Giving the visually impaired the full bluegrass experience
John and Sandy DeLuca can hear the music at Wide Open Bluegrass, an event they’ve regularly attended for years.
Being legally blind, however, they can’t see the musicians performing, or any of the other sights that fill downtown Raleigh during the street festival and concerts.
This year, they got some visual help.
Sighted guides to the outdoor festival are available upon request. The program comes from PineCone, the music-presenting organization that produces Wide Open Bluegrass in conjunction with the International Bluegrass Music Association. It started last year as part of the festival’s initiative to be more inclusive.
This year, about 10 people took advantage of the offer. Two of them were the DeLucas, who live in Raleigh and have been married for 24 years.
John, 61, lost his vision to glaucoma as a young child. Sandy, 68, has been legally blind since infancy from oxygen in an incubator after she was born three months premature. She has just enough sight in her left eye to be able to read a bit.
“I can read the paper online if I enlarge the digital version enough,” she said.
For Friday’s opening of Wide Open Bluegrass, they met up with their volunteer guides and set off down Fayetteville Street.
They wore T-shirts for their guitar-and-mandolin bluegrass duo, the Morehead Ramblers. They took the name from the Governor Morehead School for the blind, where Sandy once taught and John studied.
Bob Evans, who works for Duke Energy, guided Sandy while Alex MacKethan, a web designer for the University of North Carolina system, guided John.
“Our primary interest is to make sure we know where everything is,” John said. “There are four stages we’re interested in – City Plaza, Davie Street, Hargett Street and Capitol – and Red Hat. So we’ll bounce around.”
As they moved down the street, John talked shop with MacKethan (they both play guitar). Evans pointed out various stages and vendors to Sandy as they passed booths for candied bacon, boiled peanuts, muscadine cider and various fried foods.
Near Davie Street, the DeLucas’ radar brought them to a booth for Carden Farms, a place they know. Carden Farms is a Franklin County farm that makes everything from vegetable glycerin soap to pig sculptures carved from small logs.
“They’re awesome customers,” co-proprietor Carol Willis said of the DeLucas. “They come to us at the State Fair every year and buy soap. They know how to find us from the smell.”
The couple met at the NC State Fair in 1990 on a similar outing.
“We were in the same van,” Sandy said.
“We both liked the fair before,” John said.
“And now we never miss it,” Sandy added.
Around a dozen people went through training to work as guides to the sight-impaired for Wide Open Bluegrass. Part of the training involved wearing a blindfold and trying to walk down a flight of stairs.
“That was so we’d know what it was like,” Evans said. “Gave me a whole new outlook.”
Evans and MacKethan pointed out attractions, but also guided the DeLucas around whatever obstacles came up. In addition to the crowds on Fayetteville Street, there are tents, dogs, strollers and other unexpected hurdles.
“You’ve got to go a little left here,” Evans told Sandy. “Some people are putting up a tent.”
The DeLucas had studied the schedule in advance and had a flight plan in mind for the afternoon: a little of Honey Dewdrops on the Capitol stage at 1:30 p.m. followed by a little of Chris Jones & the Night Drivers around the corner on the Hargett Street stage. Then they’d head over to Red Hat Amphitheater for Flatt Lonesome at 3 p.m. and Doyle Lawson at 4 p.m.
With a schedule like that, the extra help getting around came in handy. This is the first year the DeLucas used the guides, and they said it improved the experience.
“It’s been very helpful,” John said. “Especially when it gets real crowded, it’s easier to navigate with a guide to locate things for the future. We’re downtown a lot and know the street patterns, so we’re just overlaying what we’re shown to that pattern.
“It’s not the difference between going and not going,” he added. “Because we’re going. But this makes it easier.”