Karen Karsh: "Blindness is one of the scariest concepts on the planet to people who aren't blind"
This coming Monday, the American Council of the Blind of Colorado (ACBCO) challenges you to step out of your comfort zone -- and into the shoes of a visually impaired person. In honor of White Cane Day, the council is holding its first-ever Raisin' Cane event. At the crack of 8 a.m. on October 15 in Skyline Park, sighted participants will start walking down the 16th Street Mall with a cane or personal guide -- blindfolds are optional -- in a "race" to promote awareness of visual impairment, eye health and accessibility.
Nicholas DeSciose Singer-songwriter Karen Karsh, chair of American Council of the Blind of Colorado.
In advance of Raisin Cane, Westword spoke with singer-songwriter and ACBCO Board Chair Karen Karsh and the organization's executive director, Barbara Boyer, about the myths around being blind in contemporary society and the work the group does to support the community at large.
Westword: Karen, can you talk a little about what you do with the American Council of the Blind of Colorado?
On the right, Barbara Boyer, Executive Director of American Council of the Blind of Colorado.
Karen Karsh: I'm the chair of the board for the American Council of the Blind of Colorado. I'm involved with the oversight of the decisions they make. (We) do a lot of work for seniors; we've given scholarships to college students and things like that that. I help do fundraising and performing for them, since that's what I do as a singer-songwriter.
I think (visual impairment) is an important issue because for people, especially those who are older and then lose their sight, it is an unfamiliar and scary process that can seem very overwhelming. The council is able to provide some services now that are no longer available (otherwise.) There are many, many people who are newly blinded who are outside the scope of, say, getting help with employment, which is what Vocational Rehabilitation does.
Barbara, can you talk a little about what you do at the American Council of Blind of Colorado? You're a sighted person, correct?
Barbara Boyer: I am a sighted person, and I was hired seven years ago to be the first ever executive director of ACBCO. I've been in the non-profit world for years, but more in the economic revitalization genre. I had taken a job out of state and hated being away, so I came back without a job. I wanted to do something where I could make a difference in people's lives.
I applied to a lot of different things. When I interviewed with the (ACBCO) board of directors, I don't know -- it was like magic. I got hooked into this passion. I'm an old hippie, and it's like, "I'm going to change the world." I was doing it in this one way and I found out I really wanted to do it with people one-on-one, in a way where people were impacted, not just their cash registers. It's been seven yo-yo years of up and down, good and bad. There's not a day that goes by that I don't (think) that what we've done has been good work. That's why I'm here, and I'll be here until they wheel me out.
From the get-go, I had no knowledge, but I saw the talent, the abilities, the intelligence and the creativity; blind and visually impaired people are just like you or me or anyone else. There are unseen disabilities -- we all have some things we can do better than other things. I will go down fighting for opportunities and equality and all of the things we deserve in this country.
Karen, you are a singer-songwriter who happens to be blind. Do you think that has had any effect on your work in the music industry, maybe in terms of how you're treated, or jobs you did or didn't get?
KK: No, I don't think visual impairment has anything to do with my quote-unquote "singing" and I don't know if I've ever felt that I haven't gotten a job because of it, interestingly enough? But I've been doing it for a really long time and I'm kind of a self-starter. I think that makes a difference. Believe me, it's not easy to be a blind person in our country. It isn't, because there are a huge number of unemployed blind people in this country.
But I think that I deal the same issues of anyone else in the business; it's 99.9 percent rejection. I just had some good luck because I've had some interesting ideas and I think I'm very tenacious. And thank god I can carry a tune. Without being immodest at all, I think I was born to do that. Maybe I've lost a few jobs but never knew it? But I feel lucky in that regard.