By PHIL ATTINGER / Highlands News-Sun

AVON PARK — Later on this year, you may see some people in the community out with cameras.

They may not look like your usual photographers. Some may have crutches and some might have wheelchairs.

That’s part of the idea.
Donna Scherlacher, director of Development for Ridge Area Arc, said the “Through Their Lens Project” will provide Ridge Area Arc members with point-and-shoot digital cameras, training on how to work the cameras and how to find and capture a good shot, and opportunities to get those shots through field trips.

After that, at the start of February 2024, they will have an exhibition at the Peter Powell Roberts Museum in Avon Park. It will let people see things from their unique perspective, Scherlacher said.“It will allow people to see their eye, their taste, and style,” Scherlacher said.

The grant application states that participating photographers will get to explain their pictures at the opening of the show as well as in panel discussions on embracing “people before disability.”

Ridge Area Arc Executive Director Kathleen Border, a photographer herself, has been working on this for three-and-a-half years, Scherlacher said. The original grant proposal has a 2020 through 2021 timeline.

This time it’s 2023 through 2024. COVID-19 numbers have finally receded enough to consider the classes and field trips necessary to make this happen.

The program will begin on Jan. 15 with monthly classes, including the use of the camera, followed up by off-campus shooting sessions with instruction in basic exposure, composition, downloading, and editing.

After they spend time in the field gathering photos, they will then submit them to be curated for the show.

Scherlacher said Ridge Area Arc has already received the cameras and will have all the participants sign a contract to take part in the entire process, start to finish.

Deena Wright, executive director of the Mason G. Smoak Foundation, said this will help educate the community about the strengths of Ridge Area Arc and the need to build up bridges between those who are not disabled and the people they serve.

Wright said Border works to have people understand that people with disabilities are just people, who happen to have disabilities. Photography will help them express that.

“They’ll be taking the situation from their perspective and talking about it,” Wright said. Wright said that should help able-bodied people understand Ridge Area Arc members’ situation better. A similar process takes place whenever Wright takes a Youth Leadership Highlands group each year to visit Ridge Area Arc.

Volunteers from the group take the tour in a wheelchair or blindfolded while another youth guides them. Once, the wheelchair-bound youth was a 6-foot-tall teenager who gained a new perspective.

“He told us everything looked so different from that angle,” Wright said. “He couldn’t see over anyone.”

One young lady, blindfolded with another helping to guide her, called it a “humbling” experience – intimidating – to rely on someone else, Wright said. The guide said that the experience made her more aware of her surroundings, and how difficult it was to communicate the details to them.

Gaylin Thomas, president of the Heartland Cultural Alliance – a partner on the project that will provide the exhibit venue, said this represents a rare opportunity for people to get perspective on life through the eyes of the disabled, as Ridge Area Arc tries to do.

“The [Ridge Area] Arc is the front line,” Thomas said. “They started at a time when no one else was doing that.”