Sailing Blind

July 24, 1993

At the Inner Harbor on Monday, Hank Dekker will unfurl a big hunk of canvass to create a vibrant message, but he's no artist.

He's a sailor. He's also blind. And when he sets off from Baltimore to England to accomplish the first solo passage of the Atlantic by a blind person, he wants to embolden other blind people and to sensitize the sighted world. The 58-year-old Californian wants to complete the 3,450-mile crossing in three weeks. He has twice crossed the Pacific solo, the only blind sailor to accomplish that feat.

The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind hooked up with Mr. Dekker last spring and has put up $50,000 so far to sponsor and supply the trip. President Marc Maurer says the organization believes the investment will more than pay for itself in publicizing the progress and untapped potential of the blind. Mr. Dekker will use a Braille compass and Braille charts, and voice-synthesized global positioning and navigation systems.

Indeed, with the aid of improved technology, blind people as a group have made sizable advances in the past generation. As society becomes more enlightened and opportunities widen for women, blacks and people with other physical handicaps, the blind should benefit from that, too.

But much progress remains. The lack of adequate training and education for the blind remain a high hurdle, and the lack of job opportunities an even more imposing one. Seven of every 10 blind people in this country who want to work have no jobs, the 50,000-member National Federation says. It's an outrageous waste of brainpower.

The new Americans with Disabilities Act should be a continual reminder of the need to encourage opportunities for the handicapped. Mr. Dekker is only the latest source of inspiration that has surfaced in the news lately: Last June, Debbie Grubb became the first blind person to serve on a jury in Baltimore County. And this summer, Curtis Pride, a 24-year-old deaf man, is playing outfield for the Montreal Expos' farm team in Harrisburg.

Even before Mr. Dekker's vessel breaks free of the Chesapeake, he can't describe his quest any better than a quote he recently gave to Sports Illustrated: "I feel the motion of the sea and the waves breaking and hissing. I can hear the dolphins riding the bow. I can feel a squall coming before it gets here. . . When you're disabled, everyone wants to take care of you. You can be as safe as a bird in a cage. Then you realize: The birds in the trees are the ones who are singing."

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