TAMPA — John Harte, 43, walked slowly down the aisle.
He stopped when he arrived at the second row of seats. He reached down, touched the chair closest to the aisle, and used it to guide him deeper in the row.
A few cautious steps later, he sat down.
He was close to the orchestra, of that he was sure. They were playing Pomp and Circumstance. As he sat waiting for the program to begin, he couldn't help but wonder: Would today be the start of a new chapter?
• • •
Harte's vision problems started two years ago. At first, he was bumping into things at home. Then he wrecked two cars in six months. His friends urged him to get his eyes checked.
Harte resisted. He was a South Tampa hair stylist with a growing roster of clients and a reputation to uphold. He couldn't afford to have eye problems.
But what was once just a blurry spot in his field of vision quickly became more opaque. Harte broke down and called an ophthalmologist.
The diagnosis was Macular Degeneration. The incurable disease affects more than 10 million Americans and is the leading cause of vision loss, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.
"It was devastating," Harte recalled.
He couldn't continue styling hair. "You design hair for the shape of someone's face," he said. "If I can't see the eyes and the cheekbone, it's not the best scenario."
He gave up driving and sold his condo downtown.
"I pretty much just sat around feeling sorry for myself," he said.
Until he remembered a sprawling building on West Platt Street near the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, not far from the salons where he used to work: the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind.
• • •
The Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind started serving the community in 1940. It was called the Hillsborough County Association for the Blind then. It moved into the building on West Platt Street in 1955.
These days, the non-profit has hundreds of clients with a variety of visual impairments. (There are others, too, in St. Petersburg and around the country.) Its training programs, offered free of charge, aim to help people lead independent lives and maintain their employment.
Classes aren't easy, said rehabilitation services manager Jennifer Brooks. Some run up to six weeks. In the independent living program, clients learn to prepare a full meal. In the orientation and mobility program, they learn to use a cane and master public transportation.
Catherine Barja, the first woman and legally blind person elected to the Tampa City Council, attended in the 1990s. She learned "neat little tricks," she said, like how to tell a penny from a dime, and how to pour hot coffee without spilling it.
When clients are ready to return to work, counselors help them create a resume — and teach them the laws associated with disability and employment.
Demand is growing, Brooks said. "A lot of eye diseases happen because people are living longer," she said. "As the Baby Boomers come in, we're going to have more clients."
When Harte arrived, he signed up for trainings in mobility and computer technology. Among his most important accomplishments: learning to use the bus system.
"At first I was very insecure," he said. "I had to ask people which buses to take."
Now, he can get to wherever he wants. He knows how to listen to traffic when he's crossing the street. He knows to protect himself from falls.
• • •
Last Friday was graduation.
About two dozen people who had completed programs in 2016 and their families filled the conference room for the annual ceremony. As the graduates marched in, the Coleman Middle School Orchestra played the traditional march.
The participants included Joni King, 53, who lost her vision in a domestic incident in 2010. She had to give up her job at a Tampa staffing agency, but is now ready to be in the workforce.
"I still feel like I have a lot to offer," she said.
Harte accepted his certificate with a smile. As he posed for a photograph, an instructor made an announcement to the entire group: Days earlier, Harte had accepted a position in park services at Lowry Park Zoo.
"It feels like I've accomplished something and made progress," he said after the ceremony. "Instead of sitting and feeling sorry for myself, this gives me hope that I can do something else."
"I can be a participant in the world and not just sit on the sidelines," he said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.
John Harte was one of about two dozen people receiving certificates at the Lighthouse for the Blind graduation.