October 01, 2014
By Victoria Kidd
Squint until your eyes are nearly closed. Your surroundings blur, your peripheral vision narrows. Now imagine seeing the obscured shapes around you in black and white-mere shadows coming and going from your field of vision. This is how Griffin Pinkow ’15 sees the world.
Pinkow has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often complete blindness. Pinkow’s vision has steadily deteriorated since he was diagnosed at age 12. Most individuals with retinitis pigmentosa are legally blind by the time they are 40, but Pinkow has already reached this designation.
When he first enrolled at Susquehanna, his vision was still good enough that he could get around campus unaided; he even played on the men’s rugby team. Since then the disease has progressed to a point where Pinkow needs to use a cane to navigate campus, and he can no longer compete in rugby matches (though he is still on the roster and continues to train with his teammates).
Although his family splits their time between homes in New York City and Southern California, Pinkow says he found a smaller university setting more appealing. “A smaller school for someone with my challenges makes it easier to get around, but more than anything, it’s an easier environment to make friends and get to know people,” he says.
Susquehanna’s close-knit community has been helpful as well. Pinkow credits the “wonderful people here” with providing him with the acceptance and encouragement he’s needed to thrive despite his limitations. They’ve “always reached out a hand to help and support me.”
Luke Wesneski, academic specialist in the Center for Academic Achievement, “is always there for me,” Pinkow says. So, too, are his teammates, coaches, classmates and teachers, he adds.
He’s been particularly empowered by his involvement with the university’s Enactus group and the relationship he developed with the organization’s faculty adviser, George Cravitz, who Pinkow describes as “one of my mentors and role models in life.”
Formerly known as SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise), the Enactus team develops economic-based community service projects and presents their work at annual regional and national competitions. As a longtime advocate of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, Pinkow developed “Griffin’s Vision Quest” as part of his work with Enactus. The program includes a sequence of activities-hitting a hockey puck into a goal, for instance-that participants perform blindfolded to raise both awareness of and funding for the organization. These “vision quest” experiences, along with a fundraising website, helped Pinkow raise more than $11,000 for the foundation in the past year.
His work has not gone unnoticed. In April, Pinkow was awarded the Robert Plaster Foundation’s “Can’t Never Could” award at the Enactus National Exposition in Cincinnati. The award recognizes students who have overcome significant challenges to achieve success and, in turn, have used that success to advance the work of Enactus on their respective campuses.
Both the name and purpose of the award are fitting for a young man who never takes “no” for an answer. If someone tells Pinkow he can’t do something, he does it anyway and typically finds that he’s done it well.
It’s this tenacious spirit that has helped Pinkow break down barriers between normatively able-bodied people and himself, a differently abled person. He’s even been named president of Enactus for the 2014-15 academic year.
“We need to see everyone as people,” Pinkow says, “not people who can do certain things better than others, but as individuals.”
In all humility, I think I have had a strong effect on many at SU,” he adds. “I think students and faculty see me, a blind kid, walking around campus with a cane, yet still living the full life of a student and not feeling sorry for myself, [and] I think people … have learned not to be afraid of someone with a disability, that we have feelings and want to be just like everyone else.”
As Pinkow’s story demonstrates, diversity comes in many forms, and efforts to increase cultural competency in order to appreciate and respect differences must be ongoing. During his time at Susquehanna, Pinkow has worked to educate the campus community about what it means to live with blindness. His efforts have helped many to see that those with disabilities have special challenges that can be made all the more difficult by a lack of understanding.