December 21, 2010 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
William Richards lost his sight at age 33, and 16 years later, in 2007 earned an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education from BMCC. Fast forward another three years, and Richards is writing a book, Lost in Brooklyn, about his changing Williamsburg neighborhood—which, as a sight-impaired person, he sees from a new perspective.
“Williamsburg sounds very different than it did, 20 years ago,” Richards says. “Years ago, as you walked the streets of Williamsburg, you would have heard a lot of Spanish-speaking people, and now you hear more English-speaking people.”
To a sight-impaired person, life’s narrative is made of the shift in voices, the arrival of different music, different aromas as new restaurants mark a neighborhood’s changing demographics.
“They consider this, the area I live in, the Latin Quarter,” Williams says. “This area is still predominantly Latino, but it’s changing because we’re getting more ‘Hipsters’ coming in. And I also notice, we’re not seeing many children. It’s like the children are becoming extinct. Where did they go?”
An historic neighborhood market in danger of becoming history
Richards vividly remembers the clamor of children playing, as Williamsburg sidewalks grew busy in the early evening. He and his brother were in that mix, and his manuscript-in-progress, Lost in Brooklyn includes one incident where the boys got lost in the landmark La Marqueta de Williamsburg, one of four surviving public markets built during the Depression, so vendors could retire their street carts and set up shop, indoors.
“It was like a whole part of Puerto Rico was in there,” Richards says. “You had things hanging all over the place; different fruits, Caribbean produce you couldn’t find at the A & P.”
Today, he adds, you can find those things at the A & P, and ironically, there are street vendors now who offer a wide array of fresh produce that rivals specialty grocers. La Marqueta’s local customer base has changed, and fewer people are browsing its aisles, with their bins of malanga and yams, the slabs of dried fish, and piped-in bachata music.
“They want to remove it,” Williams explains, referring to an ongoing community battle, “and build a luxury apartment building to accommodate the newer population of Williamsburg.”
Learning to use new story-telling tools
In addition to writing a personal history of Williamsburg, Richards is working on two children’s books, applying what he learned about early childhood development, in his classes at BMCC.
Having something to write about has never been a problem for the aspiring author, but when he lost his sight to a series of ophthalmological problems—a detached retina, then cataracts, then a calcium build-up in the eyes—he realized he needed to find a new way to physically put words on a page, and read them back.
“I learned how to use computers at a school called Lighthouse International School for the Blind, in Manhattan,” he says. “And right after that, I learned adaptive technology computer skills.”
Those adaptive skills enabled Richards to first complete his GED—though he had been working as a legal assistant on Wall Street when he lost his sight, he hadn’t earned a high school diploma, and that became his first priority.
Finding the right college
College was the next step, but it was a step that had felt out of reach, even before he lost his sight.
“I never thought I would be able to fulfill that dream,” he says, “and the Office of Accessibility at BMCC made that possible for me.”
Another plus was BMCC’s convenient location. “I wanted a school that was accessible to other agencies. Also I’m very familiar with Manhattan,” Richards says, “and I wanted to make sure I went to a place that was going to be helpful to me and assist me in the areas of note-taking, and having a reader.”
Richards explains that in class, a note-taker wrote down what was on the board, and a reader read it aloud to him, later that day. He also audio recorded the classes, himself.
“Then when I got home,” he says, “I would listen to it, which is another form of studying, and I would pull out the most important notes, and record them on a separate tape. I was basically editing the notes when I got home.”
Hearing the screen, instead of seeing it
Working on his manuscript Lost in Brooklyn, Richards says, involves all those study skills. Memory also plays a huge role in his writing process, and his memory has sharpened considerably, he says, since he had to stop relying on sight as a way to scan, compile and prioritize information.
“I use the Internet not by seeing the screen, but by hearing it,” he says. “Whatever is on the screen, as I down arrow, I’m able to hear every line that’s on the screen.”
Listening carefully, Richards transfers the most important facts to a new document, listens again, narrows down the information, and creates the next revision. “It’s a lot of cut and paste, I’ll tell you that,” he says.
After this intensive pre-writing phase, Richards composes a new document. “I’m able to type because my computer has an audio voice that relays everything I write,” he says. “I’m also able to do research on the Internet, and email makes it easy for me to correspond with people I could research information with.”
College life through a canine companion’s eyes
Mastering new tools for reading and writing was only part of Richards’ strategy to succeed, in college. Throughout his time at BMCC, he navigated around campus with assistance from his companion sight-dog Victoria, who accompanied him to graduation and dressed for the occasion like everyone else.
“She went through every class I did,” he says, “so I felt she deserved a cap and gown.”
The lumbering black Labrador Retriever came to Richards through Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an internationally accredited guide dog school in Yorktown, New York, and one which works in conjunction with Puppies Behind Bars, an organization that recruits female inmates to train prospective sight dogs.
Having been retired from her duties at the age of 10, Victoria lives in Richards’ neighborhood with friends who “share custody” of her, he says. And she often visits Richards and his new sight dog, a champagne-colored lab, Yolette.
Access to college, and accomplishing many things
“For anyone who is sight-impaired,” says Richards, “and has any desire to go back to school or go to college, I highly recommend it—especially if you go to a college like BMCC where the Office of Accessibility provides the services you need.
They also encourage you, with different academic programs,” he says, “including College Discovery. If you want to get a college degree, it’s possible—you just need to pick the right place. And BMCC is the right place.”
Working toward his associate’s degree, Richards earned a place on the Dean’s List and was a finalist for BMCC’s Vanguard Award. In 2008, he received an award from comptroller William Thompson for his civic contributions to New York City.
While he creates and edits drafts of Lost in Brooklyn—an arduous task, but a project close to his heart—Richards continues to give back to his community, making presentations to groups of children through the Lighthouse Loft Church in Greenpoint, a nearby Brooklyn neighborhood.
“We educate the kids about what guide dogs do,” he says, “and encourage them to believe that even if you have a disability, you’re still able to go on with your life, pursue any goal you wish, and accomplish many things.”