SANDS POINT, N.Y. &
When David Paterson takes office Monday to become the nation's first legally blind governor to serve more than a few days, among those watching with the greatest interest will be those who cannot see.
Paterson's rise to governor has served as a great source of inspiration to blind Americans, many of whom believe his newfound power will make the country more open-minded about disabilities.
"We don't see a lot of people with disabilities in positions that important," said Suzanne Ressa, marketing and development director at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults on Long Island. "He could be a great role model to all those individuals who are transitioning into the work world, because he's saying, 'Yeah I'm making it happen.' You know, 'If I can hold this leadership position, so can other people.'"
Although estimates vary, there are approximately 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, and about 1.3 million of them are legally blind, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.
Paterson, who lost sight in his left eye and much of the sight in his right eye after an infection as an infant, joins a minuscule fraternity of blind politicians to attain high office. Thomas Pryor Gore was totally blind and served as a U.S. senator from Oklahoma from 1907 until 1921 and from 1931 until 1937. Minnesota had a blind congressman and senator, Thomas David Schall, who served from 1915 until his death in 1935.
Paterson succeeds Eliot Spitzer, who resigned Wednesday after being exposed as a client in a high-priced prostitution ring.
The governor-to-be spent today meeting privately with state leaders from both political parties as he gets a jump start on building bipartisan support. Paterson said reviving the state's economy is his top priority, with improvements for inner city schools next on his list.
The 53-year-old Paterson is the state's first disabled governor since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was stricken with polio several years before he was elected in 1928.
Though his sight is limited, Paterson, who spent 20 years in the state Senate before becoming lieutenant governor, walks the halls of the state Capitol unaided. He recognizes people at conversational distance and can memorize whole speeches. He has played pickup basketball games, once ran the New York City Marathon and can read for short periods of time, though aides usually read to him.
Maricar Marquez hopes Paterson's new job will help change people's opinions about disabilities. Marquez, 36, is deaf and blind and communicates with the aid of two interpreters, but still manages to work as an instructor at the Helen Keller center.
"Maybe with this happening the government will be more sensitive to people with disabilities and provide better services for rehabilitation, education and maybe be more willing to be open-minded and understanding of the needs of people with disabilities," she said.
Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said Paterson's ascension to the governor's mansion can only help shatter misconceptions and stereotypes.
"He will serve as constant proof to the citizens of New York and the nation that blind people can perform any task, from an entry-level position to leading one of the largest states in the nation," Maurer said.
Vincent Norbury, a 19-year-old student from Queens who attends the Helen Keller center, had some suggestions for the incoming governor: "I think he should put Braille on more street signs and make some way that people with no vision can tell if the lights are changing in the street."
Tracey Gilbert-Dallow of Port Washington, a Helen Keller instructor who gets around with her guide dog Marley, predicted Paterson "will have a big influence not just on blind people, but everyone."
"He had all these challenges and look where he is today," she said. "Just because you have sight don't mean you can see. You see within yourself."
Nation's first blind governor to take office
SANDS POINT, N.Y. &