When David Block says there’s a lot to him, it’s no understatement. Born legally blind and on the autism spectrum, the Ardmore resident is compelled to travel with his wares—his business card, the book he wrote, and easy access to his eight documentaries and various taped interviews with celebrities and athletes. “I don’t like to be lumped in with those more seriously challenged, so I have to prove myself,” he says. “Others say, ‘You wrote that book?’ Yes, I did. ‘You interviewed Kobe Bryant?’ Yes—four times. Taped interviews don’t lie. ‘You’ve been a sports reporter?’ Yes, I’ve been telling you that. It’s never seemed that I’m intelligent or capable enough.”
Through sheer persistence, Block, 59, has fashioned an impressive career as a freelance journalist with 1,500 bylines. He’s also been an award-winning documentary producer and director for over 30 years—and his first book, 2021’s Understanding the 613 Mitzvot, is a painstaking 500-page tribute to his Jewish faith. Next up is a book of short stories on blind athletes and others with impaired sight. There’s also a documentary about a blind street singer named John Sutton, a close friend who busked at Philadelphia’s Suburban Station.
Like that of many of his subjects, Block’s story is one of overcoming challenges by seeking comfort in what he loves. Back in the 1970s, a young Block was obsessed with the Philadelphia Warriors roller derby team. “You could say I had a one-track mind, but roller derby saved me,” he says. “And because of pro wrestling, I wasn’t scared of anyone. With both sports’ athletes, I pretended I was them, and it made me less afraid of people and more gutsy.”
Then came his obsessions with running, writing and filmmaking. “I was always focused on one thing—and though there was a vagueness, I could find my way,” says Block. “I still don’t always know what my way is, but I’m proud of the stuff I’ve done.”
Block grew up in Merion with three sisters. Somehow, their parents remained married for over 24 mostly unhappy years. Block’s father has passed, but he still has his 86-year-old mother. He’s self-sufficient, but admits, “My place is such a mess, it could make Oscar Madison walk out.”
A 1983 Lower Merion High School graduate, Block earned a BA in history at Bard College in 1988 and a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University almost 30 years later. He now teaches a night class in journalism for adults. “Fewer publications exist, so there’s more of a need for citizen journalists who need to know how to do it right,” he says. “I created that course—I’m proud.”
Block had hoped to be a fiction writer, but he was told his writing wasn’t good enough. He was rejected by seven graduate-level creative writing programs.
Growing up, Block’s father wouldn’t allow his son to learn braille and had little empathy for his shortcomings. “He’d scream if I missed a spot shaving and messed up putting on a tie,” Block recalls. “We didn’t have the best relationship. The best moment came when he finally said he didn’t know how to be a good father because he didn’t know how to deal with my disability. I was in my 30s by then.”
Block did make his father proud a few times—like when he was first published in the New York Times. “He saw the check for $150, and he made his associate copy it and put it in his files,” says Block, whose last Times article was on blind roller derby star Slammin’ Sammy Skobel in 2005.
His documentary subjects have included the plight of veterans (2008’s Abandoned Heroes), roller derby’s resurgence (2012’s This Time It’s Real: The Rebirth of Professional Roller Derby) and equine therapy for the disabled (2016’s Gift Horses). Among the honors he’s most proud of is the Inclusion Award he took home at PhillyCAM’s 2018 Cammy Awards. “When I’m done making a documentary, I’m mentally exhausted,” Block says. “I put my life into it. For my documentary on veterans, I worked for nine years and 10 months and went $35,000 in debt. But I wanted to make it so badly. That one was inside me every day like a demon.”
Block has hired Valerie Keller for numerous projects, mostly as a video editor and to help with grant applications, festival submissions and creating trailers. “David is a charismatic, somewhat quirky guy, and I’ve gotten a lot out of working for and with him,” she says.
For his documentaries, he brings in a crew he can trust, then produces and directs. “I know the shots I want,” he says. “I’ve done all the preliminary phone interviews. I transcribe everything and also use time codes, so I know where to skip to and where to match pictures with the audio. I know the footage in and out.”
Block has long covered his community for Mainlinemedianews.com and Main Line Times. “He’s a very conscientious writer, a stickler for accuracy and tries very hard to keep up with the local running scene,” says Bruce Adams, the sports editor for Mainlinemedianews.com. “He’s certainly an inspiration for anyone who’s visually or physically impaired in any way.”
Block has written voluminously for the disabled press, and he’s long covered the Penn Relays and the Philadelphia Marathon. “I’m not the disabled person’s spokesperson,” he insists. “I’m a journalist, and I like when no disability is involved—though one time I did ask Kobe Bryant if he ever tried wheelchair basketball.”
Block has also interviewed Bill Cosby, Joe Frazier, Larry Hagman, Florence Henderson, Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner, Lee Majors, Sarah Palin’s parents, David Sanborn, McCoy Tyner and Grover Washington Jr. He interviewed Cosby several times at the Penn Relays, though much of what the comedian said isn’t particularly flattering or suitable for publication. “One time, he kiddingly said, ‘I want no unsighted people bothering me,’” Block remembers. “Another time, he challenged me to a blindfolded race.”
When Cosby was convicted of sexual assault, Block wrote a letter to the Delco Times. “I didn’t defend him, but I thanked him for letting me interview him all those years,” he says. “I couldn’t jump on the Bill Cosby hate wagon because it became the thing to do.”
A late-’80s internship at Main Line Today’s sister magazine Hudson Valley sold Block on journalism. Until then, he’d only landed telemarketing jobs. Block had hoped to be a fiction writer, but he was told his writing wasn’t good enough. He was rejected by seven graduate-level creative writing programs.
In lieu of writing fiction, Block has devoured it as a reader. He uses special glasses that magnify the print. He’s read James Joyce’s Ulysses three times. “By the third time, I was ready to scream,” he admits.
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