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Karen Karsh: "Blindness is one of the scariest concepts on the planet to people who aren't blind"

Singer-songwriter Karen Karsh, chair of American Council of the Blind of Colorado.
Singer-songwriter Karen Karsh, chair of American Council of the Blind of Colorado.
Nicholas DeSciose

This coming Monday, the American Council of the Blind of Colorado (ACBCO) challenges you to step out of your comfort zone -- and into the shoes of a visually impaired person. In honor of White Cane Day, the council is holding its first-ever Raisin' Cane event. At the crack of 8 a.m. on October 15 in Skyline Park, sighted participants will start walking down the 16th Street Mall with a cane or personal guide -- blindfolds are optional -- in a "race" to promote awareness of visual impairment, eye health and accessibility.

In advance of Raisin Cane, Westword spoke with singer-songwriter and ACBCO Board Chair Karen Karsh and the organization's executive director, Barbara Boyer, about the myths around being blind in contemporary society and the work the group does to support the community at large.

See also: - Places & Events: Raisin' Cane - Claudia Folska doesn't need to see to have vision - Expedition Impossible's Team No Limits on making the finals and climbing Everest blind

On the right, Barbara Boyer, Executive Director of American Council of the Blind of Colorado.
On the right, Barbara Boyer, Executive Director of American Council of the Blind of Colorado.

Westword: Karen, can you talk a little about what you do with the American Council of the Blind of Colorado?

Karen Karsh: I'm the chair of the board for the American Council of the Blind of Colorado. I'm involved with the oversight of the decisions they make. (We) do a lot of work for seniors; we've given scholarships to college students and things like that that. I help do fundraising and performing for them, since that's what I do as a singer-songwriter.

I think (visual impairment) is an important issue because for people, especially those who are older and then lose their sight, it is an unfamiliar and scary process that can seem very overwhelming. The council is able to provide some services now that are no longer available (otherwise.) There are many, many people who are newly blinded who are outside the scope of, say, getting help with employment, which is what Vocational Rehabilitation does.

Barbara, can you talk a little about what you do at the American Council of Blind of Colorado? You're a sighted person, correct?

Barbara Boyer: I am a sighted person, and I was hired seven years ago to be the first ever executive director of ACBCO. I've been in the non-profit world for years, but more in the economic revitalization genre. I had taken a job out of state and hated being away, so I came back without a job. I wanted to do something where I could make a difference in people's lives.

I applied to a lot of different things. When I interviewed with the (ACBCO) board of directors, I don't know -- it was like magic. I got hooked into this passion. I'm an old hippie, and it's like, "I'm going to change the world." I was doing it in this one way and I found out I really wanted to do it with people one-on-one, in a way where people were impacted, not just their cash registers. It's been seven yo-yo years of up and down, good and bad. There's not a day that goes by that I don't (think) that what we've done has been good work. That's why I'm here, and I'll be here until they wheel me out.

From the get-go, I had no knowledge, but I saw the talent, the abilities, the intelligence and the creativity; blind and visually impaired people are just like you or me or anyone else. There are unseen disabilities -- we all have some things we can do better than other things. I will go down fighting for opportunities and equality and all of the things we deserve in this country.

Karen, you are a singer-songwriter who happens to be blind. Do you think that has had any effect on your work in the music industry, maybe in terms of how you're treated, or jobs you did or didn't get?

KK: No, I don't think visual impairment has anything to do with my quote-unquote "singing" and I don't know if I've ever felt that I haven't gotten a job because of it, interestingly enough? But I've been doing it for a really long time and I'm kind of a self-starter. I think that makes a difference. Believe me, it's not easy to be a blind person in our country. It isn't, because there are a huge number of unemployed blind people in this country.

But I think that I deal the same issues of anyone else in the business; it's 99.9 percent rejection. I just had some good luck because I've had some interesting ideas and I think I'm very tenacious. And thank god I can carry a tune. Without being immodest at all, I think I was born to do that. Maybe I've lost a few jobs but never knew it? But I feel lucky in that regard.   To me, it seems like even in 2012, there still isn't a lot of awareness around visual impairment in American society.

KK: I think there is a huge lack of awareness. I mean, gigantic. Blindness is one of the scariest concepts on the planet to people who aren't blind. For some reason, it seems like when you think about blindness, you think about the absolute living in total darkness. Which, it's truly not that way at all; it's simply an adaptation to what you do and how you do it.

I don't ever feel like I'm living in darkness. My eyes don't work like yours do, but I don't feel like I spend my life, you know, in the nighttime. But I don't. It's a question of how you envision, if you will, what blindness is truly like. For some reason, I don't know, is the scariest concept of disability there is. Because people feel like it would take away so much of what they do and how they live.

For sure, I don't get to drive, and it's frustrating to the teeth. In our part of the country, you have to have a car - so I do miss those kinds of things. But in terms of living an independent life, anyone who's blind and really wants to, yeah, you have to work at it, but you can certainly live a very normal, very independent life.

BB: One of the major issues that comes up is - we are a very visual world.

KK: That's true.

BB: Most of our work is with seniors who are now losing their vision. (They) have spent their lives seeing and doing. And yes, the older we get the sooner our car keys go away, but sometimes it's even sooner because you can't see. It becomes "how am I going to survive? I'm so used to seeing." You have to learn this whole new skill set and you're seventy years old.

KK: It's terrifying.

BB: It's not impossible, but it is absolutely terrifying.

KK: See, Barbara, I would have never thought of the visual world part, because I don't see it that way.

BB: Right, because you've never seen the world.

KK: But that's why having a sighted cohort helps. She sees it differently and knows what its like if you might lose your sight.

As a sighted person, I realize that I don't even have friends who are visually impaired -- so I never thought about what it's like. Maybe it's that sharing the world with you from the seeing perspective shouldn't be terrifying, as much as it's about understanding where you're coming from as a visually impaired person.

KK: Exactly. And not just to be understood, but to know that if it happens to you, you can handle it. And besides, if you're a friend of mine, you're not really that scared of it anymore. (Laughs.) I mean, you don't want to be blind, that's for sure, but you know people who are my friends are very well acclimated to what it's like. But I'm totally blind, so that's different than visual impairment, too.

BB: When I started here (with ACBCO) seven years ago, I didn't have friends or family members who were blind or visually impaired. I heard a lot about "oh, sighted people don't understand" and almost some hostility. What I learned from observation and getting involved with the organization - it was just ignorance about it. (For sighted people) it's like, "do I offer you help? Do I hold the door?"

As people learn - like with our "In The Dark" events - when people put on a blindfold, it's like "Oh! I can still eat dinner." I literally have sighted people ask me, "how do they eat?" Well, they put the fork in their food, and they put the food in their mouth and they chew.   What do you hope the general sighted public can learn from the work ACBCO does?

KK: It comes down to daily survival. And little things like that can be overwhelming. I have a great time in the dark, because I'm usually the one that's performing (at "In the Dark" events.) (Laughs.) I think it's fun - people have a great time and it gives them a whole new awareness, and that's what "Raisin' Cane" is all about.

The thing that worries me the most is, everybody will eventually have someone in their family who has to deal with visual impairment. We have 30,000 people in Denver alone right now.

BB: The estimate now is that one in three people age sixty-five (and older) will have a degenerative eye disease. That's the boomer population - we're living longer. We're the old hippie generation. Greater incidences of diabetes, stuff like that.

KK: My point is, somehow, in everyone's life, you will be touched by this. Why not learn more about it and understand that even if it is a part of your life, it isn't the end of your life. I am so dedicated and committed to that, I think it's the major reason -- beyond having the pleasure of helping people - that I am part of the council.

Also, the other issue is that we as a group (the ACBCO) do not tell people how to be blind. We give them opportunities and options, and that's the key. I think there are many ways to live your life and handle issues and challenges. You have to find what works for you.

BB: Each person has different learning styles. Some people are very kinetic. The other thing is, (someone) may need help learning how to work an oven, because (he or she is) a big cook. Someone else might need help throughout their whole house. Someone might just need a certain adaptive aid. Each person has different needs and different learning styles. We tailor everything we do to the individual.

Initially, I myself didn't even know how to speak about "blind" or "visually-impairment" in a way that was, I don't know, PC?

KK: It's the way you're doing it. Some people don't like to contend with the language; but I happen to be blind, and I'm not afraid to say it. There are other people who like the words "low vision." We tend to use visually impaired. Some people use "sight-impaired." I would say use blind and visually impaired and hopefully no one will yell at you. (Laughs.)

It isn't something people have to be terrified about -- we're used to not seeing.

Want to participate in the first annual Raisin' Cane race and fundraiser? Head to Skyline Park, at Arapahoe and 16th streets, at 8 a.m. this Monday, October 15. Participants are asked for a $20 suggested donation to benefit the American Council of the Blind of Colorado, and spectators are welcome. For more information on the awareness day, visit the organization's website.


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Skyline Park

16th and Arapahoe streets
Denver, CO 80202


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