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Running to Daylight

Blind runner and teacher determined to see what he can do

By Chase Hoffberger, Fri., Dec. 20, 2013

Roberto Baylon running his usual route around Hancock Golf Course
Roberto Baylon running his usual route around Hancock Golf Course
Photo by Jana Birchum

I met Roberto Baylon the same day that he'd earned himself a fresh laceration on the right side of his face.

He'd earned it while running – more precisely, while falling – along a stretch of rocks inset down the south side of Hancock Golf Course. He made no mention that the fall also bloodied up a spot on his right shin.

"Got too cocky," he says. He'll be back running tomorrow, if it's light enough to see.

Baylon, 53, isn't fully blind, though he's legally considered such, and keeps two canes in his bedroom. He lost his vision three years ago – officially, Baylon has been losing his sight since 2008 – but in the half-century before he'd been everywhere around Texas: a childhood spent between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez; time working and schooling himself in the fields of radiology, health administration, and art history in and around Galveston, Dallas, and Phoenix, Ariz. Everywhere he went, he made sure to bring his running shoes. Running helped him collect his thoughts.

"Just to lose weight," he explains. "Stop smoking. I'd been drinking beers. It was fun, but I had to do something, because otherwise it wasn't going to work out."

Now, running is an awfully trite symbol for redemption and the triumph of human spirit, but Baylon really did enjoy it. Since 1980, when he was 20 and living in El Paso, he tried to run as often as he could. He ran his first marathon in Fort Worth in 1991. The New York Marathon followed that Nov­em­ber, then again in '92 and again in '96. After that came Dallas, and, most recently, Phoenix in 2006.

In 2007, he moved back to El Paso to take care of family. A year later, he was waking up to blood splotches around the retina of his left eye.

Seeing in the Dark

The cause was diabetes. Baylon had been insulin-dependent for 20 years. By the time he had his first surgery, in April 2010, glaucoma had already begun its work. Doctors tried retina reattachments and valves to stabilize the disorder; nothing did the trick. He was diagnosed as legally blind that year: 20/200 vision in his functioning right eye. Not dark, entirely, but void of any definition. "Nine surgeries in full," he says. Most recently, in November, a doctor installed a prosthetic ball into his left socket, to replace the eye he'd lost.

Going blind did nothing to damage Baylon's psyche. He says his "Why me?" moment came when he developed diabetes around 30 – but blindness wreaked havoc on his lifestyle. Work became too difficult; he'd lost much of his ability to see art. And running couldn't happen. He'd already stopped that at the end of 2009.

By then, Baylon had gotten involved with the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, a state agency that affords disability care to the blind, the deaf, and children with developmental delays. There are a number of eligibility requirements for admission to the DARS program, but if you're legally blind, you stand a good chance of getting in.

Once in, you match up with a vocational rehabilitation counselor and work together to determine what kind of services you're going to need. DARS offers seven services for the visually impaired, including a Voca­tional Rehabilitation program designed to help get the newly blind working again, and an Independent Living program, which helps individuals accomplish everyday tasks like stocking their refrigerators or making their beds each morning.

Baylon and his counselor thought it would be smart if he came to Austin, where DARS is headquartered, and enrolled in the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, a free, intensive training facility off Lamar Boulevard and 48th Street. (The center is named after Judge Criss Cole, who lost his sight as a Marine during World War II, and served in the Legislature from 1955 to 1970.)

"One of the best things I have done," he says. "They teach you how to be independent. You have to go through what everybody else is doing. If you're not blind, you use a blindfold," every single day from 8am until 5pm.

Bragging Rights

Roberto Baylon works a power saw under the guidance of Kirt Hibbits at the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center.
Roberto Baylon works a power saw under the guidance of Kirt Hibbits at the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center keeps annotated photographs on the walls that line the khaki-colored halls of its two-story rehabilitative facility. "Roy Henderson (Victoria) reaches into a bus engine," reads one. "Gilbert Sanchez (El Paso) enjoys the tranquility of a beautiful pond while sitting on a rustic footbridge at Zilker Park," reads another.

"One of our focuses is developing confidence," explains Brenda Stone, the vocational rehabilitation coordinator at CCRC, who showed me around the facility. "A lot of time, if you grew up blind, you never really got the opportunity to develop the kind of confidence you might need in adult life. And let's say you go blind as an adult: All of a sudden, you can't do the things you used to be able to do. That takes your confidence away. What we do here is focus a lot on bringing that back."

Criss Cole rebuilds that confidence by instilling in participants the daily rigors of everyday life, like fixing toilets, rewiring table lamps, sending an email to your mother, or throwing some soup into a hot pot.

Eventually, adaptation. And in some cases, improvement. As in the computer room, where Baylon, formerly a two-fingered typist, learned to feel the full keyboard and strike the keys with 10 fingers.

There's an industrial arts area, where students are tasked to build household objects like boxes or furniture. The program starts with the identification of every tool within a toolbox, then the dissection and subsequent reconstruction of a door knob under the guise of a "Mindfold" – a heavy-duty blindfold. "That teaches us a lot about how to work with people," explains Kirt Hibbitts, who runs the shop. "It might take them four minutes, it might take 15. It might take them the entire class period."

The point, no matter the time it takes, is for these students to rack up some bragging rights. "A lot of sighted people have never used power tools," Stone says. "For a blind person to do that, it's a pretty big accomplishment." In Baylon's case, those bragging rights derived from building a table, something he had never done before, which he painted blue and decorated with a plate-glass finish before presenting it to a friend.

"There's this bond," he says of the whole space, which fluctuates around 60 students (CCRC caters to roughly 200 Texans every year) and 100 staffers, many of whom are visually impaired themselves. "Everybody's an example of things you can do or try. Everybody's got different goals, but you can learn from them. The counselors are the same way. A lot of them are blind and have gone to school and led productive lives – some are getting Ph.D.s."

'Feel for the Sun'

The scene I saw that afternoon functioned much like a high school between classes, with as many people hanging out in the hallways checking out their phones as there were students at a computer. Two of them lounged in the shop while I fumbled through power saws, and Christmas decorations hung throughout the kitchen. A peanut gallery assembled outside one room, and stood joking when they learned I'd be a guinea pig for their daily rigors.

Of these, the most essential thing that I experienced was the class on mobility. That was Baylon's favorite, because that's the one that throws the students into the strangest situations – Baylon remembers one time when he found himself alone out by some creek – with little in the way of hand-holding. He loved the adventures and challenges of each mission, and the ways in which whoever was taking him would slip away so quietly.

"That's where you start learning to hear things, or feel for the sun," he remembers. "Any sign that's going to orient you, or give an advantage, you start to use that."

When I went under the blindfold, my instructor Scott Meyer, the orientation and mobility supervisor at CCRC, coerced me down a hallway and stopped me just long enough to familiarize my ears with a soda machine, then instructed me outside and told me to stop walking when I felt the heat of the sun. The sun goes east to west, he reminded, but it's also always south.

Keep the cane tapping, and listen for people. Ask questions. Feel breezes. If the cane's echo changes, you've entered somewhere new.

Art and Marathons

Baylon keeps two paintings in his apartment: an old one from his parents' house that his mother gave him, in the kitchen; and a reprint of Caspar David Friedrich's The Monk by the Sea, an early 19th century painting that depicts a monk standing stoically as a storm builds off the coast. That one hangs above his bed. In the original, the sky's gray, but Baylon had a friend paint it much darker. "It symbolizes a storm coming," he says. "A lot of people interpret it a different way, but ever since I started losing my vision ... it looks like he's going to be wiped out, but the guy is just facing it."

In the two years since leaving Criss Cole, Baylon's gotten himself further reacclimated to daily life by teaching Spanish and volunteering at the Volunteer Healthcare Clinic on Medical Parkway, something he never considered before going blind. He exercises two-and-a-half hours every day – this involves, among other things, a single set of 1,000 straight-leg sit-ups – and he's thinking about using his bachelor's in art history to begin teaching again.

"I wanted to do counseling at first, but I had no background with that, so I was going to have to do a little extra. Then I started thinking, 'Well, is your heart really in this?' My heart is in helping. That's why I volunteer. I spoke with one of the counselors who's completely blind. She said, 'You have a passion for art. Why don't you teach art?'"

Baylon also began running again in March. Though it's only possible between 11am and 4pm, and entirely dependent on the amount of sunlight hitting the streets at that time, he gets out as often as he can, running slightly more slowly than he used to, certainly, but still swift enough to draw that laceration on his brow. Generally, he runs from his apartment in Hyde Park to the perimeter of the Hancock Golf Course, which he circumnavigates a few times before heading home. His longest run to date's been six miles, though that'll change if he goes through with his plan.

In February, Baylon intends to run the Austin Marathon with his friend, who he first ran alongside in Fort Worth in 1991, who'll lead him with a tie-and-leash contraption that'll keep Baylon in line. His goal is to get back to New York – the most iconic of all marathons, the one Baylon ran three times in the Nineties – but it won't be in accordance with the race's time standards. 3:06:00 is not possible for a 53-year-old blind man. Instead, he's working with Achilles International, a nonprofit dedicated to training disabled runners and helping them all land a spot in New York. Last year, the group sent 300 runners to the Gotham City footrace, providing transportation, guidance, and a support system throughout the weekend.

Baylon says he's not in running shape now, but he ran that first marathon in '86 without any type of proper training, and his cardio's up to speed.

"Once I get started on something, it becomes a challenge," he says. "Even if I hate it at first, it's like 'Okay, is this all you got?' I see the other people at Achilles now who are in way worse shape than I am. They're persevering and moving forward. It's just a personal challenge. It's the satisfaction of saying, 'You know what? I can.'"

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