A Party for the Senses

An ophthalmologist helps blind people drive bumper cars.

Author | Katie Whitney

"It all started because I wanted to go to the fair." It was 1989, and Michael Schermer (M.D. 1969, Internship 1970) knew he couldn't get his wife to go with him to the big California State Fair in their hometown of Sacramento. The ophthalmologist, who runs an eponymous private practice, had cajoled his wife into going once every year, but she wasn't much interested in going more than once. Not wanting to go alone, Schermer thought about taking a group of visually impaired people. He ended up taking five or six to the fair that year, and "a party for the senses was born."

It became an annual tradition for Schermer and his staff to host blind and visually impaired people at the fair, at one point hosting as many as 25 people, paired with around 10 guides. 

"Can you imagine blind people driving bumper cars?" says Schermer, remembering some of his favorite moments. A guide who's paired with the driver yells out directions — "Left! Right!" — but the thrill is in the crash. Squeals of delight inevitably follow.

At the fair, "You can feel things, smell things, hear things. It's overwhelming," he says. For some of Schermer's guests, the carnival rides are the main attraction. "They turn my stomach," he admits. For other guests, the docile, furry critters in the agricultural exhibits are a big draw.

The one thing everyone agrees on is the food, but finding a spot out of the hot California sun for 30-40 people to eat was a big task. Schermer contacted fair officials and got access to a VIP area normally used for evening concerts. "It got so well organized that we had little menus for people to indicate what they wanted to eat."

In 2009, Schermer branched out from the fair to help blind and visually impaired athletes participate in the California International Marathon. Guides who run alongside the marathoners call out directions to help them make turns and avoid obstacles. For someone in the B1 category — so blind they "couldn't see an explosion in a coal mine," says Schermer — the guide will be attached at the wrist by a short tether. One year, visually impaired runner Chaz Davis ran the marathon in just over two and a half hours (2:31:48). He was the 41st runner to cross the finish line. "Chaz required two sequential guides, because the guide for the first half was exhausted."

Schermer's volunteer work with the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes offered him the opportunity to see the Summer Paralympics in Brazil in 2016, where he rooted for athletes playing goalball. Invented for visually impaired athletes, goalball involves teams of three who attempt to throw a ball into the opposing team's goal. The balls are embedded with bells, allowing the athletes to exercise their ear-hand coordination. "Even athletes with some vision are reduced to total blindness," because they wear black out eye masks during game play, says Schermer.

In 2020, Schermer's longtime commitment to helping blind and visually impaired people earned him a Migel Medal, the American Foundation for the Blind's highest honor. Although the pandemic kept him from the fair and the marathon this year, he hopes to facilitate more partying and sports in future years.

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