Without Sight and Full of Vision
Camp Counselor Helps Other Blind Youths Use Technology to Their Advantage
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2004; Page B01
Camp counselor Mario Bonds, the picture of cool in sunglasses and baggy jeans, settled into the back seat of the bus bearing his chattering charges on a field trip and took care of business.
On his cell phone, Bonds, 16, told a friend how to download a job application, and he made plans to attend an SAT preparation class and a student government meeting the next day at Suitland High School, where he is about to be a senior. He skimmed a novel -- "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, a summer assignment for his Advanced Placement English course.
Beside him, his best friend, Antoine Banks, 19, laughed. "I never met a guy that's so busy," Banks said. "He's not even 18, and he's got two cell phones."
More than most people, Bonds relies on the raised dot that marks the number 5 on the phone's keypad to tell him he's dialing correctly. The book in his lap was in Braille, and his sunglasses covered eyes that have seen nothing since 1996, when he woke up blind after surgery that doctors had hoped would save his sight from a syndrome that was destroying both optic nerves. He is working this summer at a series of camps run by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
For the past two weeks, he has been at a Lighthouse technology camp, where middle and high school students learn to operate high-tech devices for the blind and to assemble computers. They also take field trips to meet successful blind professionals. The aim is to prepare them to beat the education and employment statistics for blind and visually impaired adults: Fewer than half have a high school degree, and 70 percent are unemployed.
Lighthouse camp counselors usually are sighted volunteers, but Bonds made a pitch for a paid internship based on his computer expertise. He is a far cry from the angry, rebellious boy whom the Prince George's County school system once labeled a troublemaker.
Bonds, one of 10 children and one of a set of triplets, has been raised by his grandmother in a succession of Washington area apartments since his father was imprisoned and his mother died of a brain aneurysm when he was 5 months old. He was born with Morning Glory Syndrome, which gradually and inevitably destroys the optic nerve, and he resisted every effort to prepare him for life without sight. Presented with his first cane in the third grade, he threw it at his instructor.
"They kept wanting to turn me into a blind kid, and I wasn't going to have it," he said. "If you're a kid and you're going from doing normal kid's stuff -- seeing and all that stuff -- to not being able to do anything because you are losing one of your main senses, how are you supposed to react? Certainly not humbly."
The syndrome is named for the appearance of the optic nerve as it deteriorates. When he was 5, Bonds underwent a long-shot operation aimed at saving the sight in his right eye that instead left him blind in that eye. Three years later, the same thing happened with his left eye. On Dec. 15, 1996 -- Bonds remembers the date -- he came out of the anesthesia and hopefully tore the patch off his left eye.
"I can't see! I can't see!" he screamed until a nurse sedated him.
For months, Bonds walked into walls and fell over tables as he tried to pretend he could see. He appealed to God to restore his sight. "I thought that if I hoped and prayed hard enough, that it would come back," he said. "But it didn't."
It took a move to Fairfax County when he was in sixth grade, said Bonds and his grandmother, Johnnie Mae Bonds, to rescue the despairing boy. The school system's visual specialists convinced him that blindness wasn't an excuse to fail in life and that mediocrity wasn't acceptable. He learned to navigate with a cane, read Braille and use a specially equipped computer.
Since moving back to Prince George's in ninth grade, he has remained an honor roll student. He plays piano, guitar and drums, composes music and goes to the mall and movies with sighted friends.
"He don't have a disability," his grandmother, 65, said. "He's blind. He has a good brain."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"I never met a guy that's so busy. He's not even 18, and he's got two cell phones," Antoine Banks, 19, right, says of his best friend Mario Bonds, center. They and Reina Brown, 19, visit the National World War II Memorial.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)