Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, July 30, 2001

Virgil Stinnett said many people place limitations on
themselves, but he said he's been able to accomplish
more after becoming blind, including meeting and
marrying Katie Kiem.

Feeling the way

Losing their vision has given
these 2 tour guides a unique
view of Hawaii's attractions

By Nancy Arcayna

Not everyone is "Survivor" material. For everyone who rushes to audition for the reality TV series that tests their endurance, there are perhaps a hundred more who choose not to participate in activities they deem "too difficult" or those in which success seems out of reach.

But, challenges are adventures to Katie Kiem and Virgil Stinnett. They boogie board, swim and enjoy the ocean on a daily basis. And, while these activities may seem simple to us, they are daring tasks the two, who lost their sight more than five years ago. They met and married while learning to deal with their disability.

Kiem lost her sight due to complications from diabetes and Stinnett lost his sight from non-specific retina problems. "Being newly blinded has been a challenge and a lot of work," said Stinnett.

"When we lost our sight, we knew we didn't have a choice but to get back out there," said Kiem.

At first, Kiem started out simple, with gardening. "I missed all of the colors of the flowers, so my mom helped me make a smelly garden filled with herbs, so I could enjoy it that way," she said.

"When you are young, you want to go out and try everything. Loss of sight, for Virgil and me, has provided us with the same opportunity. It's like we're teenagers again and want to try new things. We're learning like children all over again."

Virgil Stinnett and Katie Kiem led active lives before
becoming blind, and didn't have any reason to stop.
Although many sighted friends worry that they are
not cautious enough, Kiem said they have a
heightened awareness of potential hazards.

"Disabled folks these days really want to get out. In the past, if you were disabled, it meant you were isolated," Stinnett said. "We have learned how to come out into the world again, accepting what has happened to us and moving on. I've done more as a disabled person than I did when I was sighted."

Kiem and Stinnett are encouraged by others who are forging ahead and pursuing their dreams in spite of disabilities. Erik Weihenmayer is a perfect example. He was blind since the age of 13 but started tackling mountains in his 20s and decided to climbed Mt. Everest at the age of 33.

'Seeing' through senses

Stinnett and Kiem want to show people with disabilities that once barriers are removed, anything can be achieved. This is the main reason they established downtown walking tours and kayaking tours. "I'd describe our tours as "Hawaii as you've never seen it before," Stinnett said.

The walking tour runs from the Father Damien statue to the Aloha Tower. "It's a nice trek and an education in Hawaiian history. We want people to come in and enjoy the islands from a different point of view," said Stinnett.

"We describe how we see downtown, the sounds, the surroundings. I have landmarks and I describe it the way I think it is from the perspective of a blind person. I can't see it, so I explain how I feel it," he added.

I decide to try it, roaming the streets of downtown Honolulu with my eyes closed. All of the city sounds were suddenly amplified. The buses and traffic could be heard from faraway. Others' footsteps echoed in my head. Just as Stinnett said, in a few minutes, I already became more sensitive to things I never would have noticed before.

"I believe the tour will be a wonderful addition for Hawaii's tourists," Stinnett said.

"One of the reasons we decided to do the kayaking tours, says Kiem, is that we are both ocean-loving people. We were always active in the past and didn't want the loss of sight to hinder us from activity," she said. "The tours are very unique because we are not focusing on visual aspects."

Diving into adventure

Kiem and Stinnett are also the main guides for the kayaking tour. "We paddle out with sighted assistance. We know the difficulties of the ocean for anybody. A person may have never been in the ocean, or may not know how to swim. And you don't have to be disabled for those things," said Stinnett.

"Bob Salle, a sighted friend planted the seed in my head about starting tour business for the disabled. We are still researching the whole concept and have had a few tours this year, but are still working on what works best for disabled people. We would like to do the tours once a month and my future goal is to have one tour a week year round. We are working on educating vendors about our simple needs and seeing how willing and comfortable they are working with disabled folks," said Stinnett.

"We spend time in the ocean daily and have friends who make sounds and noises when we are swimming or kayaking to let us know where we are. One of our friends, Bubbles, sings the whole time," said Stinnett.

Kiem added, "After a while, you can hear and determine the depth of the water, feel the current, and the change in swells can warn you that you are approaching a breaker. We just learn things from a different perspective. But, the ocean is a place where you should be with a partner anyway."

"One of our their friends used a putty caulking concoction and made a map of the beach area behind their home. He laid out the reef and all of the other variables in our playground, even miniature surfers and boats. It's like a Braille map," Kiem saidd. The maps helps them to enjoy their ocean adventures.

"We have been kayaking for about two years now. I started out with a neighbor here on a tandem and progressed to a one-man kayak. Once we past the reef, I go crazy and enjoy myself before coming back in. Being able to do that has giving me freedom," said Stinnett.

"We've tried parasailing and the Zodiac ocean tour to check out the dolphins. It is not the visual part that makes it special," said Stinnett. "It is a wonderful experience being able to feel it ... smell the ocean, feel the waves and enjoy your surroundings. When in the ocean, we are not in our own territory, we are in Mother Nature's zone.

"When someone tells us that we shouldn't do it (kayak) because it is dangerous, I have an attitude. I can do it ... it might take me longer or I have to think about how to do things in a different way. Even if it means having some folks help me out. I just have to do things slower and think about alternative."

"Katie even participated in a rough-water swim, the North Shore Challenge (1998). She organized her goals, had boogie boarders go alongside and give her guidance her and she became part of a swim club. She completed the swim with a very respectable time. Some capable swimmers don't even make it," said Salle.

On another occasion, Bob took Katie rock jumping at Waimea Bay. "We carefully worked our way up. You have to use all appendages so it must of took us about 30 minutes to get up there. She never wavered. She loved the challenge, she just wanted to know what was in store. She was yahooing for joy and screaming with accomplishment all the way down until she hit the water. It's like when people jump out of planes ... they just find a way to do it," said Salle.

Kiem said, "That was my first experience jumping off a rock as a blind person. I'd done it before when I still had my vision and depth perception. As a blind person, you don't know how long you need to breathe."

She added, "One day Bob and I were out on the tandem and I was steering. The surge picked up and lifted the boat. The boat flipped over, sent Bob to the depths below. I went 20 feet in the air like a catapult. I remember thinking while airborne, 'I hope to god there is not dry reef and at least 4 feet of water. Everyone ended up OK ... Bob and I both came up laughing," said Kiem.

Stinnett has also engaged in adventures on land. "Virgil definitely has a lot of energy. One day we were in the park at night and no one was around. I said, 'what the heck, they say you never know how to ride a bike.' Virgil got on the bike and took off and put all of his energy into the bike. Luckily, he missed the sprinklers, trees, picnic benches. But, he was fine ... almost like a little kid," said Salle.

Stinnett even ventured the skies. "Virgil once got to navigate in the co-pilot seat of a private plane. The other passengers were not quite as confident and enthusiastic as he was about the whole incident," explained Salle.

While the ocean provides a huge open space, the swimming pool is considered a dangerous playground. "I have gotten so many scratches," said Kiem.

"I've also hit my head on the concrete," added Stinnett.

Enjoy new perspective

Because they are enjoying themselves, the tours seemed a perfect opportunity to reach out to others. "We really want the tours to be inclusive of all people so even people that are not disabled can get a different view of Hawaii. We are trying to make it accommodating for families on vacation," said Kiem.

"Hawaii is the ohana state. We want everyone to be able to come here and enjoy the culture and the people. We want to show the world, disabled and non, that it can be done. We just do things in a different manner. We want people to feel that they can do whatever they want. Come here, and enjoy doing something different.

"It's not just for disabled people. So many non-disabled people we meet can't believe what we do in our daily lives. We are focused on helping people create a memorable vacation," said Stinnett.

A catamaran ride was another of their many adventures. "The first thing the crew did was seat Virgil and I on the safest part of the boat," Kiem said.

"And, the first thing we did was get up and roam around," Stinnett said. "As soon as others understand that we are cautious, they felt comfortable with us moving around. We are aware of our surroundings at all times.

"As a former commercial fisherman, I realize that anyone needs to be aware when in the ocean. Once a comfort zone is established with the non-disabled people around us, everyone feels better."

"People who are blind are cautious of their surroundings ... they have to be," Kiem said. "We used less caution when we had our sight. I'm much less distracted now that I don't have vision. We live in such a visual world."

Call 921-7237 for more information
on the walking and kayaking tours.

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