Gil Johnson, Woodworker
Gil’s professional life began as a Rehabilitation Counselor and Supervisor with the California Department of Rehabilitation. He proceeded to work for more than 40 years as a rehabilitation counselor, supervisor, manager, and director in public and private rehabilitation agencies. In 2008, Gil retired from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) where he served as Senior Advisor on Critical Issues and Director of AFB’s National Employment Center.
Growing Up with Congenital Glaucoma
I was born in a small town in rural northeastern Colorado in 1937 and had three older brothers and a sister. My father worked as a plumber, a job he held since he and my mother moved to Colorado from Minnesota in the early 1920s. As was true for most women at that time, my mother stayed at home raising the family.
When I was very young, I am told that my mother became aware that I didn’t see as well as her other children. I had congenital glaucoma. After several surgeries, I was left with only a small amount of vision in my right eye. Even though my vision was very limited, I found it very useful. I have vivid memories of colors; the display of colors at sunrise and sunset; the brilliance of the full moon at midnight in the summer or winter; lightning flashes; racing storm clouds; the majesty of the mountains; displays of the northern lights; and pretty women.
I remember being fascinated by changes in tree shadows and could tell more about the configuration of branches and leaves from their shadows than if I looked up directly at them. I recall clearly seeing the spectrum of colors through cracks in the windshield in my father’s car. I remember being able to see an entire small lake at sunset from a small airplane that was piloted by my brother.
Even though I have been totally blind since age 14, these memories are still vivid. I did not have enough vision to read print, but when I was a bit older I would read the lettering on doors of delivery trucks, which gave me a foundation for understanding print letters.
No one else in my parents’ families had experienced vision loss, so neither my parents nor siblings had any familiarity with blindness. I don’t recall that less was expected of me than of my brothers and sister. There must have been activities that my parents didn’t want me to do or didn’t let me participate in, but I have always felt like I could do what I felt capable of doing. When my judgment was wrong, I learned from the mistake.
Gil’s Childhood Adventures
One evening I went with my father to keep an appointment he had. I elected to wait in the car and while he was gone, I pretended to drive the car as many kids will do. I turned the wheel this way and that, shifted the gears using the clutch pedal, pressed the brake, and made motor sounds.
I heard a scraping sound from under the car and got out to see if I could tell what it was. I couldn’t find anything wrong, but I stopped playing and set the emergency brake. Soon I heard my father outside, saying “Where are you?” Apparently, I had steered the car around the corner and bumped into a lantern placed in front of a barricade on the street.
On another occasion, I went with my father to a fishing resort where he had some work to do. I wandered out on to a fishing pier and at the end found a row boat tied to the pier. I thought the boat should be closer to shore, so I got in, untied the boat, and began to row. Very shortly, I discovered that I couldn’t see the shoreline or the pier. I heard my father saying, “What are you doing out there?” I wasn’t very good at rowing and was going around in circles and getting further from shore. He coached me back in. He didn’t say anything about either event, nor did he tell my mother and I certainly didn’t tell her.
From these incidents and others, I learned the boundaries of what my vision would allow me to do. Fortunately, incidents like those didn’t significantly undermine my self-confidence.
Transition to Total Blindness
The only serious accident I had was when I was 14 years old. I was at school and was running because I was late to class. I tripped and fell, injuring my “good” eye and losing the little sight I had.
Although I had used the vision I had for getting around and doing certain things, I don’t recall the transition to total blindness being too difficult. I missed a week at school and don’t remember much of anything that happened that week. As I recall, I continued doing things as I always had, like taking the city bus to school every day, doing things around the house, working in my woodshop, going ice skating and sledding, fishing with my dad, and the usual things that boys in a small town do.
It was sometime after that when I learned how to use a white cane for traveling about. My teacher, who was blind, probably didn’t know some of the techniques that mobility instructors of today teach, but he gave me confidence and helped me rely on information through hearing, smells, and the surface I was walking on. The basic skills and confidence I acquired from him have enabled me to travel safely using a white cane wherever I wished to go throughout my whole life. I did get my first guide dog at age 70 when I retired.
Choosing a School
Although neither of my parents had gone beyond the eighth grade, they knew that getting a good education would be important for all of their children, including me. At that time, there were no educational resources for blind kids in the local schools. Blind children in Colorado had to go to the School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs, which was 150 miles from our home.
My parents didn’t think that educating blind children in the same school as deaf children made sense. Also, I would have to live at the school rather than at home and my parents would not be able to oversee my religious training.
I am told that after much deliberation, they chose to relocate to Minnesota where they were born. This must have been a difficult decision to make as the country was in the midst of World War II; two of my brothers were in the service; a brother and sister were still in school; gasoline and tires were rationed; and my father was not certain about where he could work.
I regret that I never talked with my parents about how they reached the decision to make this life-changing decision. In the summer of 1944, we moved to Faribault, Minnesota where the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School (now called the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind) was located. I was able to live at home while getting an excellent education from teachers and staff who knew about blindness. In addition to the usual academic subjects, I learned to read and write braille in the first grade, learned how to type, learned handwriting, and how to travel independently using a white cane.
Life at School in Minnesota—and Discovering Woodworking
The school had an industrial arts building where students were taught piano tuning; rug weaving; basket making; networking (now called macramé); and—best of all—woodshop. I still have a few of the rugs I made in rug weaving and a clothes hamper I made in basketry. One of the two shop teachers was totally blind and gave me a good foundation in safe and effective use of hand tools. In the other shop class, I learned to use a wood lathe, jig saw, and table saw for ripping lumber. I learned a great deal about using tools when I would go to help my father on weekend plumbing jobs.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I began to acquire my own power and hand woodworking tools and experimented in designing and building various projects in the basement at home. When I was 16 or so, I built a nine-drawer desk out of birch wood, which we use to this day.
I always enjoyed figuring out how to do something that most people would do using vision. There are always knuckle-bangers and scraped or gouged fingers and hands, but fortunately, I have never had any serious accidents in the shop. Over the years, I have designed and built furniture like dressers, book cases, bunk beds, and storage cabinets. I have also done a lot of repairs around the home like electrical wiring, plumbing (thanks Dad), shingling our roof, and remodeling kitchens in four homes that we owned.
Working with wood, particularly hardwood, is my true love. After talking on the phone and writing letters and reports at work, I always found it revitalizing to work with my hands in the shop in the evening. This is true even now that I am retired.
Working Life and Buying Tools
I began working at a fairly early age by shoveling snow from sidewalks and driveways (remember I was living in Minnesota). When I was 11, I had the chance to work during the summer at a motel my brothers owned in Colorado. I worked there every summer for six years. I did everything I could around the motel: stripping the linen from the beds and remaking them; washing the linen and hanging it out to dry; folding it for use the next day; pulling weeds and trimming the lawn; making minor repairs in the motel rooms; and much more. I would do anything my brothers asked and some things they didn’t ask. With the money I earned, I slowly added tools to my wood shop.
After High School: What To Do?
When I graduated from high school in 1956, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My mother had always thought I should go to college and become a teacher. I don’t think she believed the old saying “Them that can, do; them that can’t, teach!” She had a great deal of respect for teachers and didn’t know too much about other careers. I wasn’t ready to continue school at that point, so I knocked around for a year or so, working as a laborer, doing door-to-door sales work, and trained for a couple of months as a machinist.
The Department of Rehabilitation in Colorado gave me the opportunity to go to college, so I enrolled for one year at Colorado University in Boulder. After that, the Department encouraged me to go to school in California, so I enrolled at San Francisco State University in 1959. It was there that I met my wife, Becky. We have been married for 50 years.
At San Francisco State, I majored in education, but eventually I got a master’s degree in counseling and guidance. During the time I was in college, I worked during the summer and during the school year, tutoring high school students in math.
A Career in Rehabilitation
Upon graduating, I sent out over 200 resumes and got my first professional job as a Rehabilitation Counselor with the California Department of Rehabilitation. I worked in rehabilitation for 44 years. I was a Counselor and Supervisor with the California Department of Rehabilitation, Director of the Bureau of Blind Services in Illinois, and Program Director for the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind.
In 2008, I retired from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), where I served as Senior Advisor on Critical Issues and Director of AFB’s National Employment Center. My work life has been incredibly rewarding and stimulating.
Postscript: A New Life Chapter
After raising our two daughters, my wife and I thought we were finished with child-raising; however, in 2006, our oldest daughter died unexpectedly, leaving three boys. We decided to become their guardians, since their father was unable to do so.
Our lives are occupied with raising three teenage boys, but I still find time to work in my wood shop, ride my tandem bike, and read books from the Library of Congress. It has been a delight to author Gil’s Guide to Home Repairs on VisionAware.org. I know that blindness need not prevent anyone from doing almost anything they want to do, including safely using hand and power tools.
If you find yourself in a fix, or have any home repair questions, Gil also answers the Home Repairs Message board.