Seeing without sight: Blind reporters rely on their curiosity and confidence to get the facts
Crowds of people loomed before him, but Kevin Andrews could not see them.
Completely blind since he took his first breath, Andrews was ready to approach the sea of angry costumers waiting for service outside the Charter Cable building last fall.
Most reporters would be intimated by the chaotic sight before them, but the Farmington Hills sophomore quickly worked his way through the crowds and got the answers he needed for his first front-page story in Central Michigan Life.
"I see my disability as an opportunity," Andrews said. "I go in guns blazing. There are no preconceived judgments. If you can see, you have a filter."
As a blind reporter, Andrews' condition allows him greater awareness when covering stories. Without the sense of sight, he is able to perceive the sounds, smells and other details when covering a story that might go missed by the sighted.
Like other blind reporters, Andrews records interviews with a voice recorder. He types his stories on a laptop that speaks every key stroke and command to him as he works.
"We live in a sighted world," Andrews said. "We don't focus as much on the four other senses. (Being blind) helps to be more descriptive. It gives a different insight."
Despite the difficulties Kevin faced in adapting to his condition over the years, his older brother, Kraig, is certain he can do whatever he wants.
"In a way, he feels he has something to prove," Kraig said. "He wants to show he can do things many visually impaired people can't. He can give insights that most people can't."
Kraig always pushed his younger brother to overcome his disability by challenging him to be as active as his sighted peers.
As the brothers aged beyond adolescence, their bond grew stronger.
"When it comes down to it, I never treated him any differently," Kraig said. "We got into fights and everything. Now we're just really good friends. He's my brother, not my blind brother."
Diagnosed with congenital cataracts, glaucoma and severe optic nerve damage at birth, Kevin grew up leading a different life than most children.
Learning to read braille by age three, he was only able to attend half of the school day during kindergarten and first grade. By his teens, Kevin was completely enrolled in public school.
The gradual process of entering public school was often marred by abuse from his young peers.
"It was hard growing up with it," Kevin said. "Kids ask questions, and they were usually trying to be mean. Sometimes you go through the halls, and people just ask stupid questions. Now I make my own jokes. It helped that I had an older brother."
Kraig, 22, worried about his brother being bullied in grade school. He said Kevin would usually stay at home on weekends while his classmates would be out at parties.
"In some respects, it was tough fitting in and trying to connect with the other kids," Kraig said. "That was a tough age for him. He learned that he had to be outgoing. He had to figure out how to approach people that he didn't know."
As Kevin entered high school, students became more accepting of him. He was even able to join the track team at Farmington High School, running with the help of a guide runner who led Kevin along the track.
"I'd rather educate people than have them not know and just wonder," Kevin said.
Today, Kevin is willing to explain his condition to anyone who asks, often cracking jokes about it. Entering public school was one of his biggest goals growing up, and now he's never been happier than at Central Michigan University.
Intending to choose a local community college, Kevin's brother pushed him to move away to CMU, living on his own in the residence halls.
"It took some convincing for him to go to CMU," Kraig said. "At first, he was scared about how to get around, but he's happy where he is. It was something he needed to do."
Despite past struggles, Kevin is committed to stepping over the obstacles and inactive lifestyle that could face him without sight.
He finds humor in everyday life, even jokingly referring to schools for the blind as "braille jails."
"There is a real sense of isolation at blind academies," Kevin said, "but I was told I could do whatever I want, that I would be somebody. Disabilities have negative connotations. There are some things you know you can't do. But it's only a minor inconvenience."
Hitting the pavement
Cheryl Wade has reported without sight for more than 30 years. She started out as a reporter for the Morning Sun in 1977, after graduating from CMU. Wade's talent for transcribing began in grade school.
She remembers being the only blind student in class. All the textbooks were for sighted readers, so Wade had no choice but to scribble down her lessons while they were read out loud.
Because of her tenacious note-taking, she decided to become a journalist in the 10th grade.
"I just gravitated to journalism," Wade said. "As a child, I had to become quite the little note-taker, and in high school something clicked. I never looked back."
After her first stint at the Morning Sun, Wade went to work at the Saginaw News, Bay City Times and settled at the Midland Daily News in 1989, where she worked for 20 years.
In 2009, Wade entered Michigan State University to earn her graduate degree in rehabilitation counseling. She now works at the Women's Center of Greater Lansing, and still freelances at MDN.
The greatest difficulty for Wade as a reporter, was filling in the information many journalists take for granted from visual observation.
She relies on her ability to ask questions, and sees no room to be self-conscious.
"The stress is trying to act all the time like you have five senses when you only have four," Wade said. "You always have to act like you know more than you do. I ask my way into the story."
But curiosity wasn't always enough.
She recalled covering a budget discussion among local politicians and was unaware when board members walked out.
"You have to be very careful to get people to describe things who are trustworthy," Wade said. "I have to ask a lot more questions. I don't know what I miss, because I missed it.
Wade relies on about six to eight friends to assist her with transportation to and from assignments. She works countless hours off the clock to prepare for her assignments and arrange rides in the process.
Wade is also assisted on-scene by her seeing-eye dog, a golden retriever named Selene.
Kevin also depends on rides from friends, but has also walked miles to get to his assignments. He said he relies on sounds to find sources, and has no problem asking for help if needed.
"It's not like you have a person who works for you," Wade said of her experience in Midland. "You need to have many volunteers. You just keep calling down the list until you get someone. You really have to want it, and I wanted it."
Wade confessed that, despite adapting over the years, sight would make her job a lot easier.
"Seeing would be a lot of help," Wade said. "There's a certain level of getting to the nitty-gritty that only sight allows."
Not a statistic
Kevin isn't happy with the blind community.
He said there are too many visually impaired people who give up overcoming their problems and lead unhappy lives.
He challenged the visually impaired to step up and rival the accomplishments of the sighted. Kevin worries about staggering unemployment rates among people who are blind.
"I don't want to be a statistic," he said. "I want to be a minority. There aren't a lot of role models in the blind community. I want to be one."
To Wade, sources who are surprised by her condition, are easily quelled by her professionalism and informed demeanor.
"I think people are a little taken aback at first when I show up to their houses with my dog," she said. "Some are honestly weirded out by it. I show them that I'm just going to do my business as a professional.
"Maybe there's a vulnerability. People feel vulnerable when dealing with the media, and I seem vulnerable so that probably helps, too."
In response to young reporters who are visually impaired, Wade warns of a difficult path ahead.
"It is doable," she said of reporting without sight. "I worked very hard on and off the clock. I knew I was slower than the others, so I had to work that much faster."
As Kraig watches his little brother overcome the obstacles given to him when his sight was taken away, he never doubts Kevin is more capable than one might guess.
"I don't know if it's so much a stereotype, but people just need to be aware that people like Kevin live their lives the same as anyone else," Kraig said. "He's trying to break the mold that he can go out and put everything out in the open and say 'I'm no different.'"