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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Blindness No Barrier

By John W. Kennedy
Aug. 17, 2014

Greg P. Aikens walks to and from work every day. He teaches elementary-age schoolchildren. Aikens is active at church as well as in a variety of charitable causes.

Like millions of other Christians, Aikens has blended his work, church and civic life to become a productive member of society.

Yet Aikens is unlike most other people. He is blind.

For the past two years, Aikens has taught blind and visually impaired students in Smyrna, Ga. The instruction includes Braille lessons, assistive technologies that magnify type or incorporate programs that read aloud, independent living helps, and social skills.

A golden retriever guide dog and a white cane enable Aikens to make the short trek to school each day.

Aikens, 30, had congenital glaucoma at birth. Although he had poor eyesight, the condition didn’t prevent him from reading or getting around the Atlanta region where he lived. But at age 12, suddenly everything went blurry. Two months later, Aikens lost his vision completely.

He especially lauds his mother, Pam Kauffman, with keeping him from wallowing in self-pity, and imparting the message that although his disability might mean hardships, Aikens could still accomplish whatever he needed to do.

Kauffman says she didn’t treat Greg any differently than his younger sister and brother when it came to household chores.

“I knew I didn’t want to be any different than before,” Aikens says. “I had some wonderful family members and teachers who helped me walk through the process.”

For instance, in middle school Aikens began playing the trumpet. Instructors would make a recording at a slow speed so he could memorize the notes that he couldn’t see.

In high school at Snellville, Ga., Aikens continued to play trumpet — with the marching band.

Aikens credits his high school band director for being gracious in making the experimental arrangement work. Ultimately, Aikens managed to memorize the number of steps to march in a general direction while another student — enlisted in the band solely to be his guide — marched behind him to communicate pointers that kept him in line. Aikens followed the same pattern at college.

Aikens also joined the wrestling team in high school.

“It’s a sport done by physical contact so you don’t really need to look at the opponent,” Aikens says. He wrestled only one year, not because he didn’t enjoy it, but due to his involvement in so many other extracurricular activities.

Aikens earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. While studying for his master’s at Arizona State University in Tempe, Aikens got involved in a Chi Alpha group that reignited his childhood faith. He had committed his life to Christ at the age of 8 at Evangel Temple (Assemblies of God) in Kansas City, Mo., where his grandfather Paul Baldwin served as pastor.

A Chi Alpha missions trip to South Africa altered Aikens’ educational and vocational outlook. Later, while studying for an intercultural studies master’s degree in divinity at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., Aikens had the opportunity to serve a month-long practicum internship in Central Asia.

Aikens created a stir when navigating his way through the chaotic airport passport control of the Central Asian country. Immigration authorities had never witnessed a blind person using a walking stick.

“In some Muslim countries, people who have physical and mental challenges are ostracized from family and society,” says Mark Hausfeld, associate professor of Urban Islamic Studies at AGTS. “They often are kept hidden because of a supposed curse or disfavor from God.”

Aikens worked at a government-operated orphanage for children with disabilities. He helped with physical, water and massage therapies, and served as a role model to older children. The experience impacted Aikens — and the children, who had never heard of an independent blind adult before.

“Greg was so well received by the blind orphans because they couldn’t believe that a blind person from the United States would come to work with them,” Hausfeld says. “They were immediately drawn to him because he could empathize with them in their sightlessness. He was able to teach them how to cope with being blind in pragmatic ways.”

The experience stirred in Aikens the desire to eventually become involved in some kind of teaching of children with disabilities in developing nations.

Aikens is able to communicate by email and browse the Internet thanks to computer programs that read typed screen messages aloud. He obtained a master’s of education in visual disabilities from Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 2012.

“Technology, especially the way books are published electronically, has given us so much more access than we ever had before,” Aikens says.

In April, Aikens won the Learning Ally National Achievement Award for his inspirational work as a schoolteacher. Aikens received the top prize of $6,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C., from the nonprofit serving those with disabilities.

Aikens volunteers with a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Mass., called Empowerment Through Integration that allows blind and visually impaired children to interact alongside sighted peers in social projects. Aikens has provided Web-based lectures and training about blind children for the organization.

This summer while serving with Empowerment Through Integration, Aikens led a research team to Nicaragua to discuss with parents and teachers of blind children the possibility of starting a summer camp program.

“It’s fun to see Greg’s adventurous spirit,” says Kauffman, who also lives in the Atlanta area. “For many, blindness would be a challenge and ordeal to travel internationally. But he really embraces it.”

Kauffman says her son applies the experiences he has learned without his sight and teaches them to students as the best way to succeed.

“He understands their barriers and fears, but he doesn’t cut these kids any slack,” Kauffman says. “He knows things are more difficult for the nonsighted than the sighted, but he realizes great things can be accomplished with a great attitude.”

In his spare time, Aikens works as a volunteer Chi Alpha leader at Southern Polytechnic University near Atlanta. He also is a licensed AG minister who officiated at his sister’s wedding ceremony.

Paul Weingartner, national representative for the AG Center for the Blind, says Aikens is an example of how a blind person can overcome obstacles to achieve many feats with wisdom, creativity, determination and the right skill set.

“God does not discriminate against the blind when He pours out His Spirit,” Weingartner says. “People who are blind often have to use different methods, but they can accomplish anything their Lord calls them to do. Greg is not a superhuman who is blind. He is a person who is blind who is empowered by his Savior.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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