ALAMOGORDO – Cliff Alderson graduated last year with an associate’s degree in automotive technology from Doña Ana Community College, and despite having a 3.8 grade point average and completing months of on-the-job training at a mechanic’s shop in Alamogordo, he’s had trouble finding work.
I was interested in meeting Alderson, and my Passat was due for an oil change, so I drove down to Alamogordo earlier this week. Alderson raised my car up on a lift jack at Rocking K Trailer Sales, where we’d agreed to meet, and we chatted while he drained the oil, refilled it and wrestled with the oil filter, which Volkswagen engineers have tried to hide where no man can reach.
Why would I drive more than 200 miles to have Cliff Alderson change my oil?
Mostly because I wanted to see how a blind car mechanic finds his way around under the hood.
Alderson is 48 and a car guy, especially hot rods. He did his first automotive work on go-karts – when he was 3 – and his first car was a 1967 Pontiac GTO, which he restored while he was in high school. Favorite restoration project? A 1965 Buick Wildcat.
Alderson filled me in on all this as he felt his way along the underside of my car and then, through trial and error, found the proper wrench to loosen the oil plug, maneuvered a pan under it and let it drain.
“I’ve been doing this for years, working on cars,” Alderson said. “You can’t be afraid of grease.”
Alderson has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes progressive vision loss. His mother has the disease, and so does his 15-year-old daughter, Lydia.
“I started noticing changes when I was 15, 16,” Alderson said. He graduated from Cibola High School in Albuquerque, and he worked for a stretch in the parts department of a General Motors dealership. By the time he was 22, his vision had deteriorated further and he could no longer drive. He has no vision in one eye today and 10 to 15 percent vision in the other, basically shadows.
But a car guy doesn’t stop loving cars just because he goes blind.
Alderson adapted to his new sightless reality by going through the New Mexico Commission for the Blind’s orientation center in Alamogordo. How to use a cane, navigate a kitchen and a bathroom and generally live independently back in Rio Rancho.
When Alderson decided to go back to school, a counselor for the commission asked him what he might be interested in and, of course, the answer involved working on cars.
By that time, Alderson was married and he and his wife, Pam, a nurse, had moved to Alamogordo so their daughter could take advantage of programs at the New Mexico School for the Blind. When Alderson decided to enroll in Doña Ana’s automotive program – an hour away – he chose to live on campus for all eight semesters so he could walk to class and devote himself to studying. He was the first blind student to earn the automotive degree.
Alderson’s obvious disadvantage is that he can’t see what’s under the hood or the chassis. But a lot of car repair even for sighted mechanics has to do with listening and touching, and Alderson can do that quite well.
When I asked him how he knew when my oil was finished draining, he said he listened for the drip. When it came time to add the oil, he tipped the 5-quart container into the funnel until he could feel it was almost empty and guessed, correctly, that he had added about 4½ quarts. And to gauge the oil level, he ran his thumb and finger down the dried dipstick until he felt moisture.
Damian Orchard got to know Alderson through their church, Calvary Chapel in Las Cruces, where Alderson is an assistant pastor. Orchard used to own a car repair shop and he brought Alderson on for an internship. He was impressed by Alderson’s automotive knowledge, his drive and his ability to connect with customers and put them at ease with his blindness.
Alderson walks with a collapsible cane, but he often keeps it folded up by his side and it’s not readily apparent that he can’t see, which can lead to some amusing misunderstandings in an auto shop.
One day when Alderson was working in Orchard’s shop, a guy came in complaining of a problem with the brakes on his sporty Acura. He explained the issue to Alderson, then asked, “You wanna take it for a ride and see what you think?” Alderson said he’d be happy to, grabbed the keys and his cane and started tapping his way toward the car.
Alderson tells the anecdote with pride. “The focus shouldn’t be that I’m blind,” he said.
To help him in his quest for a job in automobile repair, the Commission for the Blind is working with Alderson to get software that would translate into speech the readouts on scanners mechanics use to diagnose problems. That way Alderson could independently diagnose issues without relying on a customer or partner. Alderson already has a device he can touch to the wires in a vehicle’s electrical system that speaks out the color.
“Generally speaking, it is very unusual for a blind person to be involved in automotive repair, especially as a mechanic,” said Greg Trapp, executive director of the Commission for the Blind. “It’s a little more challenging to get a job in a field where you have less precedence.”
But the goal, he said, is for blind people to have the opportunity to work in their chosen fields.
“We really believe that with the proper training blind people can do almost anything that a sighted person can do,” Trapp said.
Orchard told me that Alderson can do many vehicle repairs largely on his own – brake jobs, shocks, water and power steering pumps, alternators, hoses.
“I just go by for another set of eyes to make sure we’re not missing anything,” Orchard said.
So changing my oil was a piece of cake.
Alderson checked the dipstick on my Passat one last time, then wiped up and announced, “We’re there. You’re good to go.”
He also ran his fingers over my tires and let me know the tread was getting a little low and I might want to think about replacing them soon.
I look at those tires every day, and it’s something I’d never noticed.