Rixon Smith finds a home in Chicago’s blind community while still awaiting understanding from the city as a whole
Rixon Smith, 47, shies away from using the word “disabled.” Blind since birth because of retinopathy of prematurity, he can get by just fine on his own. Everyone has to deal with adversity in some form. This is his. “Blindness can be looked at as a characteristic, more of a nuisance than anything else,” he argues. “Here I am with blindness, and I can do the things that regular people do.”
Using his white cane, with black rubber on both ends to prevent friction, Smith guides me through Friedman Place in Lincoln Square, Chicago. It is the first blind community in which he’s ever lived. Now a year into his stay, he shows me to his tidy room with a TV for watching movies, the Bible divided into 16 braille books, and a refrigerator and microwave that he rarely uses. He prefers the cooking downstairs. “I’ve put on about 20 pounds already,” he says in a slight Southern drawl, patting his belly.
Smith’s eyes are always closed, his mouth widened into a friendly smile. His beard is neatly trimmed and his medium-length brown hair is combed forward. He sports a dress shirt with green and blue stripes, tucked into faded blue jeans. He looks comfortable as we stand near his door, discussing how he ended up here.
As the son of late National Federation of the Blind vice president Frank Smith, who lost his sight from diabetes, shortcuts have never been an option for Smith. He attended public school in Boise, Idaho, because his father didn’t like the school for the blind. After that, he did Mormon missionary work in Sacramento. That started a life of travel. Smith has lived in Idaho, California, Indiana, Illinois, Utah, Georgia and Washington. In Georgia, he had his arm broken by a bipolar roommate.
In Seattle, he roomed across from a crack house, in constant fear of the people coming in and out with guns in hand. So for about eight months, he lived as a self-proclaimed gypsy until January 2015, when he found a new home at Friedman Place.
At the moment, Smith is unemployed, as are about 60 percent of blind people in the United States. He has held jobs before at organizations like Georgia Industries for the Blind and Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, making file folders and other office supplies. But times are tough, especially in Illinois, which is one of the least accommodating states for the visually impaired. “Just give me a chance,” Smith says. “I don’t want a handout, but I’ll take a hand up.”
Smith offers me lunch at the Friedman Place cafeteria, which I appreciate but decline. “It’s just the way I was raised,” he explains. Politeness is one thing, but he wants people to know there are plenty of instances where he doesn’t need help. In the past several months, he has bowled, gone on a ski trip and taken in Handel’s Messiah at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The simple things like riding the CTA and walking through the city are just that: simple.
He laughs while retelling the story of how a stranger once picked his father up, unprovoked, and carried him across the street. Smith deals with similar situations, on a smaller scale, during trips to Supercuts or Tony’s Supermarket. Sometimes he has to get forceful and tell people to back off. “It kind of drives me crazy,” he says. Smith and I sit on a blue bench in the lobby of Friedman Place. I comment on the goldfinches chirping in a glass encasement to our left, and he says he doesn’t even notice them anymore. But people come and go, saying hi as they pass, and he immediately responds with their names. Smith mentions he often listens to music, and I ask for his preferences. He likes classical and country, as long as it’s the older stuff. Today’s tunes don’t do it for him.
“To me, it all sounds the same.”
– Luke Srodulski