By Jennifer Hearn
The Scene staff
Danny Lawrence walked across the concrete deck of the Forest Park pool, climbed down the ladder on the 12-foot end and began to get acclimated for swimming class.
“Oooh, the water’s cold today,” he said.
At 44, Lawrence can outswim most of his younger classmates. He’s adept at the even the most difficult strokes, including the butterfly and breaststroke.
That wouldn’t seem unusual, except that Lawrence is blind. He lost his sight at 11 after a fireworks accident.
“I was semi-depressed,” he recalls. “But my mother and grandmother were always real good to me and spoke good words to me and told me to look (on the positive side).”
Lawrence went on to graduate from high school, play sports, work several jobs, buy a house, live independently and help rear three children.
He has been attending Forest Park since 2011, majoring in business administration. His grades have been good enough to land him in Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
“I like being in class with Danny,” said business administration Kenny Hsu, 35, “Seeing him come to class day in and day out gives people a lot of inspiration. He’s really helpful, open-minded and big-hearted and a very, very positive man.”
Lawrence gets around campus alone, using a walking stick to feel for potential obstacles. He has made friends and often recognizes students by their voices.
“That sounds like Great Clips,” he said on a recent afternoon, referring to a friend who works as a hair stylist.
The Forest Park Access Office provides Lawrence with a note-taker, Toby Knolls. Earlier this month, Knolls helped him create a PowerPoint presentation about the U.S. Electoral College for a political science class.
“Can you all see this?” Lawrence asked his audience, prompting students to answer “Yes.”
“Good, because I can’t,” he joked.
Born with detached retinas
Lawrence is a Kansas City native. He was born with detached retinas, but he could see until an M-80 firecracker exploded in front of him in 1983.
Lawrence was quickly taken to the hospital, where he had emergency “experimental” surgery that failed, leaving him completely blind.
“First, I was kind of upset,” said his mother, Betty Collier, 60. “But I had to deal with it and accept it.”
Lawrence later moved to St. Louis so he could attend Missouri School for the Blind. He learned academic subjects and basic living skills.
Above all, teachers stressed that students shouldn’t feel sorry for themselves.
“What they did is, they got us interested in different things,” Lawrence said. “For some, it was musical instruments. In my case, it was sports. … And I did pretty good.”
Lawrence traveled out of state to compete against visually impaired and able-bodied students in wrestling, swimming and track. He won two state championships in wrestling.
“The coach (at Roosevelt High School) wanted me to wrestle for his team,” said Lawrence, who took some classes at that school. “But I told him I had to represent Missouri School for the Blind.”
After graduation, Danny moved out of his mother’s home at 18. He got engaged, but the marriage fell through. He has three children, Danny Jr, 26, Shandrea, 23 and Dayja, 15.
Lawrence has worked as a telemarketer for the Professional Business School, a wrestling coach at Missouri School for the Blind and a warehouse employee for LightHouse for the Blind in St. Louis.
Today, education is his main focus. He expects to get his associate’s degree in the spring of 2016 and transfer to Washington University.
“I’d like to get my bachelor’s in Global Business and get a small business – not too big, not too small – and turn a profit,” he said.
Lawrence considers himself a good communicator, and that helps him make friends. He doesn’t feel ostracized at Forest Park and finds the campus fairly easy to navigate.
“Anything from A Tower to D Tower is pretty simple,” he said. “E Tower to G Tower is pretty simple. But if you go somewhere like the theater, that ain’t simple. If you go the gym, that ain’t simple.
But with a little training, it becomes simple.”
Help for visually impaired
Forest Park has about 15 visually impaired students, according to Deborah Carter, manager of the Access Office.
“A lot of (them) say that they like this campus because it is essentially one building,” she said. “I think that is why we have such a high number.”
The Access Office is charged with helping students with disabilities succeed.
Visually impaired students can get note-takers, Text-to-Speech computer software, audio books and print enlargements. The office does not provide guides.
“Usually, someone who is visually impaired is a part of an agency or program that will provide a guide for them,” Carter said. “They need someone who is specially trained in guiding and helping someone find landmarks.”
Lawrence tries to dispel some of the myths about people who are blind or visually impaired. He doesn’t believe their other senses are heightened; they’re just used more.
Lawrence can read braille but considers it outdated.
“I use it from time to time,” he said. “Technology is making braille like a dinosaur.”
Lawrence relies heavily on his iPhone, which allows him to make phone calls, text, email and search the Internet by speaking into the microphone.
“It has really brought blind people to the next generation,” he said. “With texting and voice recognition, you can do whatever a normal person can do.”
Lawrence is known for being well-dressed on campus. He often wears Polo jeans with button-down shirts, which he irons himself, as well as a shiny gold watch.
It’s his way of contradicting the commonly held belief that blind people can’t dress themselves.
“I try to look my best at all times to diffuse any type of stereotype for disabled people,” he said. “So if I am the first disabled person that someone has met, I want them to say, ‘I met a disabled person and they were off the chain!’”
Lawrence loves sports and is a big fan of the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals. He enjoys watching old TV shows like “Sanford and Son” and “Family Matters.”
Lawrence also loves movies, particularly in the action genre. He recently saw “X-Men: Future Past,” “Godzilla” and “The Equalizer” starring Denzel Washington.
“I go to a movie with someone who really knows how to describe something, but the music can really tell you what’s happening,” he said. “If something scary is happening, the music indicates that something scary is happening. A love scene will have music for that.”