Through Blind Eyes

By: Sarah Platt Email
By: Sarah Platt Email

Each day we wake up, most of us take for granted the fact that we can see. But imagine being blind, in complete and total darkness. A local man shares his story on his everyday obstacles and challenges as he lives without the sense of sight.

For all practical purposes, James Fetter is like many 22-year-old guys his age. He enjoys hanging out with friends and working hard. He's a Ph. D. student and also works as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Notre Dame.

James is also blind. His condition, Optic Nerve Hypoplasia. He's never seen a sunrise or sunset and can only imagine what colors look like.

At our first meetings, it's evident James faces his daily challenges with a sense of humor!

“I always make a joke when I get to the grocery store and find something really easy to use. I say well, it's so easy that a blind person can use, which is politically incorrect in the extreme, which is kind of funny,” says Fetter.

James says he doesn't spend too much time thinking about being blind. He doesn't have time between classes, his T.A. job and life in general. He sometimes relies on others to help him get around. “That's one thing, when cold weather hits, it does take me longer to walk to class and this campus is spread out and I do tend to rely on security a bit more then.”

Cutting edge technology helps James in his day-to-day routine, like some of these special computer programs. Kurzweil 1000 and Jaws read and convert his documents and books into sound. Studying would be next to impossible without it. “I often have to scan it into the computer page by page, that takes time,” adds Fetter.

And you can hear just how fast James reads. [Computer reads article very quickly back to James and he can understand].

What sounds like mumbo-jumbo to most of us is completely understood by James and his trained ears. His watch, cell phone, email, even a brail printer, all include tools that help him get by.

Socially, James says he gets around. Although he says dating and making friends can be a little tough without sight. His buddy Michael acts as his "eyes" at a party. “For instance, if I'm at a party and I want to talk to various people or say I'm at a function and I want to work the room and see what's going on and follow what's happening, I need some extra help with that,” says Fetter.

“There's a lot of things that we see, that we take for granted, that's for sure, lots of the way we speak our language and talk about what we ‘see,’” says James’ friend Michael Driessen.

And not all conversation for James is as simple as it is with Michael. James says one of his social frustrations is that people often don't know how to react to him. “Sometimes people address me in a way that they think that somehow my mind is not at full speed.”

Outside academics, James also has big goals. He's hoping to qualify for the Paralympics in Beijing next year. “Training for the Paralympics in 2008, and just in general trying to get into decent shape so I can make a good, strong attempt at making it down the road, and trying to make an attempt at 2012 as well.”

And at practice, James does not have the luxury of any high tech aides. He’s assisted by encouragement and an old tennis ball taped to a stick. A person taps him on the head with it as he approaches the end of the pool, so he knows when to make a turn.

James says he has both good and bad days. He's grateful for guidance from his parents and teachers when he was younger, people he says helped encourage him when the going got tough.

He says he doesn't consider himself a great inspiration, but he hopes his story will help motivate others to try something they might not have tried before.

“There are fewer and fewer barriers all the time. In any case, the most problematic barriers are the ones that people create for themselves, in terms of confidence levels-- or not thinking they're able to do something.”

James Fetter is one of two blind Notre Dame swimmers who are training to qualify for the Paralympics. Ashley Nashleanas is also hoping to make it to Beijing in 2008 for the Paralympics.

The two are in need of swim "tapping" volunteers to stand at the end of the pool and alert them when they need to turn around. The swimmers are also in need of help with funding to help them train for the Paralympics.

For more information on helping James and Ashley, log on to, or contact Annie Sawicki at 574-876-9467.

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