A team of artists joined staff with local nonprofit Lions Services at the organization’s North Tryon Street facility on Thursday morning to unveil a new mural that aims to highlight the work being done by Lions, centering the nearly 100 visually impaired employees who work there.
Located on the newly renovated accessible patio for blind employees, the mural is the result of an outreach process in which local artist Sydney Duarte and her Duarte Designs team consulted with a focus group of Lions Services employees who provided input.
Once fully finished, the mural will incorporate tactile and audio features, including a variety of inspirational messages written in braille.
“There are people with disabilities in your community, who have a visual impairment,” said Duarte, describing the intended message of the project. “They’re living their lives, too, just like you. An independent life is possible for people who are blind or visually impaired, and this is a way to celebrate it, by sharing visually impaired experiences through art.”
The idea for the mural was born from the Art Is for Everyone descriptive walking tour, launched in April 2022 in a partnership between ArtWalks Charlotte, Disability Rights & Resources and Metrolina Association for the Blind.
Duarte served as the artist lead on the initial Art Is for Everyone tour, in which audio descriptions were written, recorded and paired with nine works of art around the city so as to be enjoyed by low- to no-sight participants.
Feedback from some of the first participants, including several Lions Services staff members who joined that day, showed that blind and visually impaired folks wished that more art that represented people like them existed in the city.
Philip Murph, president and CEO of Lions Services, who is legally blind himself, had a vision for a blind-inspired mural to be painted on the building in front of the new accessible patio at The Bob Elliot Center for the Blind, where his organization is headquartered on North Tryon Street.
In bringing together the focus group of Lions employees, Duarte said she wanted to listen to be sure to include anything that might otherwise go overlooked. One statement from the discussions that she said stuck with her was, “Just because someone doesn’t have glasses or a cane doesn’t mean they are not visually impaired.”
Following Thursday’s unveiling, Murph told Queen City Nerve that the mural is one more way of hammering away at the stigma that comes with visual impairment and getting the message across that blind folks like himself are like any other people.
“Today is all about bringing vision of blindness into the community,” he said. “Right now the community doesn’t know anything about being blind or how to engage with blind people, and so what we want to do is be a focal point for Charlotte to say, ‘Blindness is just a thing like having blonde hair.’
“It’s just a characteristic and it doesn’t mean that you’re less of a person and it doesn’t mean that you can do anything less,” he continued. “What it does mean is we just need maybe an elbow to get us around. That’s what this mural represents.”
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, more than 32 million American adults have reported experiencing vision loss, meaning blindness or difficulty seeing even with glasses or contact lenses.
Queen City Nerve toured The Bob Elliot Center for the Blind on Thursday, where approximately 200 people, about half of whom are blind, work at different manufacturing jobs, many of which involve textiles for military products such as camouflage pants for the Army.
The warehouse is fitted throughout with subtle but important upgrades for blind employees, from raised lines that mark the paths between tables to customized sewing machines that allow the user to rely more heavily on their feet.
Several Lions employees with vision disabilities participated in the new mural’s creation during a recent Community Art day, during which each participant had the chance to add a flower to the wall.
“‘Challenge’ is just a word,” said Joey Esquivel, an employee at Lions who added that he was thrilled to learn of the new artwork and the spirit behind it. “It’s just a category. It’s just a box that you check on your health form every year when you go in for your physical. It doesn’t define us.
“And not only does it not define us, but at times it can enrich our lives, because there might be certain things about our senses that are failing, but there are other senses that may be heightened to feel and experience the world more vividly, kind of like having a superpower.”
The Lions Services mural project was funded by a Charlotte Urban Design Center Placemaking Grant and helped along by a number of sponsors who joined together to renovate the patio, providing or helping to fund the new tables, umbrellas, and fence that mark off the area.
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