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Blind advocacy making strides in Lee County

By Staff | Oct 28, 2015

William and Mary Ann Grignon - along with Mary Ann's service dog, Percy - have been important members of the Southwest Florida Council of the Blind, which is an advocacy group for the blind in Lee County. Mary Ann is the President of the Southwest Florida Council of the Blind. BRIAN WIERIMA

There is a motto for the Southwest Florida Council of the Blind (SWFCB) and it’s one which is very appropriate for people who are inflicted with vision loss – “Can do”.

Although losing one’s vision is a life altering event and one which will force many changes and challenges in life, it does not mean life is over.

That’s exactly the message the SWFCB implores through education, advocacy and support.

“Losing your vision tends to be isolating and scary, but there is life after blindness,” said William Grignon, who is an SWFCB member and advocator for the blind.

William’s wife, Mary Ann Grignon, is the current president of SWFCB, and has a lifetime of advocacy for the blind, after being born without vision. Mary Ann held a bevy of leadership positions within the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind and it is no doubt a passion of hers.

Mary Ann and William Grignon, who live in Cape Coral, have been at the tip of the spearheading of many blind advocacy issues within Lee County, including such issues as Paratransit, voting rights of the vision impaired and dog service laws which are now in effect throughout the state of Florida.

Mary Ann has lived a full life of overcoming the challenges of not having sight. She has raised her two children as a single mother, while having a career as a legal assistant.

William, who lost his sight at the age of 30, practiced law as an attorney in California and stands by Mary Ann’s side, helping spread education, support and advocacy for the blind.

“When some does lose their vision, they need to learn how to fill their toolbox with new tools,” Mary Ann said. “We have grown into an organization where people reach out to one another and give that support.”

The SWFCB’s membership has grown from 18 to 43 members in just three years and has taken up important issues for the blind in Lee County with much success.

The two significant accomplishments the SWFCB has influenced includes aiding the implementation of voting machines in Lee County geared to the vision impaired four years in advance of 2020 deadline the state of Florida has set, as well as saving the Para Transit program and even expanding it to its blind residents.

“We were able to develop a strong relationship with the Supervisor of Elections (Sharon Harrington), which was important,” Mary Ann said. “It has been federally mandated that all voting municipalities have voting machines accessible to people with disabilities by 2020.

“Our dialogue with (Harrington) got her motivated to try and get the machines here in Lee County by 2016, four years ahead of schedule. The Lee County Commissioners listened to us and her and approved the funds to get the machines early.”

Two years ago, the Lee County Commissioners cut the $500,000 budget for the Paratransit program, effectively eliminating the service which picked up people with disabilities, including the blind.

Mary Ann and William Grignon, along with members of the SWFCB, were successful in their plight to reestablish the $500,000 budget for the Paratransit last year, and continued their progress by expanding the service even.

Starting Nov. 2, the Passport Premium Services for Americans with Disabilities (ADA) will start. The Passport is a shared ride, advanced reservation, origin-to-destination service for people who have disabilities.

The old service only was provided in areas where LeeTran fixed route buses operated and made only pick-ups and drop-offs which were within three-quarters of a mile of a LeeTran bus route.

But now with the Passport Premium Services, the Paratransit will virtually go anywhere in Lee County, excluding Sanibel, Captiva and Boca Grande. The Premium service will also now run the same times as the LeeTran.

“This expands opportunities for people with vision loss,” William said. “Before, they needed to be home at certain times and it limited our ability to take part socially, politically and with work. So this change greatly expands our reach and ability to fully participate in society.”

The Paratransit drivers will also escort customers to customer service areas or elevators, to help the clients get to their destination, as well it being a door-to-door service.

Another important law which has been passed statewide, is making it a crime to pass your pet off as a service animal.

“The Sheriff’s Department will be sitting down with us to talk about that and as well as the White Cane Law, so there another component of Lee County willing to work with us,” Mary Ann said. “Lee County, for me, has made itself the most accessible since I’ve been working in advocacy for the blind.”

The White Cane Safety laws deal with crosswalks and drivers’ responsibility of allowing a vision-impaired pedestrian to safely cross. That means not inching your vehicle in the crosswalk and having to stop no matter where the pedestrian is in between the lines.

“This is what I ask people to think of, is how will you cross the street, when all the information you have was the sound of the traffic flow,” Mary Ann said. “It’s about awareness and the consequences.”

Giving support to blind people who are having a tough time adjusting is another thrust the SWFCB enacts.

They encourage people to live their lives, find jobs and build confidence, despite their disability.

“Vision loss creates many barriers and minimizes job opportunities,” William said. “When you are print impaired, or can’t see print, that limits your job opportunities even more. Our goal is to be supportive and encourage people to learn life skills and take up the cane. The cane has two functions, one it helps one navigate.

“Two, it sends out a signal to people that you are blind, be aware.”

Educating newly blind people of how to react and learn aspects is another duty of the support groups SWFCB do.

“People have low expectations of people who are blind,” William said. “The assumption is that we can’t do things for ourselves. We want to make it as least scary as possible and you don’t get a pass on life just because you are blind.

“We help you learn new skills, because competency leads to confidence.”

The push for advocacy for the blind is progressing. Making life easier in a world of challenges is succeeding for the cause of SWFCB.

To learn more about the Southwest Florida Council of the Blind, visit their website at www.swfcb.org/.