Tom Perez achieves independence, fitness, and community through tandem cycling and reading
Tom Perez comes from a military family: his father was a career Marine who served in Vietnam, his grandfathers served in the Army in the European and Pacific theatres in WW II, and his father-in-law was a Marine and wounded on Iwo Jima. So it wasn’t surprising when he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the late 1970s. While there, he spent many hours in the boxing ring. At that time, boxing gloves still had the thumbs separate from the fingers, and it was not uncommon for boxers to “get thumbed” in the eye(s).
That’s a less clinical way of saying he received multiple instances of blunt force trauma to his eyes. Tom experienced detached retinas in both eyes, just like boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in 1983, who said he would only fight opponents who used thumbless gloves. Unfortunately for Tom, this change came too late. In spite of several surgeries, his vision has deteriorated over time, and he was declared legally blind in 2010.
VA Blind Rehabilitation Center Offered Road to Recovery
The Veterans Administration has twelve Blind Rehabilitation Centers throughout the US. In 2013, Tom received mobility and orientation classes, life skills, and technology training at the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center (WBRC) in Palo Alto, CA. The WBRC offers Computer Access Training as well as the iProgram that covers advanced training on accessibility features on mobile devices. Tom has been back to the WBRC six times to get refresher training as his vision has diminished.
Ebooks and Technology Satisfy Love of Reading
Tom learned about Bookshare, an ebook library for people with reading barriers such as dyslexia, blindness, and cerebral palsy, during his VA training program. “Bookshare is user-friendly, I really enjoy it, and I read New York Times bestsellers that I can get as soon as the books hit the bookstores,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the book I want is in Bookshare.”
Tom reads on his iPad and also uses an app on an Android device, and he enjoys the flexibility Bookshare provides. His eyes get tired easily so he appreciates the ability to enlarge the font. He also uses voice over and text-to-speech and knows he will need to rely on audio more in the future.
Tom enjoys historical and science fiction as well as nonfiction. Cory Doctorow is his favorite sci fi author, and he recently finished Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. “The luxury of Bookshare and digital technology is that you can have many books available at your fingertips without lugging around a lot of books. I really appreciate that Bookshare has so many offerings for all of my interests,” says Tom. “I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid starting with Encyclopedia Brown.”
WBRC Opened the Door to Tandem Cycling
Tom is grateful that technology allows him to pursue his passion of reading. Another passion is cycling, and before his eyesight deteriorated he was an avid solo cyclist. At the WBRC, he was introduced to tandem cycling and the role of the stoker – the rear cyclist who is the power-maker. Therapists encouraged him, and the VA issued him a tandem bike along with his white cane and assistive technology devices.
Now all he needed was a partner. He joined the Blind Stokers Club in San Diego and was off and pedaling. Tandem cycling is all about trust; the stoker trusts the captain to be the eyes and brakes, and the captain trusts the stoker to provide the power. In the fifty-mile Tour de Tucson, Tom and his captain placed third behind two pro teams, and in the Fiesta Island time trials last year, they placed an impressive second behind former Olympic cyclist John Howard and his stoker.
Tom’s Tips to Regain Independence
Tom urges others with visual impairments who have lost their independence to take advantage of services and organizations that can help them do more than they think they can do. When he was first declared legally blind, it was a tough time because he was in denial and wallowed in self-pity. Then he told himself that there has to be a better way to live. “Once you take the first step to get help, you feel more empowered and become more independent than you thought you could be,” he says.
Tom Perez lives in San Diego with Carol, his wife of 35 years. He is a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the San Diego Center for the Blind, and the Blind Stokers Club, whose mission is “vision through imagination, teamwork and adventure.” Bookshare thanks him for sharing his story.