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The climb to independence

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Program at Center for the Blind uses rock climbing to boost confidence

By Ramsey Scott

A fly fisherman who’d been working a river at Eldorado Canyon State Park watched a group of beginner climbers slowly work their way up the rock as he walked back to his truck. 

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“Are those kids blind?” he exclaimed.

Of the dozen and a half people on the four established climbing routes, almost all were visually impaired. The climbers were students of the independence training program at the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton. 

The center, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, operates the six- to nine-month program to teach blind and sight-challenged adults how to live independently. Founded in Littleton in 1988, the facility offers a variety of programs to help visually impaired adults and children. 

Along with the independent living program, during which students live in apartments owned by the Colorado Center for the Blind, the center also offers day camps and classes for every age group. The center also offers its services to businesses that want to make jobs more accessible to the blind community. 

David Neitfeld, the center’s teacher for cane travel and a former student, said that building confidence on a rock face helps the students with accomplishing everyday tasks such as baking brownies or crossing a street. 

“People may think a blind person can’t climb a rock,” Neitfeld said. “It gives them that confidence. I climbed that rock yesterday. I can cross the street today.”

The center’s students come from across the country and the world, and range in age from elementary-school students to people past retirement. Unlike most centers that work with blind and sight-challenged people, Neitfeld said, the Colorado Center for the Blind focuses on making sure students can function independently and without assistance.

“We use the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, which is a very strong belief in independence,” Neitfeld said. “When they can see they can do things by themselves, they can have more hope.” 

While the program preaches independence, one of its secrets is the support system created among the students and teachers. 

Elizabeth Conlin said the support of her fellow students and instructors helped her finish the climb. As Conlin strained to get up the rock, she was reaching the limits of what she thought her body could handle. 

Every time Conlin cried out that she wanted it to be over, her voice was answered with shouts of encouragement from her friends waiting below. 

“It was a little tough at first, and then I had to get used to everything,” Conlin said. “Because those guys encouraged me, I had to keep going.”

Taylor Ruth, a student from South Carolina, said each individual success encourages other members of the group.

“We have gotten close. We’ve become a family. We build each other up,” Ruth said. “When you see someone accomplish something outstanding, we all know we can do it.” 

Take a ride with a blind person

As part of its anniversary celebration, the center is allowing people to take a ride with Mark Riccobono, a blind man and a graduate of the center. Riccobono and his specially designed Ford Focus will be taking Littleton residents for short rides Friday. 

To find out more about the rides or for information about the anniversary celebration, visit
www.cocenter.org.  

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.