Friday, July 20, 2007

Blind TV a reality!

When Renee Rentmeester told people she wanted to create a cooking show geared toward blind people, she ran into some hurdles.

''There were challenges in the very beginning,'' she said. 'The question I kept getting was `Why would I do a TV show for blind people?' ''

But halfway through the second season of Cooking Without Looking, producer Rentmeester has seen many of those confused looks replaced by expressions of awe and interest. The show, which airs Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. on WXEL-TV42 PBS in South Florida to an estimated audience of 1.7 million, is the first of its kind, Rentmeester said.

Three hosts, all of whom are blind or visually impaired, teach an audience how they prepare their favorite meals, demonstrating cooking techniques to help visually challenged people stay safe in the kitchen.

Nova Southeastern University's College of Optometry is underwriting the show's second season.
''We think it's a great show and we're proud to be in support of it,'' said Dr. Nicole Patterson, chief of Low Vision and Geriatrics at NSU. ``We hope to get more involved with it in the future.''

Wednesday, Cooking Without Looking was taped on location at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired at 601 SW 8th Ave.

Hosts Celia Chacon of Plantation, Annette Watkins of Sunrise and Allen Preston of West Palm Beach taught audience members how to make lasagna and a seven-layer salad.

Using detailed audio descriptions of their actions, the hosts guided the audience through the entire process of preparing the dishes, pausing to give extra tips for visually challenged people.

Rentmeester, who lives in Kendall, insisted that she wanted the program to be like any other cooking show, the only difference being the added information and tips for the blind and visually impaired.

The show is geared toward both the sighted and the visually impaired, said Rentmeester, president of Vision World Foundation, the non-profit company that produces the show.

She believes that more than half of the people who tune in to the show are neither blind nor visually impaired.

''It's not about exclusion,'' she said. ``This is for blind people and for everybody. You might have an aunt or uncle or family member that's blind. This is a way that people can learn to deal with their blindness.''

Rentmeester, who spent years working as a broadcast journalist before starting her own media relations company, said the idea for the show sprang up after she began to take an interest in the affairs of visually challenged people.

She got involved in a few local blindness related groups and began reading what many people were saying in online communities for the visually impaired and saw one issue kept coming up.
''I noticed the one topic that was very popular was cooking and people were sharing recipes and tips for cooking,'' she said. ``For example, sometimes you can tell when something's done when you're baking it by smelling it. You can stick a knife in a steak and taste the juice to see if it's done. You can microwave eggs instead of frying them.''

Chacon, who has always loved cooking, said she didn't lose her culinary skills when she lost her eyesight 13 years ago. She could fill a book with all the strategies she has learned to help her out in the kitchen, she said.

''I had to adapt in a different sense because I no longer relied on my eyes,'' said Chacon, who was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. ``I rely on my tactile skills and my smells and sounds. I'll go shopping and I can tell if tomatoes or cucumbers are ripe by the way they feel. Sometimes I tap them and listen to the sound they make.''

These are the kind of tips Chacon and the other hosts give out during the show.

On Wednesday, audience members learned how to grease a pan without missing a spot, open plastic containers without using a knife, and bake lasagna without boiling the noodles.

''There's nothing worse than burning your hands trying to use boiled lasagna,'' Watkins said, looking into the camera. ``If the sauce is saucy enough, you don't need to boil first.''

Rentmeester is convinced that the show has touched a lot of people, as she receives dozens of emails every week from both sighted and blind people.

At Nova Southeastern, the show is a hit among optometry students as well as patients in the low vision rehabilitation program, Patterson said.

The university plans to have the hosts come and teach patients some of their cooking techniques.
A number of optometrists from Nova Southeastern have been guest speakers for the show's Food for Thought segment, which introduces audience members to people who provide services to the visually impaired.

The next step is to get Cooking Without Looking shown in more markets, Rentmeester said.
''It's my dream to have this show all over the country,'' she said.


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