November 19, 2005.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The bold resonance of Barbara Henning's violin fills the cavernous Church of the Holy Spirit with sound rivaled only by the massive organ she accompanies. At another church service her voice provides a precise soprano purity to a congregation learning a new hymn.
Tucked away at the feet of the performer lies a quietly patient guide dog, Lorna, seemingly settled by the familiar musical sounds.
Henning is legally blind, able to see only brilliant light, bold forms and the richest of colors. A diminutive 41-year-old, she works as a professional musician and piano tuner, and finds none of that remarkable.
"Even though I have a disability as it were, I'm still me and I'm no different than anyone else who is actually out there doing life," she said. "I might do things in a different way, or maybe some things might take a little more time, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that I am a person. So that's the appearance I try to present to people. I'm me first and then I'm visually impaired."
Lorna, a 4 1/2-year-old Labrador retriever, is Henning's constant companion and second guide dog. Their mutual trust and admiration are remarkable.
"I always thought about, if I could see, then I wouldn't have Lorna in my life," she said. "That would make me sad if I didn't have the guide dogs in my life. That's one of the things I really have cherished is having this animal that just accepts me for who I am."
On their walks through Henning's neighborhood, temporary scaffolding detours a walkway. Sidewalks are cracked and undulating. Some streets have no sidewalks at all and weeds poke out unexpectedly. Tree limbs grow low over walkways, some strewn with rocks and dirt from utilities work.
Motorists pull out of parking lots or turn corners, looking out for other vehicles but not pedestrians. One street they negotiate is extremely busy with an unusually large number of parking lots along the sidewalk.
Henning pauses to tell Lorna: "Look. We've made it. Here's the blue building."
They made it because of Lorna's ability to recognize all the obstacles and uncertainties and guide Henning safely through the maze. They made it because of Lorna's occasional intelligent disobedience, as if she is saying, "I know we've got the right of way boss, but I don't think the woman in that car backing up sees us. So, STOP! NOW!"
As a youngster Henning came from an environment she describes as "challenged."
"We didn't have a whole lot of money," she said. Her family "had to be creative in how we survived."
But along the way, she found music.
"The first time I really felt like I even had a purpose was when I was introduced to the violin," Henning said. "About that same time I heard the artist Karen Carpenter sing on the radio and I thought, my, she sounds like she's singing from her soul."
Only about 7 or 8 years old at the time, Henning paid attention to Carpenter's music because she, "wanted to sing like that someday."
As a youngster she and a brother would dream up plays around music. They pretended they were on the radio. He would be the disc jockey, she the caller requesting songs.
She began studying music at the School for the Blind in Louisville.
"That helped me in a lot of areas," she said. "It really helped my self discipline, my self control. It helped me grow up. Being around music just gave me a feeling of purpose. And I didn't have that before I had music."
Henning earned bachelors degrees from the University of Louisville in music and in education. When she was in college in the mid-1980s to mid-90s there were not the technologies that are around now, such as Braille displays and computers with speech synthesizers. Some technologies that did exist were expensive and mostly out of her reach, she said.
She used readers and writers, people who would read class material for her in person or on tape. There also were people who would type papers for her from tapes she made.
The challenges of lining up her class schedules from semester to semester and making sure she had the textbooks on audio were daunting. College professors have a habit of changing their minds quickly, she said.
"If they changed their mind about something I had to scrounge to get the material and it wasn't always available," Henning said. "Usually it wasn't."
More recently, Henning has some high-tech help. She uses a portable electronic device equipped with JAWS - Job Application With Speech. The device has a kind of keyboard for input and synthesizes speech, for example, for reading e-mail.
Still, much of Henning's life plays out without the benefit of recent advances in technology. A voracious reader, she sometimes has two books going at the same time. She'll read one by Braille during the day and listen to another on tape in the evenings.
"Sometimes I read until my fingers are tingling," she said. "If I'm doing something with my hands, it's reading. I love to read."
Music is her profession, but it is also meaningful in her life.
"It's the universal language," she says. "I know everybody's heard that before but it really is the truth. It is a self esteem builder. It's relaxing to sing and to play and to listen to music. I can get in touch with my deepest self when I'm singing or playing or listening to music."
Phil Hines, organist and music director at Church of the Holy Spirit, said the church often has Henning play for special services.
"We consider her a great blessing here at Holy Spirit."
He recalled an occasion when Henning played for a service blessing animals.
"Dogs, cats, we've even had goldfish," Hines said.
At that time Henning had her first guide dog, Fayla.
"The pastor noted as we look around at the wonderful companionship the many animals give us, for certain people like Barbara, the animal serves us in special ways," Hines said. "We were outside in the prayer garden. I remember what a special impact that made. Especially on the children."
So armed with perfect pitch, which comes in quite handy when she's tuning pianos, her beautiful soprano voice, a violin she purchased in 1984 with the proceeds from winning the Itzhak Perlman Award, and of course with Lorna, Henning goes about life.
"Sighted people tune pianos, too. They may do it a little differently in some of their techniques, but hey, we're still doing the piano. Just because we have something different about us, we're still doing life. And we're all still trying to get through it."
"We're put here to do something, even if we're all different. If we discriminate against those differences and spend all our time worrying about why other people aren't normal, well then we're not getting anywhere, are we."
End of article.
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