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Colorado Center for the Blind teaches students independence

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By Deborah Swearingen

It is a crisp September morning, and Zach Harshbarger steps out of his Littleton apartment and into the morning sun.

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He cannot see the sun’s glow, but he feels its warmth on his face and finds comfort in knowing its rays are pointing him east. With a white cane in hand, Harshbarger makes his way to the bus stop, where he is greeted by a group of his classmates.

Most have canes; some have dogs; but none can see.

All those at the bus stop are students in the independence-training program at the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton. The program, designed for blind adults age 18 or older, trains participants to build the skills they need to find jobs, be independent and build confidence.

In the program, which typically takes six to nine months to complete, students live at the McGeorge Mountain Terrace apartments on South Lowell Boulevard. They take Braille, home management, cane travel and technology classes, as well as challenge recreation, wood shop and philosophy.

“We really do believe blind people can learn skills to the point that blindness can really just be more of a nuisance than any kind of a handicap as most people think of it in the public,” said Dan Burke, public relations specialist at the center.

“But when people come, they may not feel that way … because we all have the same notions in our society that blindness typically means a loss of capacity, even helplessness. That life as we know it is over,” he added. “In some ways, that may be true, but it’s also the start of something new.”

‘The start of something new’

For Harshbarger, that certainly was the case. The 27-year-old Missoula, Mont., native could see for most of his life but lost his vision in April 2016 in a firearms accident. The accident caused a traumatic brain injury, and Harshbarger lost his vision, sense of smell and 80 percent of hearing in one ear.

It’s not always easy for him to explain what the independence-training program means to him.

“It’s helped me grow in a huge way — just confidence, really. I mean, that’s what the whole program stands for,” Harshbarger said.

“It seems all kinds of cliché, but it really is. I can’t tell you how much this program has affected my life in a positive way. When I go home, Missoula’s going to be a whole different place for me now.”

As someone who once could see, it has been a challenge for Harshbarger to adjust to some of the changes in his life. He can recall the frustrations of a snowboarding trip taken by the center last spring.

“It was fun … but I just couldn’t get over the fact that I couldn’t do it how I used to,” he said. “I couldn’t just point down the hill and go.”

Making his way downtown

Aside from providing a confidence boost, the Colorado Center for the Blind spends a large chunk of its time teaching students how to travel independently. Achieving success in this arena requires a lot of research and knowledge of the area’s public transportation and address system.

After learning how to properly use a cane, Harshbarger began to hit the streets of downtown Littleton with his travel partner, Jedediah Holcomb, and his instructor, Daniel Belding, who also graduated from the center. Independent travel can be intimidating for a person who cannot see, but Belding hopes his travel class will help change that.

“A lot of it is building confidence, the ability to actually travel around and go wherever they want to go,” Belding said.

Students learn the public transportation system and various non-visual techniques for figuring out traffic patterns, deciphering direction and determining types of intersections.

Harshbarger and Holcomb walk down the sidewalk, listening to the whoosh of traffic zooming by and taking turns leading the way. When they hit a road, they stop, wait, listen and make a decision based on what they’ve learned.

To graduate from the program, a student must complete a series of “drops” where they are dropped off at a location and have to find their way back to the center without asking more than one question. They also must complete an activity called the “monster route,” where they map out four locations they have never been to in four separate cities in the Denver-metro area and make it to each.

“You have to get there with public transportation and your feet,” Burke said.

This hands-on training is vital for students at the center. Most days, they’re out and about practicing with their canes and reinforcing their sense of direction.

Harshbarger remembers the panic he felt upon realizing he was lost the first time he arrived at the center.

“It’s so … humbling,” he said. “It really — no pun intended — opened my eyes to how difficult and serious blindness is.”

Eventually, though, he learned to pause, take a deep breath and think about the skills he’s been taught in his time at the center. He asks himself: Which way is the sun pointing? Can I hear anything?

And now, he considers his cane travel class one of the most valuable.

“It just opens up the world to me,” Harshbarger said. “Before I was so dependent on a ride or a guide, so now I can go places and do things by myself and not feel like it’s so difficult or challenging.”

The next step

Harshbarger plans to graduate in November, and he’s excited about the new possibilities made available to him by his training at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

He plans to return to Montana, where he will work, go back to school and spend time mastering an unfamiliar address system. He knows Missoula like the back of his hand but never utilized its buses when he could see.

“I’m going to have the ability and the confidence and the skills to get on a bus, go anywhere I want in town, learn the address system,” he said. “I’m just excited to apply what I’ve learned here to where I’m from.”

And when it comes down to it, that’s what the independence-training program is all about.

“People do leave here with the ability to go places and to do things, to want to shoot for something more in their life than being dependent,” Burke said.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.