Blind World Magazine

Post Script: Woman saw purpose in life after losing vision to illness.

February 8, 2006.
Virginian Pilot - Norfolk,VA,USA.

NORFOLK — About the only thing Fran Merchant couldn’t do was see.

Blind since her mid-40s, Merchant lived on her own, cooked , cleaned, gardened, swam, exercised, read Braille, did ceramics and could perfectly apply her own lipstick.

And that was just what she did for herself. She also was the driving force behind the creation of Norfolk’s Therapeutic Recreation Center, lobbied for more handicapped-accessible vans, founded the annual Day for People with Disabilities at the Virginia Zoo, and never stopped telling people to get out and vote.

“You couldn’t meet her without being struck by her confidence and presence,” said her friend Sharon McDonald , Norfolk commissioner of revenue. “She pulled everyone together.”

She lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa in her 40s. She mastered Braille, learned to live on her own and became a strong voice for people with disabilities. She was instrumental in creating Norfolk’s Therapeutic Recreation Center and was a member of the Virginia Association of the Blind. Said her son, Thomas Reason: “She had great courage and wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Merchant, who died Jan. 30 at age 78, lost what sight she had in 1976. It would be hard for those who knew her later to believe that, for a time, she lost something else: her direction. In a story written in 1995, she said she had considered taking her life. “All I could think about then were the things that I couldn’t do,” she said.

A friend helped her enter a state-sponsored training program for the blind, where she began making a life for herself. After she got her first leader dog, Merchant observed, “I couldn’t be stopped.”

As politicians would come to learn, she wouldn’t go away. Every year, she worked the General Assembly for a law making it illegal to interfere with guide dogs. It took two years of lobbying city officials to get an electronic signal for the blind installed at Colonial Avenue and Princess Anne Road, near her home.

“I never give up,” she once told a reporter, explaining her success.

Merchant, known for wearing vibrant colors, loved being out and about town with Sasha, her last dog. Her two favorite hangouts were Doumar’s for barbecue and Dog-N -Burger for chili dogs.

She was working toward a larger therapeutic recreation facility, where people with disabilities take classes and socialize, and starting a bunch of other projects when she was diagnosed with cancer.

“She was fantastic,” said Cathy Bradshaw, interim supervisor of the Therapeutic Recreation Center. “She showed you what you can accomplish in life when you have a purpose.”

Reach Fred Kirsch at (757)446-2484 or

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