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Interview with Marla Runyan: First Blind Olympic Athlete and Teacher at Perkins School for the Blind

rsz_marla_runyanBeing legally blind since childhood never slowed Marla Runyan’s pace. The first legally-blind Olympic athlete and an international and Paralympic champion, she now teaches at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. On Friday, February 21, 2014, Marla was the special guest and speaker at Vision Loss Resources’ 100 Year Anniversary Luncheon. Marla talked to Vision Loss Resources by phone last week, sharing how she reached her Olympic goals, her ideas on how people can reach for their own goals, and her thoughts on meeting the needs of people with vision loss.

In an article I read about you, you said when you began to lose your vision, other people’s expectations for you fell, but your expectations rose. Why do you think you have such strength of spirit? What made you defy their lowered expectations?

Runyan: I think the route expectation started with the doctor. It started with the retina specialist outlining for my parents what he foresaw my life to be like. He said, “She is not going to be able to do this, she’s not going to be able to do that. He was making predictions on how I would function: I would become a C student. I don’t want to blame him, but he was really speaking beyond his scope.

My grades never fell. I knew I just needed a little more time or this visual aid. I was still in sports. My mom was puzzled by what the doctor said and how I was actually functioning. I remember my mom telling me later what the doctor said, and I remember becoming very angry. It kind of became the fire to motivate me.

I was going to show everybody. I was a conscientious student before and now I became even more motivated and driven. I felt like I had a point to prove. People suddenly expected less of me and I didn’t want that. Not only could I keep up with sighted kids, I could excel. I have an intense competiveness that was always in me, and this brought it out.

I have to say that I think I have to attribute a lot of my success to my parents. They never used my vision impairment as an excuse. Sometimes parents do. They limit the experiences their kids will have, saying they are going to fail; they can’t ride a bike or do sports.RunyanM@Pre02

Even though I was surprising them a bit in some ways, they were not holding me back. They were leaving the door open to just kind of go for it. They knew I might not always succeed but they let me do that.

How can a community make it easier for someone to accept vision loss, and then reach for his or her own personal goals without letting vision loss stand in the way?

Runyan: There is a big difference to someone being born with vision loss, to a kid having vision loss, to a senior having macular degeneration and losing their sight.

When you have a service organization, you need a person to go to their home and you need to meet with them and say, look you can do this, I am going to show you how. Here is how you are going to access the newspaper now. I am going to show you how to get your grocery shopping done and label things in your house and this is how you can do laundry.

You need that kind of support, not just someone telling them over the phone you can do it! If you have someone who is 65 years old and now she can’t drive and is afraid to leave the house, you need someone coming in and showing them the way. It is going to take a lot of time, and little by little they are going to come around. You need the right people who know how to help that person to help that person live as independently as they can.

For older adults, they need the community to be an advocate with resources in their community. It has to be that hands-on. It can’t be let’s make an appointment a week from Tuesday I’ll see you in my office. How many seniors are going to leave the house and take the bus while losing their sight?

What did people do for you to help you succeed and reach your goals?

Runyan: If I go way back to when I was first diagnosed, my mom was invaluable. In hindsight it is unbelievable, just the fact that she didn’t have the internet, she had the yellow pages.

My school district didn’t know what to do for me. Even though federal legislation had passed that allowed students with disabilities to learn with a least restrictive environment, I don’t have strong recollections of it being enforced in 1978.

IMG_4402-1You can’t get a magnifier at a pharmacy but my mom tracked one down. She found my 4th and 5th grade textbooks in large print. She found the lion’s club, who gave me my first closed circuit television. My mom was pretty amazing. She was going to find any tool or resource out there. She was going to dedicate herself to me, to my education and to being successful.

She set the example. She modeled for me that my access was important and worth any cost. That old MasterCard commercial that such and such is priceless, she modeled it. It didn’t matter what something cost, this tool will make her life easier. My mom never hesitated; there was nothing more important than enabling me to access something or to help me see something. That has followed me into my life. I can buy myself a visual aid that is going to change my life. To say no, no, I am not going to get that is not how it is. I always say, yes, I am going to get that.

How did you reach for Olympic goals?

Runyan: I think it evolved. I was already very active. In high school, I gave up soccer because I couldn’t see the ball anymore and ran track. I was recruited for college. I watched the Seoul Olympics on television (if I sit close I can see). I went out to track after watching Jackie Joyner-Kersee and I told my coach, “I want to try to make the Olympic team.” And my coach kind of laughed, and I said, “Why not? What else? What do I have to lose?”

If you get a little bit of success, it keeps you motivated. I had to keep motivated. I moved to Oregon, I changed events and everything kept evolving. For every little bit of success, there were setbacks, surgeries, I changed coaches three times. But I knew, if I didn’t at least try, I would always look back and regret it. There is small window where you can accomplish that Olympic goal. I thought, I have this little window in my life. In that way of thinking, I am going to dedicate everything to this goal, if I make it awesome, if not, I would have no regret looking back.

I started in 1988 and in 2000 I made it to the Olympics. That’s 12 years. For every bit of success there were three setbacks. But if I give up now, I’ll never know and I’ll regret not trying.

As a person who has a disability, when you make your strengths more visible than your disabilities disappear. They quickly forget I have vision impairment. On the track I don’t need a guide runner. I have enough peripheral vision to see the track, and I am running with other runners closer together. It is really simple a very simple venue to run. I think it’s funny, but my coach saw me as an athlete, he was looking at my athletic potential and that what he saw.

I had a sprint event, and I tried to set my starting blocks. I was crouched down on the ground and my nose is touching the blocks and I am trying to see the numbers to set my blocks. My coach said to a friend, “What is Marla doing there?”

My friend said, “She can’t see, remember?!”IMG_0860-1

He forgot!

As a person with any challenge, you make your strengths more visible. If you want to be known for whom you are as a person, then your responsibility it to make your qualities more visible. I believe if you don’t you are becoming a victim. If all you do is make excuses, then that is how people see you. Make your strengths visible.

Why should everyone in American care about vision loss? Obviously, before people help make the world an easier place to navigate for people with vision loss, people need to care about people with vision loss. Why should they, in your opinion?

Runyan: Why should everyone care? Because chances are, if it’s not you who is going to have vision loss, you are going to have someone in your family, or a close friend, or a friend with vision loss. Chances are, with the level of vision impairment in our country, you are going to know somebody. There is almost no way around it.

One thing we talk about in education is this: We take all of these daily things we all do and think of ways to tweak them and come from a place of universal access. We ask, “What you are doing to increase independence for everyone?”

In the grocery store, you pay with your credit card. What if the print was 24 point instead of 8 or 10? It is still accessible but now it is accessible to almost everybody.

I look at the future and it is going to have to come with our kids. What if every restaurant had a mobile tablet? The person who needed this service could then enlarge the font or the menu could be read aloud. We have the technology to do that.

How do we start making these changes? We have to be involved. As a community, were all interconnected. If the prevalence of people with low vision is increasing, even though it is not happening to you personally, we have to care. We become stronger as a community if we help each other and care.

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