Just like any businessman starting his workday, Mark Riccobono headed out the door Sept. 13 and hopped in his car.
The he put on his sleep shades, started the engine and took off down the street.
Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute at the National Federation of the Blind, was in town to help the Colorado Center for the Blind celebrate its 25th birthday by offering rides in a vehicle designed give blind people the ability to drive.
He stresses it’s a car blind people can drive, not a car that drives blind people. And to prove it, he completed an obstacle course at Daytona in 2011, reaching speeds of up to 27 mph.
The 2010 Ford Escape is a hybrid, not so much for the environmental benefits but because it has the extra battery power required to keep all the bells and whistles running. GPS and sensors work together to send vibrations to Riccobono via gloves and the seat, telling him when it’s safe to go, when to turn left or right, and when to hit the brakes. The sighted Paul Ficarro, NFB facilities manager, sits in the back seat with a big red emergency stop button for those “just in case” moments, but he offers no verbal direction.
And none was needed as Riccobono cruised the neighborhood around CCB over and over, hauling students, staff alumni, the press and local dignitaries. He compares his quest to create the vehicle, and ultimately to make it widely available, to the journey of life for the CCB students.
“When we come in as students, we’re really passengers and Diane and Julie (Deden, executive director), they’re our drivers,” he said. “But they’re teaching us every day how to be drivers in our own lives. The rest of society is very content to have us be passengers, even in our own lives.”
Mayor Debbie Brinkman got the first ride after the welcoming ceremony.
“You guys are pretty low-maintenance, actually,” she told the dozens in attendance. “It’s the rest of the community we have to keep reminding of that. … You’re such a part of the fabric and the fiber of the community.”
CCB’s founder Diane McGeorge was on hand to recall the early days in Denver before the center moved to Littleton 13 years ago.
“The day we opened, we’d had a terrible blizzard a couple days before,” she said. “It was quite a walk in the snow and ice and freezing temperatures, and they had to cross Broadway, a busy street, and the traffic lights were frozen. But in came those five students. And I said, ‘Welcome to reality. This is the real world.’ I do believe in reality therapy, because we want blind people to live in the world.”
Fred Schroeder, NFB’s first vice president, said that before NFB existed, the prevailing theory was that blind people just needed to be taken care of.
“But they were telling them all of the low expectations that you grew up with, they’re all true,” he said. “We’re not going to teach you to just cook a hamburger, we’re going to teach you to believe in yourself. Mostly what you learn here is that what society believes about us is wrong.”
“There were a lot of naysayers in ’88,” agreed Scott LaBarre, president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers. “They tried to kill us, they tried to make this center fail because they didn’t believe what we believe, that it is the blind themselves who need to take control of their own lives. … At first our centers were outcasts. They thought we were crazy. But the world is changing because of what we do.”