Last year, the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind hosted its first annual “Lighting the Way” Gala at the French Embassy. Vietnamese-American chef Christine Ha received the Lamplighter Award and did a cooking demonstration for the audience. She has a long résumé of culinary accomplishments, including cookbooks, a food blog and an award-winning restaurant. In 2012, she won the MasterChef competition, of Gordon Ramsay fame. Christine is also blind.
Tony Cancelosi, the President and CEO of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, wants other visually impaired children to follow in her footsteps, achieving great things in spite of their disability. His organization is their support network.
A century ago, the world was an unfriendly place for the blind. Schools, the workplace and public infrastructure did not accommodate for them. The Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB), founded in the early 1900s, has been fighting to make the world friendlier for the visually impaired. First, it focused on helping the blind survive with life skills and, in recent decades, on helping them earn a stable living.
Tony Cancelosi, the current President and CEO, continues the fight. Before taking the helm 14 years ago, he served as CEO for several technology software companies, and before that, he was one of the founders of education program now called Sylvan Learning. Helping others had always been a priority for Tony, serving on nonprofit Boards that fought for the disabled or for veterans.
Today the District is one of the most progressive places in the country for the visually impaired.
This is especially true in education. To help schools offer Braille instruction for visually impaired students, CLB trains and provides teachers. “Braille,” Tony says, “is what allows students to accelerate their learning. It’s how they will make it to high school and college.” It’s best to teach kids Braille when they are young so that they never fall behind. Tony and other community leaders are now working with Councilmember David Grosso to increase access to Braille instruction in D.C.’s public and public charter schools.
It’s also important to catch visual impairments early, preferably at preschool. That’s why the organization runs a mobile vision testing van, which offers eye exams. CLB looks forward to adding another Mobile Eye Care unit to the existing program, generously funded by Providence Health System and Ascension, to specifically serve Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8 in the District.
CLB also teaches life skills. It runs a youth pre-employment summer transition program where high school students spend three weeks at Catholic University. They do short internships, interact with faculty and learn how to live independently.
The organization fights for making day-to-day life easier to navigate for the blind, too. It developed an app for using the DC Metro and bus system and helps make websites more accessible. It’s engaging with Comcast to extend their messaging about the importance of accessibility.
Tony’s job is to give the blind all the tools they need to thrive and be independent. Hopefully one day we won’t think there is anything special about an award-winning chef who just happens to be blind.