16 February 2019

What We Can See Because of Ken Bukowski

During a conversation with an acquaintance of mine, I mentioned that I served as a "captain" on tandem rides for the blind and visually impaired.

This acquaintance, who makes workplaces ADA-compliant, wasn't surprised.  "Really, the only thing a visually-impaired, or even a blind, person can do that you or I can't is to drive a car," she declared.

Still, I must admit that of the ways one can become disabled, losing my sight is the one I fear most.  Even after hearing my acquaintance's words, and similar claims from others who are, or who work with people who are, visually impaired, I have a difficult time imagining how I would do almost anything I do now without my sight.

Certainly, I don't know how I'd ride (except, of course, on the back of a tandem) or how I might have worked as a bike mechanic. There are, however, people who have assembled and fixed bikes without the ability to see.

From The Buffalo News

One of them was Ken Bukowski.  Until September, he'd worked at Shickluna Bikes and Darts in Buffalo, New York.  For more than three decades, he assembled and repaired bikes, and gave customers lessons on how to shift gears and ride safely.  He was so good at all of these things that some customers were unaware, at first, that he was blind.  According to shop owner Tom Pallas, "many times he steered us to a missing tool because he heard where we had set it down."

Left sightless from a gunshot wound to the head at age 24, Bukowski went to the Blind Association of Western New York (now the Olmsted Center for Sight) to learn how to type.  Soon, he was enrolled in the Association's pilot program for bike repair.  When he completed that training, the Association convinced Pallas to hire him.

They worked--and-- rode together.  In fact, they pedaled the Five Borough Bike Tour on a tandem in 1987.  The thing that made him a good rider is probably the same thing that made him a good mechanic:  "concentration", according to Pallas. 

In addition to fixing bikes, riding and organizing rides, Bukowski did other things people don't normally associate with the blind:  bowling, skydiving and cooking. About the latter, his wife, Elaine Filer, said that because he didn't work much during the winter, by the time she got home from work "he'd have almost the whole dinner prepared."  

She was not the only one to benefit from his culinary skills:  For many years, he also volunteered as a cook at the Little Portion Friary, a homeless shelter in Buffalo.

He finally stopped working at the shop because of his bout with cancer, which claimed his life on 11 November.  He was 65.  Whether or not you think he lived a long life, you can't deny this:  He left an example. That, certainly, is something any of us, regardless of our abilities or disabilities, can do. 

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