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Published: Thursday, 2/15/2007

Blindness doesn't keep teenager from getting his driver's license

BY ERIKA RAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Neil Karns wears a bioptic telescope, a $2,500 device, to overcome his visual impairments. The teenager is legally blind. Neil Karns wears a bioptic telescope, a $2,500 device, to overcome his visual impairments. The teenager is legally blind.
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Most teenagers are required to spend at least 50 hours behind the wheel with their mom, dad, or another trusted adult before getting into a car with a licensed driving instructor for their driver's test.

But before Eastwood High School senior Neil Karns, 17, could hold a driver's license, he was required to spend more than 50 hours behind the wheel with a licensed driving instructor in Columbus traffic.

Neil is legally blind.

The Eastwood High School senior was able to pass his driver's test after spending more than a year taking vision evaluations and maneuverability tests as part of Ohio's bioptic driving program.

"After finally holding my license in my hand, I realized that there were very good outcomes to everything, and it was all worth the wait," the Freedom Township resident wrote in an English paper about the road he traveled to get his license.

This achievement earned Neil recognition at a recent Eastwood Board of Education meeting, where he was congratulated for his hard work in obtaining his license.

Neil is able to drive during daylight hours using a bioptic telescope, which is essentially a regular, but more expensive pair of glasses that supports a small telescope on the top portion of the left lens to help him see details, such as signs and traffic signals, at a distance.

Neil was born with ocular albinism, an inherited condition in which his eyes lack melanin pigment.

This causes various vision problems, including reduced visual acuity, an involuntary back-and-forth movement of the eyes, a "lazy" eye, and sensitivity to bright light.

He began working with the state's bioptic driving program even before he turned 16 to find out if he'd even be eligible, said Neil's mother, Trina Karns. Candidates must have good peripheral vision and stable vision overall, among other criteria.

Amy Kruse, a supplemental service teacher for the visually impaired who's been working with Neil since he was in fourth grade, said she made sure he was aware of the state program.

"I thought he'd be a good candidate because whatever Neil has set his mind to doing, he's been successful," said Ms. Kruse, a teacher at the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center.

After he passed the initial vision evaluation, Neil was given the OK to order the bioptic telescope, which cost $2,500. Mrs. Karns said the glasses were paid for through the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired. The bureau is part of the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission, the state agency that provides services enabling people with disabilities to go to work.

Because the telescope only allows Neil to see a small area at a time, he had to learn how to dip his head for one to two seconds at a time while he's driving to view what's up ahead through the telescope.

And that was not easy to get used to. Neil said he failed the first test he took while sitting in the passenger seat of a car because he wasn't used to the glasses yet. The test requires him to tell the instructor what he sees up ahead on the road.

After passing that test in June, the next step was to pass the written exam, and then Neil spent three weeks behind the wheel of a car with a driving instructor in Columbus.

After holding his temporary permit for six months, he was ready to take his final driving test on Dec. 29.

To pass that test, he had to prove that he mastered using his glasses while driving. One instructor graded him during the test in the passenger seat while another sitting in the back seat graded him on how well he used his glasses.

After getting his license that day, Neil spent his first day of freedom like a typical teenager: driving his rusty, blue 1993 Chevrolet S10 wherever he could, including Pemberville and his grandmother's house.

He now regularly drives to school and to the farm where he earns spending money by feeding cattle and hauling manure.

"For the most part, I'm comfortable driving around here," he said. "I was nervous the first week or so, but you just get used to it."

Just one modification has been made to his truck to help him while he drives.

An enlarged speedometer that flashes red, digital numbers has been mounted near the steering wheel so he won't have to take his eyes off the road to see how fast he's driving.

If he has no moving violations for a year, he said he will be ready and eligible to take another driving test that may allow him to drive at night.

Unlike a typical mother of a new driver, Mrs. Karns said she doesn't bat an eye when Neil hops in his truck to navigate the roads in Freedom Township.

"This kid did a whole summer driving in Columbus, and what's he got here? Two stop signs," she said, laughing. "I'm not worried at all."

Contact Erika Ray at:

eray@theblade.com

or 419-724-6088.



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