Everyday Heroes: Blind West Side man helps others better understand visual impairment

Ray O'Neal spreads a message of inclusion and education as he advocates for fellow blind people through his "Seeing Life Differently" program.

David Rees
Columbus Monthly
Ray O'Neal photographed at the Goodwill Columbus Headquarters on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

After his wife, Debra, died from cancer in 2001, Ray O’Neal was asked how he was going to leave his mark on the world. Blind and without children, O’Neal found his answer through advocacy and began having an impact through various roles in his community.

“The mark I’m leaving on this world — I help change people’s lives,” said O’Neal.

The 67-year-old West Side resident's journey began at age 8, when an accident left O’Neal with intense burns and retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes gradual blindness. Subtle symptoms began within a few years; by age 36, he was fully blind and forced to retire early from his job as a custodian.

After losing Debra several years later, O’Neal thought about what he was going to do next. “I sat down and said, ‘What do I do? How do I do this?’” said O’Neal. “I was never alone before.”

Through help from the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired, O’Neal received workforce development training from Goodwill Columbus and was hired in 2004 as a call representative for auto auctions and donations. The work gave O’Neal the opportunity to talk to many new people, which drove him toward advocacy.

“The more people I talked to that were helping (Goodwill Columbus), I thought, there has got to be a way to pay this back,” said O’Neal.

Since then, O’Neal has been active in a host of advocacy organizations. He has volunteered for Voicecorps reading service and served as a board member for Accessible Arts of Central Ohio and the Columbus chapter of the American Council of the Blind of Ohio. The latter has given him the opportunity to host various workshops around visual impairment.

Seeds of Caring gives kids a safe space to understand more about vision impairment

For the past few years, O’Neal has led a program called “Seeing Life Differently” through Seeds of Caring, a nonprofit dedicated to community-service opportunities for children.

The idea stemmed from a simple interaction: O’Neal had met Seeds of Caring founder Brandy Jemczura and her son, Eliot, while O’Neal was on break outside of Goodwill Columbus. As a 5-year-old, Eliot had many questions about O’Neal’s blindness.

The conversation gave O’Neal the idea to create an outlet for kids and families who may have questions.

“(Ray’s) goal with the program was to give kids a safe space to understand more about vision impairment, to feel comfortable asking questions and to show them that they’re really not that different from someone with a vision impairment,” said Jemczura.

Hosted twice a year, the program gives children ages 5 to 12 the opportunity to participate in a variety of hands-on experiences with others in the blind community. Participants learn different scenarios, like how visually impaired individuals get from place to place or how they can approach a person who is blind.

“(Ray) has such a positive attitude toward life, such an attitude of helping and giving back,” said Jemczura. “He’s one of those people that is always looking for the next way to make our community a better place and to make our community a stronger place for people with disabilities.”

This past summer, O’Neal volunteered at Camp Lazarus to spread disability awareness with Cub Scouts and worked with Ohio State University at a football camp for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Of all the programs O’Neal has been a part of, he is most proud of his work with the Accessible Arts of Central Ohio. While president of the board, O’Neal received a grant to install a system in the Ohio Theatre that provides blind individuals with audio descriptions of what is happening on stage.

Now in his 60s, O’Neal hopes his advocacy inspires others to advocate to improve their own communities.

“Inclusion, diversity and equality is for everyone,” said O’Neal. “I think respect, inclusion, diversity and equality is what everybody with a disability needs, even though all disabilities are different.”