Blind man builds own house

Published on Saturday, 13 July 2013 23:22 - Written by By Kelly Gouch, kgouch@tylerpaper.com

BULLARD — At first glance, it seems like a typical home construction project. Framework is in place, the foundation is poured and tools are nearby. But the house on County Road 173 in Bullard is anything but ordinary.

The man building it is blind.

Thomas Graham, 48, said his blindness was a “heavy load” at first, but challenges don’t mean what they used to.

“I don’t like being blind, but I really don’t think about it anymore as far as when I go to do something,” he said.

Graham has been working on the house — his first to build — with help from his wife of five years, Evonne, and his 13-year-old son, Mitchell.

He said he’s developed tricks along the way for cutting straight lines, and he’ll use a sheet of plywood, which is always perfectly square, to help him during the building process. He also has a Braille yardstick to help him measure.

Once completed, the 2,060-square-foot home will have three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms.

It also will include a formal living room, family living room, dining room and utility room.

Graham said he believes the house will be done by the end of the year. He plans to have the roof on within another week or so, “with all the doors and everything in place.”

Graham grew up on a farm in the Midland/Odessa area and started building as a child. He said he could see until age 18, when he was shot in the face with a shotgun which instantly blinded him.

Although Graham did not elaborate on the 1983 incident, he said he made bad choices as a teenager and had “a brush with the law.”

His son’s birthday on July 16, will mark the 30th anniversary of his blindness.

“It was a change. There was a pretty good transition period there,” Graham said of losing his sight.

He said he didn’t think he could do woodwork again, because he wasn’t aware of some tools that were available to him.

But in 1990, he went to the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center in Austin, where he came across a blind woodshop instructor.

He said the instructor taught him how to use a table saw and how to safely hammer and hit a nail, among other things.

“He was totally blind, and he taught me a lot of that stuff,” Graham said.

While in Austin, he also learned how to cook and get around town by himself.

Graham worked at East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind in Tyler for more than 20 years but was laid off in April.

During his time there, he said he was sent to Florida to do training for software that assists blind people with reading on the computer.

He said he is trying to get set up with the Division for Blind Services, within the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, to go into blind people’s homes and teach them how to work with the software and use their computers.

In the meantime, he’s busy building.

He does a lot of work in his shop, which he also built.

“This is where hundreds of indecisions have been launched right here,” he quipped as he stood in the facility.

Graham said while the home is likely his favorite project, it also has been the biggest challenge.

He said getting the foundation square and level was especially difficult, and a neighbor came with his equipment and leveled corners for him.

And there have been moments of frustration, Graham said.

“I’ve cut boards (and) slammed them down because they’re too short,” he said.

He said he’ll have enough resources to get the house “dried in” — meaning the roof is on and windows and doors are in place — but work will be done on the interior as money is available.

The family is living in a camper while construction progresses.

When asked what his wife thinks of the project, he said, “She’s just tickled pink I guess. She’s excited about it. She believes that I can (build the house).”

Graham said being blind took some adjusting, but the fact that he had sight at one point was a big help.

“If you were born blind, you’d have some more challenges there,” he said. “If someone tells me those leaves are green, I can picture it. I really count myself as blessed because I have had eyesight, and I do know what things look like.”

Graham said with resources such as the Division for Blind Services, which, among other things, helps people find employment, “You realize life is not over.”

“I’ve managed to adjust, and with the Lord’s help. I think I’ve done pretty well,” he said.

Neighbor John Fonville described his friend as “amazing.”

“I think it’s fantastic that he can do stuff like this,” Fonville said, who showed photos of other items Graham has built, such as a cradle and end table.

“It’s amazing that he can do the stuff he does. … It takes him longer to do it, but he will make things perfectly square.”

He said Graham also can joke about his blindness.

“He’s just a neat person…” Fonville said. “He deserves all the credit.”

Mrs. Graham also had good things to say about the project and her husband, whom she met at East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind.

The 57-year-old, who works for Advantage Sales and Marketing, said her husband is more considerate than any sighted man she knows.

She said he makes the bed every morning, does the dishes and sometimes cooks.

“He makes the best spaghetti anybody will ever put in your mouth,” she added.

Mrs. Graham said her husband also taught her things about the computer and is a “math whiz.”

“He can figure out anything. He remembers everything as far as numbers,” she said.

Additionally, she said he does sign language with her deaf granddaughter.

She said she does get concerned about him working around hard tools — Graham has had to have stitches. But she said she, “put(s) him in God’s hands.”

Graham’s stepdaughter, Nicholle Birch, said she’s also learned a lot from her stepdad, who has built her a hope chest, among other things.

She said she thinks it’s great that he’s building the house and recently went over to help for a couple hours.

“He’s such an awesome person,” Ms. Birch said.

Staff Writer Emily Guevara contributed to this report.