regional Director for MABVI.

Fran out for a meal with workFran has seen more offices, mergers, boards, name changes, and strategic plans than I—or probably she—can count. Through it all, she never wavered—her commitment was to people who thought they had nowhere to turn, until they found Fran. Her great gift was to know which questions to ask to get to the heart of the matter, and then to know the answers. Her longtime friend Carolyn Parker says, “Fran’s role has changed, but her devotion and empathy to those who need services remained constant.”

A published author and go-to expert, she’s been recognized and lauded by other professional organizations for her contributions. Fran at her retirement partyShe’s an integral part of MABVI and its history and with her retirement a special part of our institutional memory will be gone. To honor her, MABVI is creating a commemorative history exhibit that will be named for her. Her years of commitment and effort will not be forgotten.