Blind Man Is 'Handi-Capable'

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"Why don't you turn on a few lights in here?"

Rosendo Rodriguez uses jokes like that to let you know immediately that he did not lose his sense of humor along with his eyesight.

It's not until you discover how he lost his eyesight that you realize how remarkable it is that Rodriguez laughs so often, and how he enjoys his life so much. But then again, remarkable achievements seem to be an everyday thing for this man.

A Vietnam veteran and one-time prisoner of war who served in the U.S. Marines, Rodriguez, 60, owned and operated a general contracting business in Gardena, Calif. when he was blinded in 1977 by a shotgun blast in the face, fired by Los Angeles gang members who mistook him for someone else.

"I still have more than 130 pellets in my brain and two aneurysms," he said.

Rodriguez' eyes were removed during six hours of surgery. He spent the next four-and-a-half months in intensive care, and nearly a year in the hospital. Upon his release, his doctor's gave him six months to live.

But Rodriguez had a few better ideas.

He proceeded to earn his Ph.D from UCLA in 1981.

He received a Special Olympics gold medal for cross-country skiing in 1982.

He became the first man to walk across the United States ... twice ... from Jacksonville, Fla. to Redondo Beach, Calif., in 1983 (2,700 miles in 18 weeks), and from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Ensenada, Mexico, in 1986 (1,700 miles in 10 weeks) ... earning himself a double nomination for the Guinness Book of World Records.

He became sought-after by the media, appearing on such prime-time network television programs as 'That's Incredible" and "The Spirit of Mankind."

All of this and much more was done to raise people's consciousness about the "abilities and often unexpected capabilities" of those who are blind or otherwise "handi-capable," as Rodriguez likes to say.

To that end, Rodriguez recently visited Payson to begin setting up a committee to handle Gila County's annual handi-capable educational fund-raising drive, the centerpiece of which will take place Nov. 17, tentatively from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., in the exhibition hall at the Gila County Fairgrounds.

During this event, area fire and police departments will offer safety demonstrations for the handi-capable, with information on such topics as escaping a burning home. Also, donated prizes which thus far include an adjustable crutch, a walker and a portable wheelchair ramp will be awarded to attendees.

"It's going to be a fun day that will show other counties how Gila County interacts with their handi-capable population," Rodriguez said. "If there's anyone who can't come, I'll promise them: I won't hit them with my cane."

Becoming handi-capable

For the first four months after Rodriguez lost his eyes, he said, his attitude was not at all positive. But that started to change on the day he made friends with a fellow hospital patient who was confined to a wheelchair.

"I said, 'Johnson! You be the headlights, I'll be the motor! Let's go!'" he remembers with delight. "I pushed him all over the hospital. Every once in while you'd hear on the public address system, 'Rodriguez and Johnson, get back to your ward.'"

The next major step in Rodriguez' mental recovery occurred when he was asked to help de-traumatize a man named John, a high school football player who lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident.

"He felt helpless and useless," Rodriguez said. "I told him, 'Look, you can do anything you want. They've got trucks you can drive with one hand. You've got your eyes, your ears, your mouth. That's what's important right now.'

"He said, 'No, no, no. What can you do?' I said, 'I can do anything!' He said, 'Oh, yeah? Can you walk (the 16 miles) from Gardena to Los Angeles?' And I said, "I think I can do that. let me think about it.'

"The following weekend, I started walking, all by myself, with Nardo, my first guide dog ... And I made it! It was a nice walk! But I took the bus home.

"When I told John that I'd made the walk, you know what he said? 'I don't believe you. You had to have somebody help you. You're totally blind! You can't do that by yourself!'

"But I explained to him exactly how I did it. Now, I'm happy to say not just because of me, but also his parents and many other people John is now married, has two kids, and he has a very nice job."

The key to John's remarkable turnaround as well as his own, Rodriguez said was a single realization.

"Things changed when I finally realized that I had not lost the life I had. All I had to do was to learn how to live in a different way. That's it.

"I get up in the morning and I pray, 'God, give me the strength to be an obedient, humble servant, and I give you my life today for your glory. Amen.' And then I'm off and running.

"If I don't fall off the steps, anyway," Rodriguez adds with a grin.

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