Deaf Photog and Blind Editor Overcome the Odds Together

By: Joe Strupp When the Amish schoolhouse shooting erupted on Oct. 2, 2006, near Lancaster, Pa., photographer Andy Blackburn of the New Era was at home watching TV, hours before his usual late-afternoon shift. But when he saw a breaking news report about the tragedy ? which left five girls and the shooter dead ? he jumped into his car, raced to the scene, and secured the next day's Page One photo of police removing the killer's body bag.

Back in the newsroom, Managing Editor Pete Mekeel was directing staffers from his third-floor office at the afternoon paper. "It was the hardest day I ever had," recalls Mekeel, who has been at the New Era since 1974. In all, the 41,000-circulation daily delivered seven pages of coverage that would earn it three awards, including the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers, the Eugene Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award, and the Religion Communicators Council's Wilbur Award.

But what makes this great reporting even more remarkable are small details about these two key players: Blackburn is deaf, and Mekeel is legally blind.

But don't ever expect either man to use his challenges to gain sympathy. Both Blackburn, 42, and Mekeel, 55, say they can do their jobs as well as any other editor or photographer, with news instincts and quick responses being more important than hearing and 20/20 vision.

"This is what I do, I never considered something else," says Mekeel, a University of Maryland graduate who joined the paper as a reporter in 1974 and never left. "I still love the surprises every day." But he jokes that when he and Blackburn must interact, "it can get like a really bad sitcom."

Blackburn, who spoke with E&P via phone with the help of a sign-language system, previously worked as a mechanic and freelanced for more than seven years before landing a full-time spot in 2006. He says limited hearing has no negative impact on his work: "I warn them that I am deaf as soon as I get there, and people tend to be comfortable with me."

New Era Editor Ernie Schreiber said that although both men use devices to help them, they rely mostly on their talents and hard work. "He does more in his head than many editors will do," Schreiber says of Mekeel. "But he still lays out Page One and works with reporters on ledes, headlines, and drop heds." Schreiber says of Blackburn, "he can always get the shots he wants."

Married to a New Era ad salesperson and the father of two children -- one of whom is a reporter at a nearby paper -- Mekeel has suffered from retinitis pigmatosa, a degenerative eye disease, since he was six years old. He became legally blind in 1978, but remained at the paper and assumed his first editing post in the lifestyle section in 1979. "Reporting got tougher and tougher," he says, adding that editing was easier because it involved no driving. "A lot of squinting, and I would do things like boldface the [computer] screen and use magnified type. Each year I would do little things." At one point in the 1980s, Mekeel was using a magnifying glass over printed copy. "A lot of it has to do with the people I work with," he stresses, "who are patient and kind and helpful."

Today, Mekeel's workspace in his small office resembles something out of a TV editing room, with two television monitors connected to a computer and a print-reader. On one, Mekeel feeds print copy that is then blown up onto a screen, with white type on a black background. The other screen does the same thing with computer images. The unusual setup allows him to lay out pages each day, as well as write headlines and jumps. "It is one of those things where you get so accustomed to it, you work around things. My whole room is dark, and these images are the only things I see," he says, noting he has lost 98% of his eyesight and still has trouble telling "what is in a photo."

Mekeel says reporters will often read stories to him out loud, a practice several say helps them in their own editing. "We are all very well-adapted to it," says longtime reporter Jane Holahan.

Since the New Era is an afternoon paper, Mekeel's day begins at about 4 a.m. when he arrives at work by taxi, a $9 daily cost the paper picks up. He usually gets a ride home from a colleague or his wife. "I think a lot of places would drag their feet," he says of how other newspapers might respond to his needs. "But there has never been a hesitancy here."

Blackburn drives a car, but cannot use a regular police scanner or cell phone. He keeps an eye on his BlackBerry and communicates via the phone's sign-language connection.

Born deaf, he grew up in Lancaster, then attended the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y. Blackburn said he was was unable to get a photography gig for many years due to anti-deaf prejudice. He later attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1994, but was still unable to find a photo job.

His luck changed in 1999 when a friend who freelanced for the Rutland (Vt.) Herald mentioned she was moving, and Blackburn contacted the editor there. "They asked me to go on a shoot that very day," he recalls. "It was partial luck."

A year later, he moved back to Lancaster and started freelancing for the New Era in 2002, and landed a full-time post in 2006. "My lip-reading skills aren't that good," he admits, "but that is not a deterrent. I am not afraid to approach people."

Blackburn says he often shows his assignment slips to subjects, to explain what he is doing. He admits that breaking-news assignments are more difficult, but not impossible. Editor Schreiber cites a photo Blackburn took during Ronald Reagan's funeral in 2004. The photographer, who had no formal press credential for the event, set up at The Ellipse, across from the White House, when the funeral procession went by. He ended up with a close-up shot of Nancy Reagan, escorted by a military escort, waving to the crowd. "He has just blossomed," Schreiber adds. "He has a real gift."

Active in Lancaster's deaf community, Blackburn believes his success has helped the image of the deaf in the local workplace. "I believe I am an influence in the community in that sense," he says. "People's jaws drop when they find out what I do. Deaf kids in the community are amazed."


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