IM this article to a friend!

October 16, 2004

Deaf, blind toymaker still putting in 16-hour days

From:, MI - Oct 16, 2004

The Associated Press

DURAND, Mich. (AP) — Every day for the past 15 years, Harold Riley has worked 16-hour days in a small workshop in the basement of his home, creating scale models of antique automobiles and trains that sell for hundreds of dollars throughout the state.

And for the past 15 years, Harold Riley has never seen one of his finished products.

"I don't think of myself as more special than anyone else who is deaf and blind," Riley explained through the help of his wife and interpreter, Donna. "This is who I am, and making toys is what I do."

Riley, 62, acknowledged that he has never heard the excited hum of one of his four table saws as he gets ready to create yet another of his more than 25 wooden designs.

He admitted he's never seen his finished antique fire truck, complete with an extendable ladder, or his 1930 Ford Coupe with the convertible top.

But he knows they're right.

"There's no mistakes with these," he signed excitedly on the top of his wife's right hand. "They're perfect because I remember."

Riley, who has been deaf since birth, was also born with Usher Syndrome, a rare degenerative neurological disease that affects the hearing and vision of its more than 10,000 victims in the United States, or about 3 to 6 percent of all hearing impaired children in the U.S.

But because vision loss with Usher Syndrome is degenerative due to retina piginentosa, Riley was able to live a full life in Durand, working as a press welder at F & E Manufacturing in Corunna for 28 years.

And in 1989, when Riley lost his vision completely, that did not stop him.

"They call me the most profitable guy they had over there," Riley signed with a big grin. "Even when I couldn't see and the company was closing (in 1991), I was the last person they let go."

"Harold was the last worker there when F & E's doors were locked," Donna Riley said with a smile. "That says something about his character."

Before Riley became blind, he spent spare time constructing wooden replicas of antique automobiles, airplanes and trains. Most designs range from 6 to 10 inches and sell for as little as $30 or more than $200.

Riley would go to hobby shops across the state, locate a diecast model, and reproduce a scale wooden version of the machine within weeks.

"He works a lot slower now," Donna Riley explained as she led the way to her husband's workshop in the basement. "The models he did before, he remembers. But when someone requests a new one, or he wants to try something out, it will be months before he will think it's correct. It's the perfectionist in him."

As his wife signed to him her explanation of Riley's working environment, a grin started to spread across her husband's youthful face.

"I have thrown out so many versions of my designs," he signed, laughing. "Even though I can't see them, I can feel them. I know when they aren't right. I won't keep something that isn't right."

"I've tried to help him once," Donna Riley said, smiling. "But I was fired pretty quick. I wasn't doing the wheels right."

Riley has even been asked by the Michigan International Speedway, through the help of Self Help for Independency in Michigan Equalizing the Deaf Blind to recreate a pace car for the raceway.

"The stuff he makes is just amazing," said Jeff Smith, vice president of the organization. "Harold is truly an inspiration."

Riley estimates he has built about 25 different designs of wooden models, which he sells at art trade shows across the state. Donna Riley noted her husband of six years had the most success at an art show for the deaf and blind in 2003.

"He just completed all the orders he had from that this summer," she said with a smile. "There was one lady at that show who doubted his disability — she was hearing impaired as well. She said there was no way someone deaf and blind could create work like that. We proved her wrong."

Although Riley has made thousands of dollars from his work, he is trying to take a step back from filling the many orders he's received from word-of-mouth sales. He noted he would be just as happy if he could continue to make them only for himself.

"There's some that he just won't sell," Donna Riley said, laughing. "He's trying to slow down the pressure a bit. He can get flustered more easily when working to fill orders, and that's when mistakes can happen."

Riley held out his right index finger and traced along its side.

"Eleven stitches here," he signed, laughing, referring to a years-old mishap with one of the larger table saws. "I've had five stitches on the other hand. But I know what I'm doing. Sometimes, it's just hard working under pressure."

©2004 All Rights Reserved.