Legally blind Naperville athlete racing to raise money for Donka Inc.
On March 8, James Gilliard completed an indoor triathlon tethered to another person. This was business as usual for him -- as a legally blind athlete, he relies on his sight guide, another person who serves as his eyes and helps him stay course.
Just over a week later, on March 16, the rest of this year's triathlons and 5Ks were called into question when the governor issued a ban on mass gatherings. Since then, most races have been postponed, made remote, or altogether canceled. Although he continues to compete in virtual races, Gilliard says he's looking forward the return to in-person events.
"I miss having that camaraderie, to be quite honest, after being mostly isolated for the last six months, I miss the people," Gilliard said. "But I will always gladly do them to support organizations and people that have helped to support me."
In October, Gilliard is competing in the Healthy Driven Naperville Half Marathon & 5K, one of the many races which have gone virtual in the wake of COVID-19.
As a member of Team Donka, he is racing to raise money for Donka Inc., a DuPage-based nonprofit which provides job-ready assistive technology training to those with disabilities.
Although the race is virtual, members of Team Donka are hoping to bring a sense of community to their run by bringing members of the team together on the original date of the event to complete the race together in a fun but socially distanced outdoor setting.
Gilliard was initially referred to Donka for training with JAWS (Job Access with Speech), a screen reader program that allows visually impaired users to operate their computers without relying on sight. According to Gilliard, instructor Ann Byrne helped prepare him to enter the workforce outside of just teaching him how to use the software. Because she was blind since birth, she was could draw from her own experiences to advise Gilliard on dealing with obstacles he may encounter going forward.
"I believe that they provided an invaluable service to me," he said. "In my opinion, one of the biggest things that helps someone like me move forward is having that independence, not having to ask someone every time, 'Can you read this to me, can you read me my email?'"
Although he now has custom harnesses purpose-built for each leg of his races, it took a while to get to this point. His first tether was basically just a mass-market child leash, Gilliard says. He has become used to improvising and finding his own way forward to overcome obstacles introduced by his limited sight.
"Sometimes the need comes out of frustration that something isn't working, or you can't do something like you used to," Gilliard said. "I've found ways over the years to adapt, even if there isn't specific adaptive technology."
As for the future, Gilliard's race schedule is packed for the first 10 months of 2021, adding, "Assuming things get back to some semblance of normal." His blog, "No Crappy Excuses," (nocrappyexcuses.com) chronicles his racing and training experiences and offers insight on the problems he has solved as a vision-impaired racer.
Sponsor James Gilliard in Donka's Race for Abilities or join Team Donka at donkainc.org/marathon-2020/.