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In anticipation of March elections, Bedford Town Councilor Jim Scanlon wants to communicate to his constituency that he's now almost completely blind. Scanlon, who's running uncontested for his second term, recorded a segment for Bedford community television on Tuesday with host Kathy Benuck. (SIMON RIOS PHOTO)

Bedford official speaking up about blindness

BEDFORD -- From Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he was born, to Bedford, N.H., where he's settled, Jim Scanlon has always prided himself on being a straight-shooter.

Since an accident seven years ago damaged his vision, his condition has degenerated to the point where he is now almost completely blind. And before March town elections, where he'll be on the ballot uncontested, he wants to let people know they are voting for a man who can't see.

"They have a right to know that I have a liability," Scanlon said. "I have an infirmity that may affect my performance. I'm blind."

His troubles started the day after Christmas in 2006. At the movies with his wife and daughter, he passed out and smashed his head into a wall, blowing out the globe of his left eye. Doctors tried saving the eye by surgery, but "it was gone," he said.

Then he developed sympathetic opthalmia, an inflammation in both eyes following trauma to one eye, which began to deteriorate the vision in his right eye. He said the chances were slim that he would develop the condition, and even slimmer that he should lose the first eye.

"I hit the one in a million shot, I hit the one in 10,000 shot - except that's not a good prize," Scanlon said.

The transition to blindness was gradual. He said that for most of 2012, he was able to apply his limited vision to his work on the council. But it has recently reached a point that even when seeing objects up close, he doesn't know what they are unless he's already familiar with them.

The councilor's ability to make light of his condition makes it easier to come to terms with it, he said. At a recent council meeting, when a fellow councilor said he wasn't sure he could see his way clear on a particular point, Scanlon saw an opening.

"I chirped in with, 'Well, hell, I can't see my way clear on anything,'" he recounted, saying that it got a laugh out of the audience.

Scanlon said he'd like to see more councilors make fun of themselves.

His blindness causes him to rely more heavily on memory than a sighted person. During the budget process, Scanlon said each councilor is responsible for overseeing a certain portion of the budget. Scanlon records his wife reading the budget aloud, and he listens to the recording several times to commit the details to memory.

Asked how his performance has been affected by his medical issues - which include a recent bout with stage three cancer and the smashing of several vertebrae - Scanlon said they haven't at all.

"I'm pretty pleased with my mental faculties," he said. "I still think they're fairly sharp. I don't see any attrition."

Scanlon said it's all possible thanks to his wife, Judy, who accompanies him everywhere and reads his emails and town documents aloud for him.

"There are a lot of people who think she became a saint 40 years ago when she first married me," he said, "and this is simply the final step in her canonization."

Being blind also means Scanlon is more attuned to the vocal inflections of people to whom he is listening.

"It's an asset at the town council, because what I pick up on is intonation and emphasis, or uncertainty," he said. "If something bothers me about what I hear, I will try to find out from one of the other councilors, 'What did you think about when George said we didn't need a new ambulance?'"

Though he's stoic about his condition, there are times when Scanlon laments that which he will never again sense.

"Color is gone," he said. "I miss that. I miss the green of the grass and the blue of the sky and a morning sunrise."

Scanlon's priorities for his second term are to finalize a deal to open a dog park on Nashua Road. His interest in the dog park, he said, was his reason for joining the council in the first place.

He's also concerned about the downshifting of liabilities from the state to the towns. He hopes to work with the town's representatives in Concord to highlight the seriousness of the problem, he said.

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