Paul Gray started losing his vision at age 16, but that didn’t stop him from being named Junior Prom King. In fact, the born athlete remembers his whole football team getting into trouble together at the hospital as he was dealing with his diagnosis. He also remembers being the “fun blind guy at the party,” and his friends playing good-natured pranks on him.
“My mom and dad are tough folks and taught me I had to get over it,” Paul said. “I could dwell on it and waste life or I could learn to move on and figure it out. So I kept my sense of humor and my friends kept taking me to parties. I continued to play football, baseball and basketball as long as I could.”
Paul was born with a genetic disease called Leber hereditary optic neuropathy that normally begins affecting men’s central vision when they are in their 40s and 50s. Women carry the gene, but only men experience the vision loss and cannot pass on the gene. Doctors believe Paul began losing his vision at such a young age because he underwent chemotherapy for a year and a half at age 11 to beat cancer and that stress triggered the disease to kick in.
“We had no idea this gene was in our family,” Paul said. “Now we know all of my brothers have it, but they can still see.”
Paul remembers playing basketball one day as a junior in high school and he couldn’t see a player’s jersey number. The next week he couldn’t see the scoreboard. The following week, he started missing the ball. He thought it was wind or sweat in his eye – or a football injury. Many tests later, Paul realized he would never be able to go to college on a sports scholarship as he had planned.
“At that point, I realized something I was passionate about had been taken from me, but I’m such a positive person that I believed it would get fixed eventually,” Paul said. “My family and friends really helped me with that transition. I still worried about all of the things I had taken for granted, though, like being able to play catch with my son and support a family.”
But he found a way to pour his passion into athleticism – he moved to San Diego and became a certified personal trainer, building a successful business doing boot camps on the beach. Eventually he made his way to Oregon where he met his wife and then they moved back to Sacramento.
He knew building a personal training business would be much more difficult in the Sacramento area than in San Diego, but he was determined to find a career that he was passionate about. So he began taking classes at Society for the Blind, and his instructors noticed he had a talent for working with technology and computers. He volunteered for seven months and one day walked into the office and asked what he would have to do to work for Society for the Blind.
Paul is now Coordinator for Society for the Blind’s Access News program, which provides information, news, entertainment and reading material to the blind through the telephone. People who are blind can call up and listen to recorded articles, stories or information through their telephone anytime, any day of the week. Volunteers come into Society for the Blind’s recording booths to record themselves reading newspapers, grocery ads, magazines and more, and callers can choose from a menu of options.
“I like seeing people able to do things they couldn’t do before,” Paul said. “Technology is so great right now for blind people. When I first started losing my sight, they had these horrible tapes. Now we have iPhones that talk and can download books, and we have mobile GPS systems for walking directions. There’s a lot out there to help people have new experiences – and to give them hope that they can do anything.”
When he isn’t coordinating the Access News program, Paul teaches mobility skills to people who come to Society for the Blind – walking three to four miles a day. He also teaches computer training and is in school at the Assistive Technology Institute, where he will graduate in August.
“People change and things happen, and you can either make it a good thing or a bad thing,” Paul said. “I definitely have a very happy life. I think I was meant to be blind to encourage and help other blind people. Just because you lose your vision doesn’t mean you stop living your life. There is so much blind people can do, it’s incredible. You just have to do it another way.”