The way Dan sees it: Eye-opening view from blind eyes
Published: Friday, November 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, November 1, 2013 11:11
Dan Depitro is 56. That’s 50 years older than he was ever expected to live.
At age two, doctors discovered tumors on his optic nerves and told his parents they could not remove them. His best shot at living would be radiation treatment, but it was very experimental and they thought his chances of surviving long were slim. But then he did.
He lived to be seven, then 17, then 47. He got married, had children, got a bachelor’s degree, got divorced, had grandchildren and buried the parents who thought they would bury him.
The radiation stopped the spread of the tumors and gave him his life, but not without a price. For every year he was allowed to live, he gave up a bit more of his sight. By the time he had finished high school, he could barely see at all.
Today, Dan lives in Oxford in a world that is completely dark. But he carries sight in his memories. Memories of color, of the sky, of red, blue and green Christmas tree lights blinking.
“I could sit for hours just looking at the Christmas tree lights,” Dan says, his face spreading into a wide smile, defying the lines etched into his brow by years of hardship and trouble. “My favorite color was that bright blue.”
His years of sight have created a catalog of images and behaviors that allow him to situate himself in his world of blackness today. When he hears the faint rumble of a car on the road as he walks his dog, Bridget, he moves to the side of the street, knowing the car driver expects him to move out of his way. When he is greeting someone, he knows to stick out his hand toward them. When he gets dressed, he uses a color-identifying tool to piece together outfits that match, knowing from memory that people will be judging him based on his appearance.
“People judge you by the way you look so if you don’t have any concept of fashion, people will judge you,” Dan says matter-of-factly.
Today, he said he has mostly resigned himself to the fact that society does not accept him.
“Society sees me as blind and I have to conform to society,” Dan says. “But I don’t see myself as blind.”
He never has. Dan owns two vehicles, has a conceal-and-carry license and has raised three kids. He became the first person in his family to attend college and got his bachelor’s degree from Miami University in personnel and employee relations. He came very close to not completing it however.
He moved to Oxford in 1985 with his wife and three sons in tow, only to watch them all leave him before his final semester. Dan blames his mother in law for the split.
“She didn’t approve of me from the start,” Dan says. “First, because I’m Catholic and don’t believe in birth control. Second because I’m blind, and third because I was so young.”
Dan’s wife had long suffered from what he describes as “epileptic seizures of the mind.” Though they were usually few and far between, they were extremely severe, landing her in a hospital every time and totally incapacitating her.
It was during one such attack that her mother swooped in and took her and their three boys away.
“She was vulnerable, not in her right mind,” Dan says. “Her mom made the decision for her to divorce me. Thea didn’t want it.”
Dan tried to fight for custody of his children but the courts blew him off.
“My lawyer told me ‘You’re blind and you’re unemployed? Forget it,’” Dan says.
It didn’t matter that he was nearly done with his bachelor’s degree and would find a job soon. It didn’t matter that he didn’t even see himself as disabled. Once again, society decided for him what he could and could not do, what he did and did not need. His mother in law’s lawyers saw to it.
“I couldn’t understand why the justice system doesn’t work the same for people who have money and people who don’t,” Dan says. “There seem to be two different sets of laws here. There are a lot of injustices that most people aren’t exposed to.”
So Dan accepted the divorce at 29. But he refused to accept that this was to be the end for him.
“It would have been easy for me to use all this as an excuse to quit [Miami],” Dan says. “But I said ‘No. This is my only way out, to be independent.’”
Dan finished his degree and immediately began seeking a job. He had years of experience managing the convenience store in Cleveland and college degree behind him; he expected to find one readily. Instead, the doors slammed in his face. He was turned down again and again for jobs for which he had all the necessary qualifications—except sight. Eventually, Dan grew tired of trying.
“I used to never settle for mediocrity,” Dan says, almost in a whisper, “but after you get beat down so many times, you just settle.”
And so the man with the bachelor’s degree settled for a factory job, rolling tape for an army supplier that contracted some of its work to the Cincinnati Association for the Blind.
“It was repetitive. It didn’t require a brain at all,” Dan says.
The job offered no upward mobility, no possibilities for promotion for blind people.
“I said, ‘I don’t need this.’ So I quit.”
He was unemployed four years, living off his inheritance from his parents, before once again settling for an equally mindless part-time job as a fitting room attendant at Target in Hamilton. He works there today but dreams of better.
“Someone who tries to succeed but can’t—it shouldn’t be happening,” Dan says shaking his head.
Though he knows he could do much better, Dan can’t deny that Target has been good to him. He has even found an unlikely friend in his 73-year old coworker, Gena Brockman.
“We always joke to our coworkers that we go on dates,” Gena says laughing. “And we have gone out to eat a couple times. We’re just kinda on the same wavelength I guess. He’s got a great sense of humor.”