When Joseph Ruffalo Jr. was 27, an ophthalmologist diagnosed him with a hereditary eye disease that would eventually cause blindness. The doctor told Ruffalo he shouldn’t drive anymore. 

“He didn’t say can’t,” said Ruffalo, who bought a sporty new Dodge for $3,000 in 1976. 

Driving home from Yonkers, New York, after a long day managing a shoe store, Ruffalo could barely see his exit on the Garden State Parkway. The car got too close to road workers, who shouted at Ruffalo. He drove straight to his mother’s house, parked, and called the local newspaper to advertise a car with just 3,000 miles on the odometer. 

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“Acceptance is what saved me,” said Ruffalo, president of the New Jersey affiliate of the National Foundation of the Blind since 1993.

Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey will honor Ruffalo at Dining in the Dark on Oct. 24 in celebration of Blindness Awareness Month.

“Joe is a role model in the blind community, and has been a support to many of our participants over the decades,” VLANJ Executive Director Kris Marino said.

Ruffalo was a driver in the Army during the Vietnam War until he began having problems with his vision, and then worked as a radio operator. (He earned a bronze star for his service.) After getting the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, the lifelong Bloomfield resident was determined not to let it stop him from pursuing the life he desired.

Ruffalo met his wife of 42 years, Judy, on a blind date, and they had two sons. He taught himself to use a cane and completed a state rehabilitation program. He learned his way around a kitchen so well that he ran a pastry business for more than seven years. He became a massage therapist. He joined several service organizations, including the Lions Club and the Knights of Columbus, serving in leadership positions. He headed the Special Education Parent and Professional Organization and served as chairman of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind Board of Trustees.

“There is life after blindness,” said Ruffalo, who joined NFB of New Jersey in 1988. “We can live the life we want; blindness does not hold us back!” 

Ruffalo took computer classes at VLANJ in 1996 (when it was called New Jersey Foundation for the Blind) and refers NFB members to VLANJ’s rehabilitation and wellness programs.

At Dining in the Dark, guests will enjoy a three-course gourmet meal with all their senses — except sight. They’ll wear black eye shades to briefly experience what it’s like for people who are blind or have low vision. The event at The Meadow Wood in Randolph is VLANJ’s major fundraiser of the year.

Festivities begin at 6 p.m. and include a cocktail hour, art auction, silent auction and live music. A wine pull has been added this year: guests can pull a cork for $20 and will go home with the bottle that matches the number on their cork.Vision Loss Alliance participants will serve as ambassadors, guiding diners.

Dining in the Dark tickets are $125 per person, and tables can be reserved for 10 guests for $1,000. Visit vlanj.org/save-the-date. Sponsorship opportunities are still available by contacting Director of Development Jennifer Singer at jsinger@vlanj.org or 973-627-0055 ext. 1323.

Another way to support VLANJ it to purchase bottles of wine for the wine pull. Cambridge Wines in Morristown is donating 15 percent of every purchase. Use this website link: https://www.cambridgewinesnj.com/search/vision+loss+alliance/. Select “store pickup” and VLANJ will collect the donated wines.

VLANJ is based in Denville and offers programs in Montclair and Ridgewood. 

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ABOUT VISION LOSS ALLIANCE OF NEW JERSEY

Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey is a 501(c)(3) that provides practical training and emotional support to help those who have experienced profound vision loss regain self-esteem and self-reliance. Since its founding in 1943, Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey has used a holistic approach to empower those with profound vision loss to live engaged, productive and independent lives. Go to vlanj.org for more information.