A Blind Man with a Chainsaw

This is a reissue of a post originally written in 2005.

One day, while working at Marquette University, the V.P. of Finance, stopped me to express his surprise that I had spent part of my weekend trimming trees with a chainsaw.  I wondered how the topic of a blind man working with a chainsaw had crept into the V.P.’s awareness. I imagine the story began with the phrase “you know the blind guy downstairs…”

My wife had grown up on a 2 ½ acre plot of land in Oak Creek. Over the course of time, the trees on the lot had accumulated a number of dead branches.  We were preparing to sell the property and it was time to clear the deadwood.  So we rented a chainsaw, got some safety goggles, and set out to work.  At the end of the day, we had a pile of dead branches and the same number of hands and feet we started with.  All in all, a good days work.

I wasn’t really surprised to find that the story of a blind man with a chain saw caused some raised eyebrows. I have fun sharing stories of the various activities I participate in. Some of the things I do are pretty amazing (downhill skiing, driving race cars, etc) while others are just things that have to get done (traveling the county by bus, business system analysis, etc). The astonishment people express upon hearing these stories sometimes says more about their individual fears than about my personal challenges.

While it is easy to imagine why people are surprised when they hear about visually impaired people doing things like clearing trees with a chainsaw, the reality of the situation is often far less spectacular.  When I engage people to find out why they think it’s a bad idea for a blind person to use a chainsaw, I invariably get a list of the bad things that could happen when using a chainsaw.  True, the fact that one could easily lose a limb is a serious concern.  I question the logic of this argument by pointing out to people that there are potential advantages to not being able to see the results of a horrible chainsaw accident.

The fact is, there are many safety precautions that must be observed when using a chainsaw.  A clear understanding of the equipment is important.  So is appropriate clothing and protective eyewear.  The perimeter of the work area must be established and secured.  Knowledge of what will happen once the cut branch is free of the tree is critically important.  And so on.  Once all of these precautions are addressed, the visual acuity of the chainsaw operator is a fairly small portion of the safety equation.  The amazing has proven to be pretty mundane.

What makes the story of a blind man with a chainsaw interesting is the perceived significance of the operator’s eyesight.  As a visually impaired person, I routinely figure out how to overcome the obstacles blindness presents.  In doing so, I am in a position to assess the significance of being able to see in comparison to other factors that stand in the way of the successful completion of a project.  Very often, a lack of eyesight is way down on the list of barriers.

In my professional life, I often work with groups to facilitate the implementation of a project or business initiative.  Overcoming business obstacles is similar to the challenges of cutting down trees without the luxury of eyesight.  I have learned to take some time out to let folks identify perceived obstacles and determine both their significance and some of the ways to reduce the impact of the problem.  Frequently, the identified obstacles represent blind spots in either perception or experience.  Invariably, the collective experience of the group is no match for the obstacles individuals have identified.

An alternative explanation of how I come to do things like using a chainsaw despite my blindness is exemplified by the late musician and inventor Les Paul.  When asked about the inspiration for some of his inventions, Les simply explained that he wanted to make a certain sound a part of his music.  Since there wasn’t a device that would make that sound, he built one.  Fact is, when we are truly dedicated to a goal, the obstacles are just a part of the journey.

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