We all know about the 70 percent unemployment rate among those who are blind. Among the 30 percent who work, however, there have been blind people who not only succeed, but excel, who manage gigantic numbers of people and dollars, and who are as financially successful as those in the top five percent. And then, there are also blind people who seem to have one unfortunate event after another, who just seem to be magnets for misfortune and tragedy.
Barry Scheur, pronounced "Shoyer," blind since birth due to retinopathy of prematurity, is a man who represents both ends of that spectrum: he has been at the top of his game and he has been wiped out by fire, prison, and illness. And yet, at 67, when most people are retiring, he is co-owner of a fledgling, flourishing business — a business with a mission of putting useful, quality products at affordable prices into the hands of blind people.
Barry Scheur was one of nine blind children in a public school resource classroom in Buffalo, NY. Time was divided between the "special" class and mainstream classes of sighted children. In high school, he joined the chess club and the debate team, but says he was pretty much an outsider, left out of much of the experience of high school life.
He knew from early on that he had a few blatant blessings. His parents could afford to buy pretty much anything he needed. He had a gift for making conversation with just about anyone anywhere. And people quickly recognized that he was smart.
As a freshman at Tufts University, he woke early one morning to the smell of smoke. In one of a dozen fires that plagued the university between 1969-1975, the dormitory where Barry Scheur was sleeping burned to the ground. Happily, he was fine, but his books and equipment (including the then essential Perkins braille writer) were gone. That may have been one of the first major life milestones at which Barry Scheur looked past adversity and began to build something new. At Tufts, the debate team was where he could shine — he was smart, quick to gather information, and had an amazing memory for facts. There had never been much of a debate presence on the Tufts campus, but Barry Scheur recruited the best and the brightest, organized them, and eventually led a team that was soon traveling all over the nation and bringing home the trophies.
After being accepted by half a dozen top law schools, he chose Yale (where there had not previously been a blind graduate) and was soon sending out letters and resumes as a licensed attorney. He had graduated at the top of his Yale class, but he was blind. 300 letters later, he set up his own practice.
At the Top of His Game
One thing Barry Scheur has been able to do all his life is talk to people, learn about them, and make deals. "Sometimes I try things," he says, "and sometimes I fail."
Fresh out of law school, he tried a variety of things, including setting up his own practice. One opportunity led to another. He was CEO of a major company at age 30, and he was fired, too. He was a partner in a firm in Baltimore, another in New York, and his network of people and connections just kept expanding. His specialty became health care and he fielded calls from state insurance commissioners, governors, and other powerful people all across America. With a wife and two sons to support, he was traveling most of the time, and supporting them with style. The balls were dancing in the air for close to 20 years, making million-dollar deals and consulting with such groups as the 1994 health care task force at the White House, but in 2002, misfortune came once again to call.
When competing with major US accounting and consulting firms, the best direction was to acquire other companies. His mistake, he says now, was in going to Louisiana and acquiring a company that turned out to be $75 million in debt. That turned his reign of success upside down.
Suddenly, a persona non grata in the health insurance industry, he simply did what Barry Scheur always seems to do—he tried something else. He launched a small company called Talking Solutions to develop products to help blind people. He used his skills in research and talking to people to find products or people who could make products. First, he sold an internet radio. Next, talking prescription bottles and talking thermometers. His biggest idea, a talking DVD player, was involved in yet another piece of bad luck, when an associate lost the million-dollar prototype by opting to check it as baggage on an airline.
As traumatic as that loss was, the worst was yet to come.
Devens Prison Camp
In 2008, Barry Scheur, successful lawyer and maker of deals, was convicted of wire fraud and mail fraud. On June 22, 2010, the man who had traveled worldwide and stayed in all manner of luxury hotels, checked in to a federal prison camp in Devens, MA. A man who had made deals involving millions was now often dependent on his mother to provide funding for his commissary purchases. Still, there were events for which he expresses gratitude. The judge who sentenced him determined that a blind person would be better off in a prison camp—a barracks-like facility, where 124 men share 3,000 square feet of space—than in a cell. Scheur's own niche in that living space was a single bed and a foot locker, close to the shared bathroom.
But when he was dropped off by his soon to be ex-wife, he was by no means greeted with compassion. A guard kicked him from behind, planting him on his face, and he spent his first ten days in solitary confinement. In that cell, he recalls, he just walked and walked and walked, knowing the activity would help maintain his sanity.
The same survival skills that had led him through the corporate world were at work again in prison. He wrote letters for people, using the prison's sole portable typewriter, and was consequently protected and assisted with basics like the food line and access to the barracks' only phone. Some inmates found it amusing to take the ribbon from the typewriter or to knock the blind guy on the head with a cruel "Guess who?" but others stuck by him and kept him safe.
Seeds of Hope
In 2009, while Scheur was still developing products for Talking Solutions, he met KaeAnn Rausch at a Boston area group for blind computer users. The two connected immediately and began having dinner once a week. During his 15 months in prison, he credits a handful of people for keeping him sane and connected to the outside world. At the top of that list was KaeAnn Rausch and her guide dog, Melanie, who made the trip (using buses, taxis, and plenty of walking) to visit their favorite inmate as often as possible. When he was finally released in September 2011, it was KaeAnn Rausch, and Scheur's son, David, who picked him up and took him to the halfway house where he would spend the next tortuous several weeks. It was KaeAnn Rausch who advocated for him there to keep him safe and KaeAnn Rausch who eventually welcomed him into her heart and home.
Scheur's first wife had served him with divorce papers while he was still inside, and had left him with absolutely nothing of the financial security that remained, but on the outside, blessings were coming his way once again.
First, of course, there was the love and support he received from KaeAnn, Then, on a more practical note, he was able to begin receiving Social Security Disability Income, the maximum amount due to the long years he had been gainfully employed.
He had lost all computing skills, but with the help of his mom, he acquired a state-of-the-art braille notetaker and began reconnecting with the world and technology.
He began buying, selling, and trading on eBay, and the seeds of a new idea began to take root.
KaeAnn loved her guide dog and was addicted to searching for and testing new products connected to her dog and the business of traveling with a dog. She called Melanie her "little GuideLight."
Barry was once again ferreting out interesting gadgets and products that would benefit blind people and was once again beginning to talk to people who could make new products to fill specific needs.
Another tough chapter cementing the couple's relationship was the spinal fusion surgery that led to a viral infection in Scheur's spine. Time in a rehabilitation center and time where his pulling through was questionable saw KaeAnn always there, always supporting and cheering him on. Finally, in 2013, a bright new chapter would begin.
GuideLights and Gadgets
An impulsive visit to Myrtle Beach, SC, prompted the couple to leave Massachusetts behind. They built a home and a new company. GuideLights and Gadgets brought together KaeAnn's love of dog products and Barry's affinity for gadgets. The company has been rapidly thriving and growing ever since.
In addition to operating as a mail order business, one or both of the company's proprietors are frequent exhibitors at conferences and technology events where blind and low vision people are in attendance. Leather products—backpacks, purses, pouches, and wallets—appear on a crowded table alongside electronics like bone conduction headsets, power banks, Bluetooth speakers and headsets, and more. An adjacent table holds leashes, dog toys, safety products, dog grooming tools, and more. It must be working. The smorgasbord collection attracts hundreds of insatiably curious minds and hands.
The motto guiding the couple in selection of products is simple: "If it's good for us and/or good for the dogs, it will be good for our customers."
Presently, GuideLights and Gadgets offers some 250 products, and Barry Scheur is in constant communication with new sources of products, becoming a wholesaler for one, buying out the remaining inventory of another, or persuading talented electronics guys to build something new. A new collaboration with Mystic Access, another popular business owned and operated by blind individuals, will lead to tutorials for some of the GuideLights and Gadgets products.
Initially, the popular talking power bank, iWalk, new bone conduction headphones, and a Plantronics Bluetooth headset will be the first to have Mystic Access tutorials associated with them, with more products to follow.
At 67, Barry Scheur is working again, doing something he loves and happy to be where he is.
"We need programs that will teach blind people how to be entrepreneurs," is his suggestion to improving the abysmal unemployment statistic. "Whatever we do as blind people, we need to learn to do it as well or better than anybody else."
He has found a way to do exactly that, in a brand-new line of work and always looking forward.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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