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Blind Sailor Progress Slow As Groups Debate His Example

August 5, 1987

Undated (AP) _ While sightless sailor Jim Dickson made slow progress Wednesday on his attempt to cross the Atlantic alone, groups for the blind debated whether his Herculean effort might set an unrealistic standard for the average blind person.

″I’m worried that blind people will feel they have to match that accomplishment,″ said Sam Negrin, associate executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. ″There is the stereotype of the ‘super-blind’ as depicted in movies and TV. It’s a caution and concern.″

At the Perkins School for the Blind in Waltham, Mass., where Helen Keller was taught, spokesman Harry Colt said Dickson’s trip could serve as incentive for everyone.

″It can’t be anything but a positive thing,″ he said.

Dickson, 41, set sail from Portsmouth, R.I., Tuesday for Plymouth, England. Aided by a talking computer that feeds him navigational information on request, he was making 4 knots 79 miles southeast of Rhode Island when picked up by satellite Wednesday.

Dickson spokesman Steve Graham said Wednesday he had not heard from the Washington, D.C., man, but that Dickson planned to wait a few days before contacting friends on shore.

Equipment like that being used on Dickson’s trip is difficult to develop and even harder for the average blind person to get or afford, Negrin said.

″Industry is reluctant to produce machines for a few thousand people,″ he said. ″The research (cost) can’t be recovered in the corporate world.″

He said advanced technology can act as a supplement but not a substitute for quality federally funded rehabilitation programs, which he said are in peril.

What Negrin hopes is that Dickson’s much-publicized trip will help dispel myths the public might hold about the blind.

″If you ask a blind person, they’ll tell you the biggest obstacle is overcoming the attitudes,″ Negrin said.

At the Providence, R.I.-based agency IN-SIGHT, there wasn’t much talk among the blind clients the day after Dickson’s launch.

″Obviously he’s an extraordinary individual who set a goal, and he’s going for it,″ said Patricia Maciel, a spokeswoman for the agency, which provides rehabilitation and vocational services.

″But we have clients here who perform extraordinary acts on a smaller scale, without the press,″ she said, citing a woman who lost her sight but continues to upholster furniture and do needlework.

IN-SIGHT staff members said clients, like many sighted people, thought Dickson’s attempt was mind-boggling.

″Maybe because it is so extraordinary,″ Maciel said, ″everyone’s waiting to see if he’s made it.″

She said the message ″is to set an objective and do it, and not let a disability get in the way.″

What Dickson is doing, however, ″might be good for him, but certainly not for everyone,″ she added.

Ed Beck, a Rhode Island representative for the National Federation for the Blind, was with Dickson when he set sail for England.

‘It was wonderful, wonderful - just superb. And not just for blind people but for all the handicapped,’ said Beck, who is blind. ″I asked Jim why he named the boat the Eye Opener, and he said that it was sending a message to the public that blind people are capable and not incapable.″

Beck, who also is vice-chairman of the advisory board on the Rhode Island Governors Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said, ″The blind person doesn’t need any inspiration. What they need is opportunity to work.″