He’s a veteran U.S. Department of Defense computer specialist, a high-tech cyber guru who has spent nearly three decades advising the Pentagon on ways to enhance its vast digital output. Alan Schlank has also served as a Russian translator for the U.S. government and as a computing instructor for federal employees—along with running the occasional marathon and participating in grueling cross-country skiing expeditions in half a dozen European countries.
An impressive resume, especially when you consider the startling fact that the 68-year-old Alan has been blind from birth. Alan was born with congenital glaucoma, a disorder in which excessive pressure inside the eye damages or destroys the optic nerve. But ask this Puget Sound Spanish major to explain how in the world he’s accomplished these remarkable feats without being able to see, he’ll wave the question away with a smile.
“Hey, I’m just a guy trying to do his job and live his life the best he can. I doubt whether I’m really worth a profile,” he adds, “and I certainly don’t want to be portrayed as being unusual simply because I’m blind. All too often, it seems to me, the kind of story you get in the newspaper is a story that says, ‘This person is remarkable, merely because he can’t see.’ Sure, there was a time—40 or 50 years ago—when achieving ordinary things such as holding down or a job or raising a family was a major accomplishment. But these days most blind people have ready access to all sorts of coping tools and educational resources that allow them to participate fully in the world.”
After attending a special school for the blind as a teenager, he landed on the Puget Sound campus back in the fall of 1958 and was soon having a blast as a 123-pound intercollegiate wrestler. Because wrestlers aren’t as dependent on their vision as, say, baseball players, he did pretty well on the mat (“I won my share of matches, and I also lost a few!”), while also marching full-speed-ahead into his language and linguistics studies.
“I had a lot of growing up to do in college,” says the recently un-retired computer whiz. (After wrapping up his lengthy career at the DoD a while ago, he couldn’t resist signing on for more computer work, this time at Veterans Affairs in downtown Washington, where he now works full time.) “Fortunately for me, the courses I took were very rigorous and demanding. I soon realized I was going to have to apply myself if I expected to graduate, just like anybody else.”
Alan went on to earn straight As in his major and was accepted in a master’s degree program in Russian at Georgetown University. There he met future wife Billie Ruth—also a blind-from-birth linguistics grad student—and began his early work on what would later become a major DoD project: translating the agency’s Russian-English dictionary into Braille.
During the next few years Alan and Billie Ruth Schlank would make a daring decision to have children, even though both had been born with congenital glaucoma, which meant that their kids would run a high risk of coming into the world blind. Says Alan today, “We thought about it for a good while, and we were given statistics showing that our children had a 50 to 80 percent chance of being blind. But we figured we’d probably be as good at raising blind people as anybody else. Then we got a real surprise when both of our girls turned out to have perfectly normal vision. Raising them wasn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds. We were a normal family, pretty much, and we made a point of not depending on them. They had to do their part around the house, of course, just like other kids, but we didn’t expect them to do things for us that we were capable of doing ourselves.”
Adds Billie Ruth, “We took it one day at a time, that’s all. It wasn’t always easy, but both RuthAnne and Rachel made it through college, and now they’re both enjoying successful careers, so we figure the parenting job we did probably wasn’t too bad!”
While doing his best to juggle family life and professional career during the past few decades, the indefatigable Alan has also found time for two other passionate interests: running in 26-mile marathons and challenging himself as a cross-country skier.
“I’ve skied all over the U.S. and Europe, and it’s been a wonderful experience. In most situations as a blind person you ski with a guide nearby. Your skis are set in a track that keeps you on course, so you can avoid obstacles. Getting outdoors, with the wind in your face, that’s a terrific feeling. For me, cross-country skiing is a great example of how blindness doesn’t have to isolate you between four walls.” — Tom Nugent