Vision quest

How an entrepreneur turned a potentially crippling disability to his advantage

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Peripheral vision is crucial to survival. It lets you see what’s next to you without losing sight of what’s in front. It’s important whether you’re hunting, gathering or running a business. Now imagine life with only peripheral vision. To look ahead, you must turn to the side. And what you see is dim and distorted anyway.

Dan Rhodes (not his real name) was about nine when he was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration (the center of the eye, the macula, thins, causing loss of central vision). He has been legally blind since the sixth grade. Now 39, Rhodes is founder, president, and super-spokesman of a successful and still growing East Coast retail company that provides equipment and services to the visually impaired.

Rhodes is one of six brothers and sisters, all of them visually impaired to some degree. Their parents, both normally sighted, worked to create as regular a home as possible – so much so, that Rhodes recalls having to remind his parents that he couldn’t see when they assigned household chores. He and his siblings felt entirely accepted at home, were never treated as disabled, and attended regular schools.

However, Rhodes was more closed-mouthed than his siblings. As he recalls, they often requested and received extra help. In the tumult of their needs, his quiet, steady surface mode was mistaken as all’s well.

The “normalcy” at home naturally collided with the demands and expectations of the outside world, where Rhodes could not escape his physical limitations. He felt massively pressured, frightened, and confused, and soon saw himself as utterly disabled, all the while hoping his condition would magically disappear. He withdrew from everything – he never raised his hand in class even if he knew the answer because he was terrified of being criticized or teased. He had no friends. By 8th grade, the stage was set for staggering psychological problems.

Through high school, Rhodes was deeply depressed and intermittently suicidal. He began drinking heavily to drown the pain. “I can’t believe this is my life,” he would think when he woke up in the morning, “Just take me out.” His ability to “see somewhat but not enough,” drove him further to the edge. Worse yet, he told me, not having been born totally blind, “I know what I’m missing.”

Between worlds

And he kept it all to himself. At home, there was nothing abnormal about him; he was one of many, and not the worst off. At school, his dread of withering critique was unrelenting; he imagined everyone had something negative to say about him. Nobody felt safe. To protect himself, Rhodes found ways to hide not only his feelings of worthlessness but his condition itself. He convincingly acted as if he were fine and sighted. He was neither.

The crippling social anxiety continued without let-up. He dropped out of college in his first year, returning to live at home. Eventually, Rhodes ventured out and found work, mostly brute labor such as building tennis courts and landscaping.

But all the while he was also quietly studying these businesses. It’s not uncommon for people who’ve had isolating illnesses, especially as children, to develop skills and interests uniquely linked to their condition (history is filled with mathematicians, philosophers and scientists who were sickly or bed-ridden as kids). Remember, Rhodes laid low out of fear, not inability. As a perennial outsider, he became a critical thinker and keen observer.

Then, pursuing a long-standing love of things that go fast (people are drawn for many reasons to what they cannot have or do), he befriended the owner of a local motorcycle dealership, who improbably brought him on as a salesman. This invitation, coupled with his mother’s endorsement of what seemed a loony idea (a blind man selling motorcycles!), solidified the realization that others saw him differently from how he fearfully expected. This triggered an internal shift: to finally admit his condition was permanent, and stop wishing he could will his sight back.

Business ascent

Rather than struggling to sell in handicapped silence, he found a voice for his eyes. He asked for help and special equipment. Within two years, at 25, Rhodes broke $1 million in sales, made vice-president, and was soon a partner.

His self-esteem bolstered, Rhodes could look past daily psychological survival, and consider living. He started dating, and fell for a woman he’d first known in early childhood. Her acceptance of him and their subsequent marriage brought a second important shift-an altered view of himself as normal and capable on his own terms.

These trajectories rarely ascend linearly. Despite having everything – money, love, respect, independence – Rhodes suffered another emotional crisis. He was trying to sell a motorcycle to a client who really couldn’t afford the purchase. The experience triggered a destructive series of thoughts: “People don’t need motorcycles” became “I’m doing something meaningless,” which led to the conclusion “I’m worthless.”

But this time he dealt with his regressive self-loathing in a far more positive way. Instead of succumbing to the paralysis of depression, he quit his job and took a year off to plot a new course.

Though their histories are not always publicized, the business world is heavily populated with people like Rhodes. Consider the late James L. Sorenson, a storied Salt Lake City businessman, born into the economic depression of the 1930’s, who suffered from severe dyslexia. From these early privations and struggles, Sorenson honed compensatory skills that he deployed innovatively, eventually amassing a fortune in excess of $4.5 billion.

Now firing on all cylinders and looking straight ahead, Rhodes enlisted his best asset: himself. Drawing from his own difficult experiences, he developed a line of products to help other visually impaired people. A smart business plan yielded a bank loan which, coupled with savings, launched his company, where most of his employees are also blind or visually impaired. Profits doubled in the first and second years, with continued growth from large-scale contracts, and partnerships with other providers to the low-vision population.

The boy who was once too petrified to raise his hand in class is now a poised presenter at conferences and tradeshows, happy to talk about how you can go fast even when you can’t see past the end of your nose.

Alexander Stein is a psychoanalyst and consultant in practice in New York City. He is also a training analyst and faculty member of The National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and a principal in the Boswell Group.

Disclaimer: This column is designed for educational purposes only. Due to the individual nature of each situation, Dr. Stein cannot offer advice or suggestions beyond what is presented here. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for personal therapy, or construe it as the offering of a diagnosis or remedy.