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Citizens With Disabilities - Ontario


The Man Who Won't Give Up

By Kelly Egan
The Ottawa Citizen, Canada
Friday, April 20, 2007

Blindness can't stop Alexandria flower man

ALEXANDRIA - Last fall, Bob Berrigan planted 8,830 tulips in this town's flower beds, the last bunch as a December squall coated his back with snow.

It is a little odd he remembers the exact number. Or maybe not. Here, after all, is a man who went about his work with keen deliberation.

Mr. Berrigan, 50, is blind, a green thumb who works with a white cane.

His story is as unlikely as it is inspirational.

By sheer moxie, Mr. Berrigan convinced the municipality last year to hire him as a trash collector and flower keeper in Island Park, its showcase recreation area. He picks and plants, at $8 an hour, though he cannot see.

"I didn't know what to think," says Bob Bowles, North Glengarry's recreation director, when he was approached by Mr. Berrigan, out-of-the-blue, with a job offer. "We were both unfamiliar with each other. We decided it was going to be an experiment."

And it worked. Mr. Berrigan found a way to adapt.

It is easy to tell the difference between sweeping a sidewalk and sweeping grass, he explained, so sound and feel were his guide as he brushed hundreds of metres of walkway. When he stopped, he marked the spot with white chalk, which he can still make out.

When he planted flowers, he used the crate as a guide to keep him square, inching it along the curb. In a large bed at the front of the park, he used a set of parallel metal bars to guide his rows, planting the bulbs in the space in-between.

"The key here is you don't stop doing things," said Mr. Berrigan, tall, grey and bearded. "You just do them differently."

A Montreal native, Mr. Berrigan suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, just like his father, his grandfather and, in all probability, his great-grandmother.

The disease, which is incurable, typically destroys the peripheral vision, leaving the person with severe tunnel vision.

Mr. Berrigan, for instance, spent much of his life with a five-degree view of the world, as though looking through a straw.

And those were the good days.

When he was only three, Mr. Berrigan said he was playing with floating balloons and kept losing sight of them when they drifted sideways. His father looked on and knew. The family curse had struck again.

But he coped. He attended regular schools, played sports, got a clerical job with Canadian National Railway in Montreal, where he stayed for 19 years. His vision was stable. In the tiny opening his eyes afforded, he saw with 20/20 vision.

"I was a living oxymoron. I had 20/20 vision, but I was legally blind." He fooled people, too. He would take his white cane onto the Montreal subway, where he would sit down and promptly pull out a book. A tricky disease, is RP.

In 1991, he moved to Alexandria, about 100 kilometres east of downtown Ottawa, with his wife, Karen, but kept working in Montreal, an hour-long train commute.

In 1994, his eyes took a turn for the worse. He went from 20/20 to 20/400 in a matter of months. It came to pass, in the middle of a Stephen King novel, that he could no longer read.

He left CN with a disability and fell into a funk, losing 35 pounds in six weeks. Though he'd been visually impaired his entire life, this was something else: he was blind and now needed a guide dog.

He remembers calling the CNIB in Cornwall and asking for help with braille. A woman began to visit his house on a weekly basis, beginning with the basics, the alphabet.

He remembers the first word he read, CAB, with his fingers. "I cried for about five minutes. Reading the word CAB, in braille, just literally threw everything open for me."

He realized he had a choice. He could be frustrated and miserable and defeated -- and blind -- or be happy and carefree and his old self -- and be blind.

So he chose the latter. "You don't have to give up."

Last spring, Mr. Berrigan was in the midst of getting his second guide dog, this one a black Labrador named Abraham.

He was walking in the park when he noticed the path was strewn with sticks and dirt and trash, the remnants of winter. He had several weeks to kill before getting his new dog and would be in the park almost every day anyway.

"I went into town hall and asked for an application. I had seven weeks without a dog and I thought, 'I can clean this park'."

The municipality, which hires a number of summer students, decided to give him a try. It worked so well, he's back this year, starting anew for the season this week.

He's become something of a town greeter in the park, waving and chatting with lunch-goers and regulars. "A lot of people know me. You can't have a guide dog and be an introvert."

In his spare time, Mr. Berrigan is a budding novelist. He now has a 100,000-word story in the works, his third attempt at full-length fiction. Tentatively called The Walking Club, he describes it as a character study intertwining the lives of a group of female walkers.

The town, meanwhile, readies for a big celebration on May 5 to celebrate the role of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders in the liberation of Holland in 1945.

The crowd will walk by beds of vibrant tulips -- red, white, yellow, peach -- planted carefully by a man who refuses to surrender to pity or deny his own usefulness; the man who cannot see.

Contact Kelly Egan at 613-726-5896 or by e-mail,

Taken from fd-6852dfe6f371.

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