Sunday, December 14, 2003

Man helps blind children get compass for life's path

Cincinnati 101

Cliff Radel

Bill Fluharty sets blind kids free. And helps them dream.

For the past 26 years, he's traversed Hamilton County, going to schools and homes. As the orientation and mobility instructor for the county's Educational Service Center, he has taught hundreds of visually impaired children.

He's their guide as they learn how to negotiate sidewalks, cross busy streets, go into stores, ask clerks questions, buy things and ride the bus.

Fluharty works with 20-30 students a year, from pre-schoolers to high schoolers.

He often works seven days a week. He spends most of his time outside. In all kinds of weather. Following. Watching. Listening. Instructing.

Sometimes he has the cops called on him. People see him following a blind child, think he's a stalker and dial 911.

On a recent wintry morning, he stood next to Brian Runyon on a west-side street just off Harrison Avenue, Cheviot's main drag.

Fluharty had driven them there. Runyon, a 16-year-old Oak Hills High School sophomore, whipped out his cane. He was ready for his walk. "Hold on, Bud," Fluharty said.

The teacher and the student go way back. They've been meeting once a week since Runyon was in the third grade.

In a voice that was firm but gentle, exacting but encouraging, Fluharty leaned forward and spoke in the teenager's ear. He quickly went over Runyon's pre-flight check list.

What direction was he facing? North. What should he listen for? The traffic.

"OK! Go for it," Fluharty said, giving Runyon a soft pat on the back.

Runyon headed down the street. And into an obstacle course.

It was garbage day. The trash was gone. But empty garbage cans and lids littered the trail.

Runyon headed in the cans' direction. His cane tapped the sidewalk and swept from side to side. He walked onto two lids. But he kept going.

"This is what I do," Fluharty said, giving Runyon a 100-foot lead before putting his feet in motion.

"It's a wonderful job. I'm outside. I work one-on-one with kids. I can't fathom doing anything else."

Then, he added: "If you're looking for a philosophical reason why I do this," he added, "you've got the wrong guy."

Fluharty did not take this job out of some sense of obligation. He never knew anyone who was visually impaired. No one in his family is blind.

"I just fell into this job by happenstance," he said. And out of a desire to help people.

At the end of Runyon's walk, Fluharty offered his critique. He concluded with: "Not bad. Not perfect. But pretty good."

Runyon talked about his plans for college. He wants to become a missionary. He knows he'll be able to find his way around the world. His teacher is Bill Fluharty.


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