PHOTO: Matthew Gaulin
Sightless in a Sighted world
Ron Strafford, 80, and his wife of 57 years, Angie, discuss Ron’s decades-old diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that eventually led to his blindness.
More than 50 years ago, Village of St. James resident Ron Strafford was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that causes retinal degeneration. For many in his generation, that diagnosis would have led to a life of self-imposed isolation — but this Cincinnati transplant chose to not be defined by his visual impairment. Instead, he took advantage of his outgoing personality, positive attitude and outrageous sense of humor to maintain his link to a world he could no longer see.
STYLE: Angie, how did you and Ron meet?
Angie Strafford: I was 16 years old when I met him in the supermarket — I was a cashier and he was my bag boy. His sense of humor attracted me to him. I always liked that. I was 20 years old when we got married and he was 23. That was just two years before he found out he had RP.
S: Ron, have you always had problems with your eyesight?
Ron Strafford: I was extremely nearsighted when I was a kid and always wore Coke-bottle glasses. Other kids would tease me all the time and I’d get laughed at a lot. Kids can be so cruel. It used to bother me but eventually I got over it.
S: How did you get over it?
RS: Now I tell jokes and laugh about it and it seems to limber people up when I first meet them. For a long time the word “blind” was a bad word. I never used that word until later. It seems I spent a lot of my life fighting to be normal and I’m not normal. I’m blind. It took me a long time to accept that fact. What’s normal anyway? Noboby’s been able to describe to me what normal is. Most everybody my age has something wrong with them but with me it shows. It’s easy to know something’s wrong when I tend to walk into walls. They kinda get the idea.
S: What was the biggest challenge you had to face after your diagnosis?
RS: Getting a job was tough. I did work for Wilson Sporting Goods pricing invoices and worked in customer service. I had a tough time but was able to do the job. Then that division moved (out of town) and I was left without employment. I kept applying for positions but every time they said I had to pass a physical I knew I wasn’t going to pass it. I always got turned down.
S: What did you do?
RS: I didn’t want to sit in a corner and do nothing. I knew I had to make a living and I had worked part time in high school and some in college in a grocery store putting stock up and running the register. At that time I could do those things. I told Angie I enjoyed working in a grocery store and maybe we ought to try to get a small store. We looked into it and bought one in our neighborhood.
S: Was the store successful?
RS: My dad lent us the money to buy the store and we paid him back in less than six months. But we worked. It was seven days a week and anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day. It wasn’t always easy but it helped that I was able to memorize where everything was located in the store. Later, (we sold that smaller store) and built a larger IGA. I wasn’t nearly as good at locating items at the new location. If I was able to tell a customer which aisle to go to, I figured I was doing pretty well.
S: When you’re out in public, do you want people to offer to help you?
RS: Only if I ask for help. Leave me alone unless I holler and ask for help. I get lost just about every time I go out of the house. It may be only for a few minutes but I want to work myself out of it when I can. There are times when I do need help, though, and I’ll ask someone.
S: Angie, does it worry you when Ron goes for walks by himself?
AS: We have wonderful neighbors here. If they see Ron out walking the dog they’ll ask if he knows where he is and if he doesn’t he’ll say, ‘No, I need help.’ Sometimes they’ll stop their car, park it on the side of the street and walk Ron home.
S: Ron, do you belong to any clubs in The Villages?
RS: I belong to the Visually Impaired Club and the activities club that was a spin-off of that group. Sometimes we’ll go out to dinner after the activity and socialize. It’s nice to feel on an equal par — being with others who are blind — to know somebody isn’t always looking at me because I’m touching my food or eating with my fingers more.
S: Is there any other activity you participate in?
RS: Yeah, (chuckling) I like to chase women — but I’ve discovered it isn’t so much about the chasing, it’s catching them that’s the problem (hearty laugh).
S: What would you say to someone who is physically challenged and reluctant to venture outside his home?
RS: It’s no fun sitting in the corner feeling sorry for yourself. It’s best to get out and meet people and find out how much fun it can be. I was never one to just sit inside. I may have years ago, but now I like getting out and meeting people and staying active. Get out and live your life regardless of what your handicap is, and accept what’s wrong with you. Do what you can do and go on from there.