Blind athlete Ben Collins shows his worldview

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One weekend with Ben Collins, and I became aware of our everyday surroundings. Really aware.

Collins is a Special Olympics athlete, a 51-year-old bocce ball player who not only competes in Special Olympics but also works at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For 38 years, Ben has competed in various sports for Special Olympics Maryland. How many? His response: “If I had to count, we would be here all day.”

Thirty-eight years as an athlete is just the timeframe. It does not fully explain Collins’ time with Special Olympics. He has been working for the SO for 26 years, and he is proud to show off his 20- and 25-year plaques, which are among the many items that fill his desk in downtown D.C. The desk is part workspace, part museum display. He has his 2018 Seattle Games invitation banner, his Seattle Games “trading cards” and a large “cheesehead” — it’s an inside joke between him and Special Olympics President Tim Shriver.

The work equipment on the desk includes a computer, a work phone and a Brailler. Collins uses the Brailler because at 9 he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that has left him legally blind.

“I can see shadows and shapes,” Collins says for the vignette I’m producing about him.

It’s quite remarkable that Collins is competing this summer in the Seattle USA Games in a sport that requires vision and depth of field.

Understanding Collins’ daily routine is difficult, but it became apparent early on that Collins does not find his day-to-day difficult (or even remarkable) at all.

He commutes from Rockville, Maryland, to downtown Washington, D.C., five days a week on public transportation, and he has been doing this for decades, efficiently navigating the commuting world into the nation’s capital.

From the “45 Ride-On Bus” that stops right near his home in Rockville, Collins travels to the Rockville Metro station. Through ticketing carousels, up escalators and onto a train platform, Collins negotiates his surroundings.

While waiting for the train, I go into my normal public transportation mode. I need to make sure we are going the right way into the city. I look up at the monitors to make sure I am indeed waiting for the correct train, and I look around to see the crowd of commuters. All visual tasks — all information that Collins can’t use. But he knows the times of the trains. He has a phone that audibly indicates the time, and he uses those auditory cues to assist him.

It’s a system, a system as dependable as his train.

We hear the distinct sound of an approaching subway. My videographer and I simultaneously ask each other if this is the correct train. “Of course it is, guys, it’s 9:20,” Collins shouts. Like clockwork, we board the 9:20 red line into the city.

On the train, Collins listens to the train conductor, paying attention to the number of stops. All of these bits of information help Collins determine when he will be arriving at the Farragut North stop near Special Olympics headquarters. The train stops at Dupont Circle. Collins readies himself.

“Farragut North is next, guys,” he says.

As for the commute back? Well … I was without Collins.

I needed to return to Collins’ home, where I left my rental car for the day. Hopping on the red line back out to Rockville, I semi-confidently boarded the train to lead me back to the Metro Station. Listening to a podcast, I paid attention to the busy bus and took mental notes of how crowded it must be on the commute home for Collins.

At Rockville Metro Station, I walked out to the bus stop area, where multiple bus lines with different names and numbers load up passengers to take them to their destinations. Visually locating the 45 bus, I loaded up and got ready to jump off at one of the first stops: Collins’ house.

Forty-five minutes later, the bus pulled back into the same Rockville Metro Station. Five minutes into the ride, I realized I was on the right bus (the 45 Ride-On), but I had taken the south loop instead of the north loop.

Just then, Ben stepped on the bus. He caught up to me on his commute home from work.

“Ben, it’s Ryan. How’s it going?” I asked him. He greeted me and asked why I am still on the bus, even though I left 45 minutes before him. I explained.

“Shame on you, Ryan,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s OK, Ryan, easy mistake. You’re not from here.”

We talked a little more on the ride, and he pulled the “stop request,” knowing it’s one stop before his home stop.

“It’s a nice day, Ryan, let’s go for a walk,” he said.

And so I walked back to his house on a beautiful afternoon, Collins leading the way.

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