Meet Gil Johnson: Blind Woodworker and One of California’s “50 Notable People”

Gil Johnson in his workshop

Gil Johnson is an avid (and talented) woodworker and the author of Gil’s Guide to Home Repairs and Parenting or Grandparenting with Vision Loss on the VisionAware website. Gil also hosts the Repairing Your Home message board, where you can ask him any question about home repair techniques and tips.

Gil’s professional life began as a Rehabilitation Counselor and Supervisor with the California Department of Rehabilitation. He proceeded to work for more than 40 years as a rehabilitation counselor, supervisor, manager, and director in public and private rehabilitation agencies. In 2008, Gil retired from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) where he served as Senior Advisor on Critical Issues and Director of AFB’s National Employment Center.

In addition to his professional accomplishments, Gil has maintained his homes throughout the years, including re-shingling the roof, replacing electrical wiring, doing a variety of plumbing repairs, and designing and building dressers, nightstands, bookcases, and bunk beds.

Gil’s Interview with VisionAware

Recently, VisionAware conducted an in-depth interview with Gil to learn more about his childhood and formative woodworking experiences. Here’s an excerpt that describes Gil’s relationship with his wise and supportive father:

No one else in my parents’ families had experienced vision loss, so neither my parents nor siblings had any familiarity with blindness. I don’t recall that less was expected of me than of my brothers and sister. There must have been activities that my parents didn’t want me to do or didn’t let me participate in, but I have always felt like I could do what I felt capable of doing. When my judgment was wrong, I learned from the mistake.

One evening I went with my father to keep an appointment he had. I elected to wait in the car and while he was gone, I pretended to drive the car as many kids will do. I turned the wheel this way and that, shifted the gears using the clutch pedal, pressed the brake, and made motor sounds.

I heard a scraping sound from under the car and got out to see if I could tell what it was. I couldn’t find anything wrong, but I stopped playing and set the emergency brake. Soon I heard my father outside, saying “Where are you?” Apparently, I had steered the car around the corner and bumped into a lantern placed in front of a barricade on the street.

On another occasion, I went with my father to a fishing resort where he had some work to do. I wandered out on to a fishing pier and at the end found a row boat tied to the pier. I thought the boat should be closer to shore, so I got in, untied the boat, and began to row. Very shortly, I discovered that I couldn’t see the shoreline or the pier. I heard my father calling out “What are you doing out there?”

I wasn’t very good at rowing and was going around in circles and getting further from shore. He coached me back in. He didn’t say anything about either event, nor did he tell my mother – and I certainly didn’t tell her.

Gil in the Contra Costa (California) Times

Earlier this month, Gil spoke to members of the Diablo Woodworkers Club about his woodworking career, as reported in this feature story from the Contra Costa Times:

The 100 or so active members of the Diablo Woodworkers club are amateurs in name only. They know their way around a drill press and a lathe, routinely crafting chests, tables, desks, cabinets and chairs. But at their monthly meeting in Pleasant Hill last week, they sat quietly captivated as 75-year-old Gil Johnson stood before them and explained how he made many of the same things.

Johnson, born with impaired vision, has been blind since he was 14.

The San Leandro resident can’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawn to a workshop. (“The smell of fresh-cut wood, the sound of a sharp saw whisking across a board, the sound of a drill – all those things really touch my soul,” he said.) He credits his father, a plumber, for whetting his appetite as a youth.

By the time he was 17, he had built a nine-drawer desk out of birch wood. It sits in his house today. Later on, he built dressers, nightstands, bookcases and three sets of bunk beds for his grandchildren. He has remodeled kitchens, rewired electricity, repaired a garbage disposal, poured concrete retaining walls and even re-shingled roofs.

“You just climb up there and make sure you don’t slide off,” he said, making a blind man on a rooftop sound almost normal.

More Gil: The California Department of Rehabilitation’s 50 Notable People

In celebration of the California Department of Rehabilitation’s (DOR) 50th anniversary, the department solicited nominations for Notable People who inspire others by their advocacy, leadership, accomplishments, achievements, and/or dedication to the disability movement and to employment, independence, and equality of Californians with disabilities.

Gil Johnson has been selected as one of California’s “50 Notables.” Here is an excerpt from his nomination letter, submitted by Stuart Wittenstein, Ed.D., Superintendent, California School for the Blind:

In addition to the professional achievements and activities described below (and limited space prevents me from listing even more of Gil’s exemplary accomplishments), Gil provides an excellent role model to blind students, such as the ones at my school, the California School for the Blind.

Gil is a husband, parent, grandparent, homeowner, taxpayer, and citizen, in addition to his professional achievements, and as such demonstrates to our students that their disabilities need not keep them from achieving their own American Dream.

Gil Johnson has been an innovator and leader in employment and rehabilitation of blind persons for 44 years…. He has received several awards and certificates of appreciation during his career, including the John H. McAulay award from the Association of Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired and an award from the California Council of the Blind for articles published in the Blind Californian.

He has always believed that rehabilitation professionals who honor and respect the interests and strengths of blind job seekers, respecting employers as equal partners in the rehabilitation process … is what is needed to facilitate successful competitive employment outcomes.

Thank you for the opportunity to describe this great Californian whom I believe to be worthy of recognition.

Congratulations, Gil

Your colleagues at VisionAware send you our heartfelt congratulations. We are fortunate that you have chosen to be part of our VisionAware family.