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Rob Jacobs finds insights in blindness

“It’s not what happens to us that’s important,” says Rob Jacobs. “It’s how we deal with it.”

After Rob Jacobs ’81 lost his sight, he traded Boston winters for Florida.

The 1981 graduate of the School of Fine and Applied Arts lives that philosophy every day. To summarize: In 1995 Jacobs lost his sight and with it, his successful career and lifelong identity as an artist. He writes about his experiences in a book that he hopes marks the beginning of a career in another creative field.

Jacobs tends to view life in terms of opportunities rather than problems. “I’ve always been in the right place at the right time,” he says. When he was at RIT, faculty member James Ver Hague was just beginning the course that would eventually blossom into the computer graphics design program. Jacobs embraced the concept.

“There’s a technical side to me,” he explains. “I could see this was really where things were heading.”

His RIT degree and undergraduate experience landed him a job in Boston as a production artist with Genigraphics. Two years later, he was recruited by Booz, Allen and Hamilton, an international strategic management and technology consulting firm. His job involved setting up automated systems for graphics shops at Department of Defense sites, and eventually, for commercial clients as well.

“Here I was a sighted person, an artist, making systems for managers to use computers by interacting with graphical screens. Then the irony is that I lose my eyesight.”

It came out of the blue. He contracted a virus that brought on total blindness in 1995, at age 37. Nor was that his only encounter with tragedy. In 1993, Jacobs had lost his partner to AIDS. A few years after going blind, Jacobs fought a bout with cancer.

“It seemed like one thing after another. Awful things. Even my beloved dog died,” he says. “As if I needed more material to write about.”

His published writing began in 2001 in Key West, where Jacobs now spends winters. “I started doing a column for a local newspaper, writing about a vast array of issues from my unusual perspective.” The book, Songs of the Blind Snowbird (Jay Street Publishers), is a compilation of his columns plus related narratives and background storylines.

Jacobs comments that although no one would choose to become blind, “we are fortunate to live in an age when technology provides the disabled with tools to assist in the tasks of daily living.” Software called Job Access with Speech (JAWS) by Freedom Scientific can convert text and graphics appearing on a computer screen into synthetic speech, which makes it possible for Jacobs to hear whatever is displayed. He, in turn, interacts via the keyboard (no mouse).

Much more is possible, Jacobs believes – if the public demands it. He’d like to be a part of helping to make people more aware.

“There’s not a person who doesn’t encounter some of life’s obstacles,” he says. “This is America, a diverse society. Let’s break down all the barriers. That’s what my book is truly all about.”

For more information, visit his Web site at www.robertmichaeljacobs.com.