Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cooking for the visually impaired

''If you and I wake up blind tomorrow, we're still who we are,'' says Ren'ee Rentmeester, creator and producer of Cooking Without Looking, the first television cooking show for the blind and visually impaired. ``We have to take that disability and find a way to live with it.''

Rentmeester, 47, isn't disabled and says she had no formative experiences with blind people. It was a belief that ''we all get hurt by being left out,'' she says, that led her to create the VisionWorld Foundation, the nonprofit behind Cooking Without Looking, and put her TV expertise to work for the visually impaired.

Now in its second season, Cooking Without Looking airs on Palm Beach's WXEL-PBS 42, where Jerry Rosenberg, chairman of Boynton Beach's Macular Disease Association, is often in the studio audience.

''It's a whole new social network,'' Rosenberg says. 'Ren'ee's doing a great job. She's a very, very `up' lady.''

A TV show for people who can't see may sound like an oxymoron, but a technique called descriptive audio makes it work.

''It's like a play-by-play,'' Rentmeester says, in which a voice-over narrator describes each step the show's three visually impaired hosts perform in preparing a dish.

In the episode airing next weekend, the subject is a seven-layer salad and the setting is Miami's Lighthouse for the Blind, Cooking Without Looking's first on-location shoot.

At the July taping, Rentmeester gently steers the hosts around light poles and knots of cables in the unfamiliar kitchen. She makes sure all the ingredients are laid out in order and within the hosts' easy reach. She also heads off potential hazards -- sharp knives, hot burners, even open cabinets.
Still, there are occasional flubs, and at one point, hosts Allen Preston, Annette Watkins and Celia Chacon get the giggles.

''We have a blast,'' Rentmeester says between takes. ``People have a hard time realizing blind people have a sense of humor, too.''

The energy on the set goes beyond the cast's fondness for jokes and bad puns.

''I believe we are doing something good for blind people, encouraging them to stay independent,'' says Preston, who gets around with the help of his guide dog, John T. ``I'm glad to be part of it.''
Preston and Watkins are partially sighted and can read the script in 30-point type. Chacon is blind and must memorize her lines ahead of time.

''Even in the studio, we can't use a teleprompter,'' says Rentmeester, who believes the challenges of her show are also its strengths.

``Instead of using cooking teachers who were sighted, I wanted to use real blind people. They were the ones who would be able to give the best tips. Every single show, I'll learn something.''
Working in television was Rentmeester's dream even as a little girl growing up in Green Bay, Wis. She majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and worked at a local TV station as a production assistant.

It was far from glamorous -- she put herself through school by working as a pickle packer -- and Rentmeester was hardly star-struck. She always kept in mind what her parents taught her: ``You help people out and make them feel welcome.''

She left Wisconsin for Miami in 1983, following and soon marrying her college sweetheart. (That marriage and a second one ended in divorce.) The next year, Rentmeester became a promotion assistant at Channel 4-WTVJ, displaying the same ambition she brings to Cooking Without Looking. After finishing her day job in promotions, she would stay after hours to work on special projects, including a show about youth gangs that earned an Emmy nomination.

She also jumped into volunteer work, serving on local boards for Save the Children, the Women's Business Development Center, the American Heart Association and the March of Dimes, which named her its volunteer of the year in 1998.

In 1996, Rentmeester left Channel 4 to start her own public relations firm.

''I wanted to stretch,'' she says. ``I had the feeling I could do more on my own.''

She did a lot of online research to find an underserved group she could help. ``I surfed till I found good things.''

And those good things became VisionWorld. The nonprofit gets along on a $50,000 annual budget, and Rentmeester, who doesn't own a car, travels to tapings at WXEL's Boynton Beach studios via MetroRail and TriRail from the Kendall home she shares with her 14-year-old daughter.
''You don't need a lot of money to do good for people,'' she says.

Besides producing the show, she has used VisionWorld to assist individuals, intervening on behalf of a blind man whose condo board threatened to evict him for keeping a guide dog and helping an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration get the low-vision equipment she needed.

''The technology out there is just amazing,'' Rentmeester says. ``If people knew more about it, there would be less fear about going blind. It makes the challenge a little easier.''

Her own challenges include getting more public television stations to carry Cooking Without Looking.

''I'd like to go national,'' she says. ``We just have to change some more minds.''

And she sees more potential for using TV -- where ''you can reach out to millions of people at a time'' -- to do good in the world.

''I want to have all sorts of shows for people with disabilities,'' she says, including one she's developing now called Traveling Without Trouble.

``The biggest challenge is always in getting the funds.''

VisionWorld's underwriters include Nova Southeastern School of Optometry, the Florida Division of Blind Services and the National Federation of the Blind Newsline, but Rentmeester would welcome more. And she wouldn't mind having a car, but ``it's not big deal.

''You can get the car later. The bank account comes in the future. I feel better than I ever have before. I feel like I'm doing good for people,'' she says.

``If I know I can help someone, I can work around the clock.''


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