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Normal Life

April 19, 2009
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

GLOVERSVILLE - City resident Al Robbins directs mental health programming at Lexington Center in Johnstown and enjoys home improvement projects like a new bathroom he recently installed at home using power tools

All this may seem routine, but in this case, the guy behind the desk - and behind the drill - is doing it all without the aid of sight.

Robbins has retinitis pigmentosa and in the 30 years he has worked at Lexington the condition has progressed from light sensitivity to tunnel vision to the point over three years ago when he could only distinguish light and shadow.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Robbins works at his computer in his office at Lexington Center

Robbins takes an upbeat approach to his condition, according to Lexington Executive Director Paul Nigra. Robbins even attended a workshop in Houston last summer specifically for blind home improvement hobbyists.

"The entire staff relates with [Robbins] without thinking for one second about his disability," Nigra said. "He has done a magnificent job leading and managing our Day Treatment Program for people with mental health issues. He is admired tremendously throughout Lexington."

Nigra said what makes Robbins' handling of his disability more impressive is the fact he wasn't born blind and has had to learn to deal with it.

"He's an incredible inspiration," Nigra said.

Robbins began work as a house parent in Lexington's Community Residence Program in June 1979. He was a relief staff line worker part time, moving to full time in the early 1980s.

"I went to college part time and then full time getting my associate degree in 1984 at [Fulton-Montgomery Community College]," Robbins said.

Robbins went on to the State University of New York at Albany, getting his master's degree in social welfare from the Rockefeller College of Affairs and Policy there in 1989.

The timing coincided with an opening to direct the CDT program at Lexington, where he has been ever since.

The program serves 54 clients and Robbins supervisors five full-time and two part-time staff.

Robbins came up quickly through the ranks. He had done an internship with CDT as part of his MSW program and then came on as a clinician when an opening appeared.

During this time Robbins was involved in the reorganization of CDT, so when the directorship position came open he had both the right degree and familiarity with the administration of the program. He took over in May 1989.

The program opened at Lexington in 1985 and Robbins is the fourth director, having been in the position for 20 years. The previous directors averaged a year each.

Robbins has a son, Alex, 23, who is a certified occupational therapist at Amsterdam Memorial Healthcare and daughter, Jennifer Steele, 29, who teaches at FMCC.

He is married to Terrie Krutz who teaches at Tryon Residential Center in Johnstown.

Robbins said he was diagnosed with RP at about age 14 and the doctor suggested picking a vocation that "wouldn't require hands as much as mind work."

Robbins said at first he only needed corrective lenses and a sun filter.

"You could say I looked through rose-colored glasses," he said with a smile.

He said he was able to drive until 1989 and the past 10 years has increasingly relied on aids to make up for the lack of vision.

At first he used a magnification program for the monitor on his computer, now he doesn't bother to turn the monitor on, instead using audible responses through a program called Job Access With Speech.

Robbins said he gradually used more and more of the program as his sight deteriorated.

Robbins said he keeps everything around him orderly so he can find things.

His desk, furniture, books, paperwork and personal items are all laid out so he can easily find them.

Although he is able to joke about his situation, Robbins also said he is resigned and adapted to the situation out of necessity.

"It's part of who you are," Robbins said.

His cell phone has a camera that can scan text and read it back to him for mobile use and he went through mobility training to be able to get around the community and work place.

"I don't use the bus much," Robbins said. "I ride with friends and family more."

He said he gets great enjoyment from home remodeling projects, using special jigs for power equipment.

He is part of the Blind Handyman Group, an online users group sponsored by and enjoyed a trip to a convention sponsored by the group in Texas.

He also uses Skype, a software that allows users to make telephone calls over the Internet at no cost.

"I still enjoy repairing computers and doing building projects at home the same as I did when I could see," Robbins said. "I do most of my own plumbing. My last project was putting in a new bathroom."

He said he stays in shape by walking a couple of miles a day and uses other accommodating devices like "talking" thermometers, thermostats and microwaves.

Psychiatric clinicians Bonnie Van Wie and Bob Coons both say they have a lot of respect for Robbins.

"I've worked with him 15 years," Coons said. "He's very fair and puts his heart into what he does."

As far as Robbins being without sight, Coons said it isn't an issue.

"Unless you knew [he couldn't see], you wouldn't know," Coons said. "It doesn't impact his job."

Coons said he doesn't think the lack of sight is a disability for Robbins.

"I believe it makes him stronger," he said.

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at



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