Friday, September 6, 1996
If the city could only see what it's done to him

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kenneth Burger turned 56 Monday. He did not have a happy birthday.

Sure, he got his name in the paper. And relatives called him up.

But these weren't birthday greetings.

He was being called blind and incompetent.

His reputation as a good mechanic - earned by working on cars for 41 years - was being called into question. It was this week's skirmish in the city of Cincinnati's seven-month battle to force Yellow Cab to clean up its act.

The cab company was cited in February for having taxis with altered emissions-control systems. Yellow Cab was ordered to pay $31,000 in fines and pass safety inspections by Sept. 10.

In August, Yellow Cab hired Mr. Burger - a full-time city of Cincinnati employee - to conduct the city-ordered inspections. On his own time, he checked the taxis' brakes, tires, suspension, steering, exhaust systems and lights.

Still wrangling with Yellow Cab, Mr. Burger's bosses at City Hall recently argued in court that he is not qualified to do this type of work because he's partially blind.

Ken, the repairman

Kenneth - ''feel free to call me Ken'' - Burger works in the city's municipal garage, at the old car-inspection center on Central Parkway. He fixes lawnmowers, weed trimmers and generators used in city ambulances.

''They moved me to the lawnmower shop from fixing cars - I used to work on police cars and city trucks - to rest my eyes,'' he says. ''But I can still repair just about anything that moves.''

He's not just any repairman. He's a certified auto mechanic. He's been working on cars since he was 15. He ran his own repair shop for 25 years.

Ken also is blind in his right eye. ''I fractured my skull and pinched the optic nerve in my right eye after a boating accident in 1971,'' he says.

''That accident brought me way down,'' he adds. ''It had to be my right eye. I had 20-20 vision in it.''

That was his good eye.

Ken has 20-40 vision in his left.

''My left eye has always been weak,'' he says. ''I was born cross-eyed. That eye was operated on when I was 4.

''It's weak. But I can see out of it. And I don't always have to wear glasses.

''I am not,'' he says softly, ''blind.''

But he is angry.

And hurt.

''Reports on radio and TV made it out like I need a cane to get around and I have a Seeing Eye dog.''

He does not use a cane.

''I do not own a dog.''

His co-workers have teased him ''in a nice way'' about this mess.

Right before lunch Thursday, ''one fella in the shop called for me. He said my name real loud. Another guy said, 'You don't have to yell! He's only blind. He can still hear you.' ''

Ken Burger laughed at that.

He wasn't laughing earlier in the day when his supervisor told him about the radio DJs' wisecracks.

''They were telling jokes that the guy who inspected the cabs left a Playboy on the front seat of one of the taxis.''

The Playboy was in Braille.

''I don't read Braille,'' Ken says sternly. ''Don't need to. I can see OK.''

See the hypocrisy

He can see well enough to spot hypocrisy. Since he started working for the city in 1979, Ken Burger has fixed his boss' cars.

''If I'm so blind,'' he asks, ''how come so many of my supervisors and assistant supervisors have had me work on their personal cars?''

If Ken Burger had been paid handsomely for his inspections, this might be easier to take.

''But the cab company got off dirt cheap,'' he says. ''I quoted them an hourly rate that was much less than what I earn in the garage.''

Since Monday, he's spent hours feeling hurt and aggravated.

''I can see somebody questioning my abilities,'' he says. ''But why do they have to act like I'm totally blind? Can you explain that one to me?''

I think I can.

The people who are going on about Ken Burger's sight are the ones whose vision is impaired.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.