Press Enterprise, California.
Monday, August 28, 2006.
MURRIETA - When Craig Schneider awoke one morning in 1995, his ability to see was nearly gone. The Murrieta resident tried every treatment, but soon spiraled into depression as he became completely blind.
It took a computer to bring him back.
"Quite frankly I was devastated," said the long-time building contractor.
"Learning how to use the computer was like bringing vision back to my life."
Now the Murrieta man spends eight hours a day, seven days a week, manning phone lines and working on computers to give hope and independence to others who are blind. He started a non-profit organization called Charities for the Blind and has shipped off more than 700 computers in five years to blind people from Southern California to Africa.
He uses money from his private business to pay for computers, technicians to work on those computers, and to drive or fly out to blind people's homes to help train them to use the computers. He hopes to open a vocational school in the area giving blind people skills to get a jobs.
Murrieta resident Janet Perry received one of Schneider's custom-built computers about a year and a half ago.
For three years, Perry tried to deal with one computer fiasco after another. She installed new software and upgrades that kept breaking down until the computer crashed.
"It really made me appreciate what Craig did," said Perry, 62, who is legally blind.
Now, Perry's computer is fitted with a zoomtext to magnify objects on the screen.
"If it goes off, I know where to go," said Perry about the memorized key instructions. "I instantly have my monster-sized arrow."
When Monsignor Raymond Kirk, 73, moved from San Diego to Sun City he didn't have a computer.
"Craig was gracious enough to get me going" with a computer equipped with magnification, Kirk said. However, his vision worsened over the years and he now has little peripheral vision.
His computer recently was upgraded to include screen-reading software, which Kirk said, helps him plan his homilies and sermons at St. Vincent Ferrer Church.
The National Federation of the Blind said that 70 percent of blind and visually impaired people are unemployed. The 2000 census shows that 24,700 blind people live in Riverside County and 27,350 live in San Bernardino County.
"There is not a lot of help out there for blind people," he said from his home office -- a small room with three high-speed computers and phones. "People don't understand what blind people go through. They don't understand how challenging it is."
Prior to going blind, Schneider worked as a contractor building homes in San Diego and Los Angeles counties. He made enough to buy three boats and 27 muscle cars that he kept in a warehouse.
He worked four days a week, often staying in Los Angeles from Monday to Thursday, and pulled 16-hour shifts.
For eight years, he took radiation treatment to fight testicular cancer.
Then one night in December 1995 he went to bed with full sight at the age of 41. When he awoke he could only see straight ahead and even then it looked like he was staring through toilet paper tissue.
It took another year to go completely blind.
He doesn't know how he became blind but has a theory that his years of radiation combined with radon gas that was found in his Los Angeles home from a cracked foundation were the causes.
He spent $100,000 trying to find a cure on therapies in Mexico. Then depression hit.
"When I first lost sight I felt like a baby," he said as his work phone rang and a digital voice read off the number. "I had to learn how to crawl before I could walk."
Schneider began taking computer classes at the Braille Institute of America. He became frustrated because the classes were once a week for two hours. He said it wasn't enough time to learn all the complex computer key commands.
"Part of going blind is you have to have a great memory or else you are in trouble," he said as he gave an example of how he surfs the Internet with a combination of control, alternate and enter commands.
His charity started with a classmate. Schneider learned the woman attended classes for several years but was struggling to catch on, so he gave her his redesigned computer.
Schneider, along with help from his son, learned how to take apart computers, put them back together and how to upload the needed programs. Before he went blind Schneider never went online, saying it was something his secretary did.
"I can now listen to a computer and be about 90 percent accurate in determining what is wrong with it," he laughed as he petted his guide dog, Luster, who is always by his feet.
He got a contract with the state Department of Rehabilitation, where he takes old computers and puts them in working order. The money he gets from that company he pays to his employees, five people who also are blind. Beyond their payroll, the rest goes toward buying computers.
In his first year he gave away a dozen. Now he does about 30 computers a month. He has given computers to people as old as 97.
Now, Schneider wakes up at 5 a.m., goes into his office, has the newspaper read to him by his computer, checks out several sites and begins answering an unrelenting stream of phone calls. Most of them are inquiring about how to get a computer for the blind and others want troubleshooting help.
As he displayed how blind people use computers, he scrolled through and visited sites quicker than most average computer users. He clicked on sites before the digital voice on his computer could get out full sentences. He doesn't mind the long workdays and feels God gave him a mission.
"When I first went blind I thought I was dreaming," he said. "But I think God wanted me to be more compassionate. He wanted me to help blind people deal with life in a visual world. The second reason why I am doing this is selfish. Life is better for blind people with computers."
Reach Rocky Salmon at 951-375-3739 or rsalmon@PE.com
Reach Claudia Bustamante a 951-375-3740 or cbustamante@PE.com
LINK: Related Video: Craig Schneider explains how computers helped him after losing his eyesight in 1999 http://www.pe.com/sharedcontent/VideoPlayer/videoPlayer.php?vidId=84015&catId=293
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