Jon Cauchi says he aced the pandemic edition of “Life Bingo.”
He bought a house. He got married. He started a new job. He became a father. And his lifelong affinity for humor blossomed into a stand-up comedy routine — well, kind of.
Cauchi, who became blind at age 12, performed a comedy routine called “The Real and Funny Side of Having a Disability” that brought down the house during Laughfest in March 2020. He had four gigs booked at Grand Rapids-area venues later that spring.
Then COVID-19 hit and comedy venues — and most everything else — shut down for a year or so.
“It was if the world was telling me, ‘Comedy? Hell no!’” says Cauchi, 31.
By the time vaccines were developed and gathering restrictions were lifted, Cauchi was not interested in venturing out to clubs because he was about to become a father.
He contracted the coronavirus early on — before vaccines were developed — and was “as sick as I’ve ever been in my life” for two weeks. Later, his wife, Amber, came down with COVID during her seventh month of pregnancy, leaving the Cauchis fretful about how the virus might affect their developing baby.
Fortunately, Amelia Cauchi was born healthy in February 2022. By late May, Jon Cauchi was feeling confident to resume pursuing his hobby of stand-up comedy. He played the Garage Bar in Grand Rapids.
Laughter as teacher
“Stand-up comedy gives me a chance to blow off steam, get out of the house, and take the filter off,” Cauchi says. “I like to take a step back from my everyday life experiences and emphasize the humor in it because humor is a way we can connect. It’s a way to help others understand the challenges and barriers I experience.”
Jon Cauchi uses these images to illustrate vision impairment, a term he prefers to describe his disability instead of visually impaired. The left image shows a woman on a beach. In the second image, the woman is nearly whited out.
Historically, children who were vision-impaired or blind were educated in state residential schools. In 1975, however, the Education for the Handicapped Act was passed, requiring all public schools to provide students with disabilities equal access to education.
While studies show students with visual impairments thrive when given the chance to interact with their sighted peers, the law also created new challenges because school staff, as well as students, didn’t know how to interact with people who are blind.
Growing up, Cauchi says humor was his defense mechanism to cope with the fallout of having lost his sight over a short period of time just before he started middle school.
An ophthalmologist in Detroit concluded he must be lying about not being able to see, and prescribed a placebo of Vitamin C and eye drops, he says. Later, specialists at the University of Michigan diagnosed the condition as Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a rare condition characterized by bilateral, painless sub-acute loss of central vision during young adult life.
No one else in Cauchi’s family has the hereditary condition. He says he has 6 to 24 inches of peripheral vision, depending on the day.
Playing sports and reading had been Cauchi’s favorite pastimes, but he says Livonia Public Schools administrators didn’t know how to encourage a student with blindness to follow his bliss in those areas. They decided it would be dangerous for Cauchi to participate in gym classes.
Educators also moved him to a language arts class for students with learning disabilities, believing he couldn’t keep up with reading requirements in a traditional English class. He advocated for himself to get back into regular English classes and has become a voracious reader, typically reading 50 to 60 books a year, using print magnification and recorded books.
Teachers in Livonia, as in many Michigan school districts, didn’t have specialized knowledge in how to teach students with visual impairments. During a biology lab exercise in which students were instructed to draw what they were seeing through a microscope, Cauchi reminded the teacher he could not see. The teacher‘s advice: “Try harder.”
Cauchi persevered to continue participating in his favorite sport — wrestling — but quit after his junior year of high school because his head coach was treating him poorly, sometimes calling him "Special Olympics" and "retard."
“He’d say to the others on the team, ‘Hey, you’re not going to let the blind guy beat you, are you?” Cauchi says. “Nobody wants to be called out as the low bar by which teammates are motivated.”
Cauchi says his saving grace came about nine months after he lost his vision when he attended the Michigan Sports Camp for Athletes with Visual Impairments at Western Michigan University (WMU). The camp was organized by husband and wife Dr. Paul Ponchillia and Professor Sue Ponchillia of WMU’s internationally renowned Blindness and Low Vision Studies department.
Cauchi ultimately graduated from WMU with an interdisciplinary degree in health services and disability studies. He’s since held various leadership roles in the Michigan Blind Athletic Association, which runs the camp. The camp will return in 2023 after a three-year pandemic-induced hiatus.
Finding the spotlight
Being vision impaired does make it harder to get a laugh, Cauchi says.
When the spotlight shines on him, he can’t see it. Lights are also used by the stage managers to signal when the comedian is nearing his time limit.
Cauchi only receives the audience’s auditory feedback. If they’re twisting in their seats, rolling their eyes, or yawning, he’s not going to hear that body language and won’t know to tell a new joke.
“The biggest thing is that I have to know my material inside out,” says Cauchi, who was born one month after President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). “If I lose my focus, it’s not like I can glance at notes and quickly find my place.”
Jon Cauchi is a DEIA speaker for speaker for Disability Advocates of Kent County. In the photo, Jon Cauchi, who has a beard and is wearing a gray shirt, is standing in front of monitor advertising disability awareness training.
Occasionally, Cauchi has performed with notes on a card, but consulting it disrupts the routine. Audiences may also find it disquieting that he must hold the paper very close to his face to see it out of the corner of his eye, and that it may appear he is smelling the paper, not reading it.
Stand-up comedy isn’t the only public speaking Cauchi does.
In January, Cauchi became a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility speaker for Disability Advocates of Kent County, an agency where he previously served as a youth transition specialist.
Businesses and organizations throughout Kent, Osceola, and Montcalm counties book Cauchi for 30-minute to half-day presentations on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility issues in the workplace.
His presentations are packed with wit and charm, but also get right to his point: Kind people who mean no harm often make thoughtless comments to people with disabilities.
If he’s not holding a white cane, strangers who learn he is vision impaired often exclaim, “Wow! You don’t even look blind.” This leaves the impression that the stranger thinks blind people are ugly.
Because he is unable to drive and uses public transportation, other riders are sometimes astounded that he has a full-time, professional job. (“Do they think blind people want to stay home or don’t want to work?” Cauchi wonders. “Not the case!”)
“Please don’t put me on the inspiration pedestal,” says Cauchi, who lives in Wyoming. “If somebody thinks I’m an inspiration because I go to the grocery store to buy milk, they probably need to get a life.”
By helping area businesses and organizations become more welcoming to people who have something about them that is not mainstream, Cauchi hopes to enrich the quality of life in West Michigan. He believes it’s time society started examining areas of community accessibility that the ADA doesn’t cover, like access to digital information and communication.
Cauchi can be booked through Disability Advocates of Kent County
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.