- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) - One day you can see the world fully - sunsets, baseball games, concerts, movies.

Then one day as a teenager, you’re told you have an eye disease that will slowly limit your peripheral vision. Eventually, you’ll be looking through a pinhole, and could have collapsed vision.

How do you react to such devastating news?

It’s been a roller coaster for Joe LeBlanc, 48, who was diagnosed with an eye disease at 17. But the legally blind man has not let it limit him, as the intern at the Lowell Association for the Blind prepares to receive a degree from community college.

By the way, he also builds and repairs guitars; not many people with full vision have such a talent.

“I’ve gone through the darkness, and came out the other side looking at life a lot differently, having a respect for life,” said LeBlanc, from Georgetown.

LeBlanc’s inherited eye disease is called retinitis pigmentosa. He has collapsed vision in his left eye and can see out of a pinhole from his right eye.

It’s like looking through a straw, only having a sliver of vision.

“People think I can see, but I can only see your eye socket and part of your nose,” LeBlanc said.

“My brain is actually putting a picture together that simulates your face,” he added. “Like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Early on, he took the diagnosis well because he could still see well. Blindness seemed so far away.

However, losing vision started to set in, and he had to withdraw from North Shore Community College in his late 20s.

He entered rehab training, spending eight weeks blindfolded to prepare for when he’d lose the rest of his vision. LeBlanc learned braille, mobility techniques, and how to cook and eat without sight.

“I started looking at blindness a lot differently,” he said. “I was taking it head-on.”

Even though he was losing vision every day, he got into building and repairing guitars.

In his 30s, he studied under a luthier who walked him through building his first one. LeBlanc could see whatever was in the end of the “straw,” and he learned by feel.

While working full time as a benefits administrator, he was building guitars as a hobby. But then as his vision declined, he had to quit his day job.

“I could still do woodworking, though,” LeBlanc said. “I just had to get the material in the zone in good light.”

He became a full-time guitar builder, and began teaching people how to perfect the craft.

That’s when he realized he had a talent for teaching.

“My passion was to bring somebody else’s passion to completion,” he said. “I was just as excited to watch someone build a guitar.”

Then the low of lows came five years ago when he had collapsed vision in his left eye. He was in severe depression, and stopped building guitars.

His wife, Becky, found the Lowell Association for the Blind, which provided critical emotional support for LeBlanc.

“Being around people with vision loss and with people looking out for me, it’s been great,” he said. “I love coming here.”

As an intern, he has produced shows for the radio broadcasting program; he conducts interviews and inserts music into the half-hour show that airs once a month.

While conducting interviews, he listens to the questions in his ear before asking them. It also takes him a lot of time to edit the program.

“I like to share interesting stories,” he said. “I hope these topics will give hope to the people diagnosed with visual impairments.”

He returned to community college about three years ago, and is now finishing his requirements for an associate degree.

His goal is to be a drug and alcohol counselor; he once had helpful mentors who helped him overcome his depression and anxiety.

“As a counselor, I can affect people’s lives for good,” LeBlanc said.

He’s been an inspiration at the Lowell Association for the Blind, according to the development director and executive director.

“He had some lows, but brought himself out of it,” said Monica Mullen, development director. “Joe’s just so positive, wanting to help others.”

“He has such a wonderful attitude,” said Elizabeth Cannon, executive director. “His sense of humor is great to have in the office.”

This past spring, it had been five years since LeBlanc had built guitars. He was showing a friend an old guitar that he had to dust off.

It felt like Christmas Day, he said.

“Dusting them off, I just had to rewire this guitar and that guitar,” LeBlanc said. “I went back into my shop and was getting stuff done. I’m not sure how but I was.”

The passion had returned.

“‘This is the guy I married,’” he remembers his wife saying. ” ‘I can’t believe it. He’s back in the shop.’”


Information from: The (Lowell, Mass.) Sun, https://www.lowellsun.com

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