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What It Means to Be New York's First Legally Blind Governor

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Lt. Gov. David Paterson (AP)

New York Lt. Gov. David Paterson will assume of the role of governor on Monday.

He will be New York's first black and first legally blind governor. And he will be left to clean up a mess left by his predecessor.

But Paterson is no stranger to adversity.

“(He is) very capable, not withstanding his near sightlessness,” former New York City Mayor Edward Koch recently said. “It’s never impeded his public actions or his personal actions, and he’s really overcome it in an extraordinary way.”

Paterson, 53, lost most of his sight as an infant when an infection damaged his optic nerve. He does not use a cane or a guide dog, and can even see some shapes. Up close, he can see a person.

So what exactly does it mean to be legally blind?

The term covers a range of visual impairments, said Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind.

In most states, including New York, the definition is a “visual acuity of 20/200 or less” in your better eye.

That means, like Paterson, it is very possible the individual could have some vision, Brunson said.

And in today’s society, it is has become even easier for an individual with visual impairments to succeed, added Brunson, who is blind herself.

“There are a number of judges around the country and city attorneys who are blind and legally blind,” Brunson said.

In 1915, Thomas Schall was elected to Congress in Minnesota.

In February 2002, Judge Richard B. Teitelman, who is legally blind, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Missouri; he retained office in 2004 for a 12-year term.

In fact, Kristen Cox, who is blind, ran for governor of Maryland on the Republican ticket last year.

This November, residents in New Jersey’s fifth Congressional district will have the option of voting for Rabbi Dennis Shulman, who also happens to be blind.

“There are a lot more tools available, a lot more ways to compensate these days,” Brunson said. “There are not as many obstacles in our professional lives as there was years ago.”

Those tools include magnifiers, closed-circuit televisions, large print books, audio books, and of course, computers, which allow any person to adjust the color contrast and font size.

There is even sophisticated equipment available to help legally blind individuals drive, Brunson said.

Paterson has certainly not let his impediment slow his career.

A graduate of Columbia University and Hofstra Law School, he served Harlem in the state Senate from 1986 until he became lieutenant governor last year. In 2002, he was elected Senate minority leader; two years later he became the first visually impaired person to address the Democratic National Convention.

Married with two children, Paterson is known to deliver lengthy speeches from memory without ever missing a beat.

Dr. Michael Ehrenhaus, director of Cornea and Refractive Surgery at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Long Island College Hospital, said individuals who are considered legally blind are often quite functional.

“Some of the best examples are in music,” Ehrenhaus said. “Look at Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Would anyone really say they were completely handicapped?”

Paterson will remain governor until the term ends in December 2010.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.