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An Untapped Market: How Ojok Simon is training the next generation of Ugandan beekeepers

Blind beekeeper Ojok Simon won the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2017, becoming one of the Prize’s first three recipients. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners this month. Read our update on Ahmet Ustunel and stay posted for news on blind baker Penny Melville-Brown later this month.

Ojok Simon starts his day with honey. He wakes up at his home in Gulu, Uganda where he lives with his wife and five children, boils water, adds a squeeze of lemon and finishes it off with a spoonful of smoky, tangy honey produced by thousands of Africanized “killer” bees he tends at his non-profit bee farm, Hive Uganda.

He then leaves his house to head to the source of the honey. He walks 10 minutes along dirt roads flanked by tall grasses to the main roadside where he hops on a two-wheeler and travels along what he calls the “dancing roads” of the rural, agricultural district.

Ojok Simon addresses a classroom of Hive Uganda trainees.
Ojok Simon addresses a classroom of Hive Uganda trainees.

As an inaugural 2017 Holman Prizewinner, Ojok set out to train other blind people in rural Gulu how to keep bees as a means of livelihood — and he’s achieved just that. Since winning the prize last year, Ojok and his six fellow trainers have more than tripled their capacity, training 36 blind and low vision beekeepers within a 40-kilometer radius of the Hive Uganda homebase. As of August, he was slated to train 11 more before the end of his Holman Prize year.

Ojok established Hive Uganda in 2013. Partially blind since childhood, Ojok observed the disparaging mindsets around disability and rampant unemployment in the blindness community, and saw an opportunity to help his blind peers cultivate a better quality of life.

“The Holman Prize has helped us improve our infrastructure and expand our operations,” he says, noting the significant boost to capacity that the Prize allowed for. “We have strengthened our foundation base and opened the door for more connections and networking all over the world. Even after the money from the Holman Prize is spent, it will continue to give hope for other people to see and believe in what we’re doing.”

Ojok exudes warmth and optimism. His smile is boisterous and welcoming, lacking restraint. He possesses the kind of openness that often fades into adulthood, lessened by the strain of responsibility and hardship. In light of Ojok’s experience with violence at the hands of Ugandan rebels — his infectious joy seems even more remarkable.

In 1989, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked Ojok’s home in the middle of the night. Nine years old at the time, Ojok stood up in bed — confused and half asleep. As the rebels searched for children, and boys in particular, they hit him multiple times in the side of the head with the blunt end of a gun to prevent him from fleeing. Due to a lack of proper medical attention, Ojok progressively lost sight in his left eye, with his right eye suffering damage as well.

“Growing up in an area with such conflict, you experience a lot of trauma,” he says. “It’s at the core of my people. So many people, like myself, have lost their vision because of war. After the incident, I thought there was no hope for my life. Life was painful. My dream had been to be a doctor and serve my peers. But after I lost my sight I thought I would not study or gain the skills I needed. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my uncle was beaten and also lost his sight. He gave me a way to follow — he was a role model for me.”

Legally blind by 1993, Simon learned braille in one year and joined a blind branch of high school in Gulu. With some basic rehabilitation, Ojok started to move forward and tackle his disability head on.

Fast forward to 2002 when Simon obtained a brailler and started school at Lakeside College in the capital city of Kampala. Here, Simon honed his skills on a typewriter, which made assimilating into this school much easier with his non-braille using cohorts. He graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in development studies and became the first visually impaired person in Gulu to finish this level of schooling.

And though Ojok was deliberate in his pursuit of education, his entrée into beekeeping was a chance encounter. One night, lost in the fields near his house, Ojok stumbled upon a clay pot, inhabited by a beehive. A barrage of bee stings sent him packing, but Ojok returned to harvest the honey. After bringing the honey back to his family and quietly pilfering another clay pot for more bees to colonize — he had the makings of a budding bee farm. Word quickly spread through his community that there was honey in production, and that the beekeeper was blind. They had to see, and taste, for themselves.

Ojok stands with a group of friends and fellow trainers, holding jars of Hive Uganda honey.
Ojok stands with a group of friends and fellow trainers, holding jars of Hive Uganda honey.

“Tasting that honey, I found myself with a lot of energy,” says Ojok. “When we started serving honey to the people who didn’t have it, they wanted to come and see for themselves. They could not imagine a blind person being able to provide honey to the family and the community. I started building new friendships and community ties.”

And this is the very crux of Ojok’s work through the Holman Prize. The outcomes are two-fold: Hive Uganda trains blind people a valuable life skill, and in doing so, positions them as experts and leaders in a nationally viable market that directly supports their communities.

As the main agricultural region of northern Uganda, approximately 90% of Gulu’s inhabitants work in an industry centered around cotton, tea, coffee, corn, sorghum and tobacco. But according to experts, there is a huge potential to expand beekeeping and honey production in the region. Uganda harvests only 1% of a potential 500,000 tons of honey per year. Despite being only one of five countries in sub-Saharan Africa licensed to export honey to the EU, Uganda has failed to meet home-grown demands for honey, let alone export to this potential market.

The training model is economically and environmentally sound — though challenges remain, including locating blind participants and continuing to secure sources of funding, like the Holman Prize.

A big part of Hive Uganda’s work involves direct outreach to nearby villages to identify blind participants, as well as securing venues for training groups in remote locations. Trainees are an even split of men and women, and range widely in age. Hive Uganda funds trainees’ daily commute and supports them in renting accommodations when necessary. Trainings are split into theoretical and practical training, with 10 days of classroom work and 10-12 days of fieldwork, where trainees start working directly with the hives. The trainings also builds in two to three days of foundational orientation and mobility — i.e. cane skills — which is part of their theoretical curriculum.

Ojok says his courses are standard beekeeping courses with slight adjustments in technique for blind beekeepers. Essentially, he says, blind beekeepers rely more on a sense of touch and smell to tell if a beehive is healthy. When the frame of a hive is heavy with honey and gives off the subtle aroma of sweet corn — it’s probably ready for harvesting. Other blind-friendly techniques include placing landmarks like wooden rails and fences to and from the hives.

When the trainees finish a course, the trainers furnish them with four “hollow-tree” hives and help with transport to their chosen local site. It’s during this trip that they involve the local community, including one-on-one trainings with family members and neighbors.

“Involving the community builds self-sustainability,” says Ojok. “Here we are trying to change the mindset of people towards blind people. Our students become very sensitive to community development. They will teach the community about safe water practices or provide health education to their community. They become community leaders.”

And it’s through these outcomes that Ojok realized, perhaps he had become a doctor after all, though in a slightly different sense than he had imagined.

“I don’t even regret that I became blind and didn’t become a doctor,” he says. “Because I’m serving the people, my people — the marginalized, the forgotten society.”

And through reframing his own differences as a strength, he’s realized that perhaps we’re best off when we stop valuing people for their similarities, and start accepting and loving our fellow humans for what makes them unique.

“Nobody will ever be the same as another person. We all have differences, it’s how we distinguish each other. But most importantly, we are all human beings, sharing the same oxygen. We all have a brain and we all need support from one another, whether you’re blind or you’re not blind. What is blindness and what is non-blindness? It’s all about perception.”

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy CervenkaConchita Hernández and Red Szell. Ojok and his fellow 2017 prizewinners will visit San Francisco in November 2017 to speak at the LightHouse Gala.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.

Tour the Salesforce Transit Center with LightHouse

On Sunday at midnight, the “Grand Central Station of the West” opened, right in our backyard. The new San Francisco Transbay Terminal, now known as the Salesforce Transit Center, is a 4.5 billion dollar, 1 million square foot development project, to include public parks, shops and a hub for the city’s buses, trains and eventually, high-speed rail.

San Francisco is clamoring with excitement about the opulent 1,000 foot facility, marked by the now-famous Salesforce Tower. If you’d like to read about the project, there are plenty of places: the Examiner does a good job describing the new Transit Center inside and out. But at LightHouse, we wanted to offer a hands-on opportunity for our blind community to get to know this fantastic new public resource.

Our LightHouse Training Department is pleased to let you know that LightHouse Orientation and Mobility Specialist(s) will be providing individual 2-hour Orientation Training at no charge to experienced commuters.  Orientation will be available Monday through Friday specific to the immediate incoming transit levels and connections to San Francisco transit our blind commuters. If you are a current Blind or Low Vision Commuter has regularly been using the Temporary Transbay Terminal, you may contact our Specialist in two ways. If you have been a student of the LightHouse in the past three years, please email Gina di Grazia as you likely are in our database.  If you are brand new to training at the LightHouse we request that you link to our LightHouse Registration Form and register as a new student.  Please request Transbay Terminal Orientation in the Program Interest section so that your registration and request is directly linked to our Orientation and Mobility Specialist.

With the good fortune of a Federal Grant, we are able to provide two hours of orientation at no charge during August and September.  To reiterate, initially we are targeting those commuters who need to know their routes for their pre-existing needs first. We expect to have a high volume of requests, so if you are already working with a mobility instructor through DOR, please connect with them first. The LightHouse will plan to offer small group orientation tours come the beginning of Fall to get further acquainted with the Sales Force Transit Center, dates will be planned and posted as our interest grows. For those of you who are new to blindness or Orientation and Mobility Training and you are interested in training with the LightHouse, you can get started by emailing info@lighthouse-sf.org.

CalABLE: A New Way for Californians On SSI to Save Money

Four years ago, disability advocate Stephen Beck Jr. presented a simple but troubling problem to Congress: his daughter, who had Down Syndrome and received Supplemental Security Income (SSI), was prohibited from saving any money. Any income exceeding the most basic of living expenses would trigger a benefits cut-off –– and in some cases cause her to owe the government money. This is a situation blind people are all too familiar with, wherein the system that is made to support them often holds them back.

In 2014, spurred by Beck’s story, 85% of Congress joined forces to sign the ABLE Act: a federal update to tax law that would allow individuals with disabilities to save up to $100,000 in a designated bank account, to achieve a higher standard of living before their benefits were revoked.

Dozens of states have instituted ABLE Accounts, and this week California announced that it would be the next. On August 8th, California State Treasurer John Chiang announced that California’s ABLE program will launch by the end of the year, allowing all Californians on SSI to finally create a better foundation for their financial futures.

TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc. (TFI) will administer the program, called CalABLE. CalABLE is the California version of the federal ABLE Act.

“The ABLE Act is the most significant law for people who are blind, visually impaired, or disabled since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law,” said Dante Allen, executive director for CalABLE. “We are very excited to be one step closer to launching CalABLE so that Californians can fully benefit from the financial flexibility and independence that this program will inspire.”

Participants can deposit online or by check to their accounts, and can invite family and friends to contribute directly to the account. The program also provides resources for investment options.

TFI was chosen by the CalABLE board vote due to the firm’s “low costs, proposed investment portfolio that offered simple choices for enrollees with clear preferences, and the simplicity of its program for those new to such a savings program,” according to the release.

“TFI’s selection means we’re one step closer to turning on CalABLE’s ‘Open for Business’ sign,” said Chiang in a release. “TFI’s expertise and oversight are a welcome help in reaching Californian’s with disabilities and their families, who will soon be able to save up to $15,000 a year, tax free, without jeopardizing their federal and state assistance.”

Under the current system, people who receive SSI are prohibited from saving more than $2,000 without losing their benefits. This is severely limiting for people throughout CA communities, including the 70 percent of blind adults who are unemployed.

“No one should have to fear losing their disability benefits because they decided to save wisely and invest in their future,” Chiang said in a release. “This program will help ensure no Californian with a disability will be penalized for thinking ahead.”

LightHouse will continue to cover these developments and announce when CalABLE is up and running. To continue to receive updates about these and similar programs, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

EHC Rises Again: An Update from Our Biggest Teen Session Ever

Our official #RebuildEHC Volunteer Day is October 6, 2018. Join us on the first anniversary of the fires at EHC by signing up, pitching in and laying the groundwork for years to come. Contact aferrari@lighthouse-sf.org to sign up.

Sitting next to the lake and surveying the 311-acre grounds of Enchanted Hills Camp, you might never know that just last October, a fire tore through parts of camp and damaged more than 20 structures, big and small. It was a trying time, but despite the fires, this summer’s recovered camp has never been more vibrant.

We just wrapped up the largest teen camp session ever, and 64 teens spread out across lower and upper camp — learning karate in the Kiva, playing Monopoly in the dining hall, braiding friendship bracelets in the Hogan, woodworking in the Art Barn, riding horses along the nature trails and fishing on the lake.

But to look a little closer, you’d find that things aren’t quite the same as in previous summers. After eight months of hard work, we reopened Enchanted Hills for a full 2018 summer and offered almost every session that generations have come to love since the camp opened in 1950. And despite challenges, upgrades to EHC have it looking better than ever.

Tony Fletcher, Director of EHC, reflects on this summer season. “Watching the adult campers, family campers and youth campers enjoy themselves so much and adapt to the modifications we have had to make to run camp this summer, reinforced my belief that the show must go on,” he says. Tony, who started working at LightHouse in 1989, just celebrated his 29th year of working in the blindness community. “There’s no way I could let a summer go by without us operating.”

So, what are some of the modifications? After the loss of the 10 cabins in lower camp that housed 120 campers and counselors, we knew we would have to find a swift and safe solution if we wanted to hold summer camp. Enter the Sweetwater Bungalows.

With their durable wooden frames, and breathable waterproof white canvas walls, the eight bungalows provide a sturdy and airy structure for a variety of weather conditions. The bungalows are eco-friendly and off the grid; we installed solar panels, which enable the bungalows to light up at night. One of the biggest adjustments for our campers has been the lack of plugs in their sleeping quarters to charge their mobile devices. What the bungalows lack in electricity, however, they gain in proximity to the pool and Dining Hall compared to the original lower camp structures.

The lakeside cabins got spruced up, too. Although they did not burn, thick smoke permeated the walls, windows and furniture. The cabins have new paint, bedding, flooring and windows. For the first time, some of our youth slept in the lakeside cabins so that we could hold the same number of campers in 2018 as we hosted in 2017.

One of the other concerns after the fire was the loss of habitats for the animals who live at camp. A lot of work went into removing weeds and brush and we continue to remove many of the trees that were charred in the fire, so that all those who live at EHC, animal and human, will have a safe place to live. We’ve even added new animals to camp. Two donkeys, Citizen and Quill, now keep company with our goats Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher, who were rescued during the fires by the Napa Community Animal Response Team.

Many of the changes are less structural and more to express the spirit of community and fun that has gone into the rebuild. On the maroon fence that surrounds the swimming pool in lower camp there are large yellow plastic dots that spell out “Swimmin Pool” in Braille lettering. There is no letter G, but there is a cluster of dots forming a happy face to welcome you to the pool. Signs are up all along the roads thanking counselors and Americorps members for their contributions, and brightly colored flower pots are speckled throughout the gardens, right from Donald Sirkin’s own estate.

LightHouse Social Media Specialist Christina Daniels looks at a new bright yellow braille sign on the pool fence that reads 'Swimmin' Pool.'
LightHouse Social Media Specialist Christina Daniels looks at a new bright yellow braille sign on the pool fence that reads ‘Swimmin’ Pool.’

Another new addition to is one you can hear as you drive into upper camp. Outside the dining hall sit two PowerShowdown tables. Part table tennis and part air hockey, the object of the game is to bat the ball off the side wall, along the table, under the center screen, and into the opponent’s goal. All players wear sleep shades, making this a great game for blind and sighted people to play together. Chris Keenan, owner of Keenan’s Cabinets of Distinction, makes the tables. He and his wife Kelly personally drove to EHC to deliver them and took a mini-vacation at the newly reopened camp.

Working to rebuild EHC has involved careful prioritization of which buildings to reconstruct first. Next up is the tractor barn, as it will hold tools to reconstruct future buildings. Constructing a pool shade structure and bath house with improved showers and bathrooms also tops the list.

The combined work of PG&E, FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA ensured EHC was safe after the fires. After that, volunteer organizations moved in to help with the cleanup, and continue to volunteer.

Individuals have also volunteered their time, including neighbors in the surrounding Mt. Veeder area, and we are organizing a special day where the EHC community can come together to help in the rebuilding efforts. A year after the fires, we will have a Community Volunteer Day on October 6. Allyson Ferrari, Volunteer Engagement Specialist, says, “I’m really excited for this day because it’s going to be an excellent opportunity to bring our community together and contribute in our efforts to rebuild, so that camp remains a cornerstone for many generations to come.” For more information about the EHC Community Volunteer Day, contact Allyson at aferrari@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7320.

Besides volunteering, you can donate to help #RebuildEHC in several ways. You can visit our donation page, use your mobile device to text REBUILDEHC to 501-55 or contact Jennifer Sachs at 415-694-7333 or jsachs@lighthouse-sf.org, and tell her you want to help “Rebuild EHC”. Without hundreds of people working thousands of hours, EHC 2018 summer season would not have been possible. We are grateful for the outpouring of support.

Get paid to watch movies: Seeking blind CA residents for paid AMC Theatres user study

Like movies with audio description? Want to contribute to the accessibility of the AMC Theatres audio description experience for blind patrons?

LightHouse is seeking a limited number of committed, detail-oriented Bay Area and Los Angeles residents over age 18 for a multi-part, paid usability testing project.

In 2017, the LightHouse settled a lawsuit with AMC Theatres wherein AMC agreed to ensure that audio description equipment was installed and properly maintained in all theaters.

This study is part of the continued collaboration between LightHouse and AMC to ensure straightforward and seamless access to audio description for all theater patrons. Study participants will document information about the audio description experience at pre-selected AMC theaters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles between September 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019.

Study Commitment

Please apply to participate in this study if you can commit to the following:

  1. Attend eight (8) movies at pre-selected AMC theater locations between September 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019.
  2. Complete a detailed task list and document your findings from each of the eight theater visits. Some task examples are:
  • Pre-visit preparation
    • Check the AMC website and app to find a movie with audio description then call the theater to learn whether staff can provide information about the service for the desired movie.
  • Experience at the theater and during a movie
    • Determine whether the audio description equipment is properly functioning.
  • Post movie survey
    • Complete and submit a survey about your experience within 48 hours of attending each movie.
    • Detailed instructions will be sent if you are selected for study participation.

Tester Selection

If you are interested in participating, please follow this link to locate the application form. Because this study requires clearly written information with your findings, the form contains an opportunity to demonstrate your writing skills. Please carefully consider your availability during the study period before applying, as we wish to locate individuals who will commit to attending all eight (8) movies, taking notes on experiences and documenting findings by completing the post theater visit survey.

What’s in it for you?

  • Eight free movie passes (one for each of the eight movies you will attend)
  • $50 for each post theater visit survey you complete and submit
  • The satisfaction of helping improve the audio description accessibility experience for blind and low-vision AMC patrons nationwide

If you would like to participate in this study and believe you can commit to the requirements, please follow the link below.

Sign Up for the Study

LightHouse’s Access Technology Department works with organizations, government agencies and companies on product design, functional accessibility and small-to-large-scale user testing studies like this one. Learn more about our accessibility consultancy.

LightHouse’s MAD Lab designs tactile comic strips for the Charles M. Schulz Museum

Charlie Brown and Snoopy are some of the most well-known characters of all time. By the time Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz retired in December 1999, the comic strip had run for 50 years and been syndicated in over 2,600 newspapers worldwide, with book collections translated into more than 25 languages.

Peanuts is universally human in its sarcastic, nostalgic, bittersweet, silly, realist and occasionally fanciful humor. Schulz filtered his own dark irreverence into the trials and tribulations of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and the rest of the characters many of us came to know and love. It is, fundamentally, a story of a dream not quite achieved — and how, even so, another day will come to pass.

A view of the Charles M. Schulz museum lobby.
A view of the Charles M. Schulz museum lobby.

It’s for its universality and renown that the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa remains dedicated to making Peanuts accessible to all — including the blind and low vision community. Just this month, the LightHouse MAD Lab worked with the Schulz Museum to create a tactile representation of a four-panel Peanuts strip first published on July 31, 1951.

The museum’s School and Youth Programs Coordinator Monica Hernandez initiated the collaboration after learning more about museum accessibility while studying at SF State, and to prepare for the museum’s second Accessible Tours Day, which will be held on September 23, 2018.

“As I understand it, often people with disabilities are told that they’re too expensive, that it’s too much trouble or effort to take on a project like this,” says Hernandez. “That’s not what we’re about. We try to do our best with accessibility at the museum.”

“The comic strip and Peanuts in general are such an accessible and universal topic,” she continues. “People from all over the world love and know and understand Snoopy. Schulz put a little bit of himself into every character, and we all relate to at least one of them — whether it’s the innocent and gullible Charlie Brown or Peppermint Patty because she’s good at sports.”

The strip in question was chosen deliberately in hopes of demonstrating the evolution of the (arguably) most beloved characters — Charlie Brown and Snoopy. An earlier depiction, the strip shows Snoopy running on all four legs (he later evolved to his more recognizable upright, two-legged stance) and a youthful, oblong-headed Charlie (into the 90s, his neck and torso elongated and he adopted a wobbly, anxious mouth).

Charlie Brown challenges Snoopy to a race: “Snoopy, let’s have a race!” When Snoopy sets off, Charlie Brown stays put: “Ah, now I can eat this candy in peace!”

It’s a sweet a simple strip that offers some insight into the very beginnings of the Peanuts’ long and storied history and evolution. MAD Lab’s 10″ X 11″ Direct UV prints used the simplicity of Schulz’s bold lines to their advantage — one set of the ensuing tactile representations feature one-to-one raised lines and braille descriptions. A second set used used various fills, textures and relief heights to differentiate between the overlapping figures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

MAD Lab’s Senior Designer Naomi Rosenberg found the project to be a great exercise in translation: “We’re trying to stay as true to the original comic strip as possible, but translate it in a way that makes sense to the touch,” she says. “Pairing tactiles with succinct descriptions provided by the museum was a great approach. They really had the right intentions and a good understanding of the needs of blind users. There’s something exciting about working with a museum that sees a lot of kids and school groups coming through. The project might have an impact on exposing kids to tactiles early on.”

Hernandez was very happy with the project’s outcome and looks forward to seeing how the community receives the strip during Accessible Tours Day.

“It was so great working with the MAD Lab on this project and learning from their expertise,” says Hernandez. “They were very positive and warm throughout the process and openly offered suggestions. The project will go a long way for increasing the Museum’s accessibility and starting further conversations and projects around access.”

Accessibility at the Charles M. Schulz Museum

Schulz himself initiated accessible projects including a braille version of “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”, which can be viewed at the museum upon request.

MAD Lab’s tactile comic strip is also on view by request and will be available for viewing the museum’s Accessible Tours Day on Sunday, September 23 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Special tours will be available for deaf, hard of hearing and low vision visitors led by trained docents with sign-language interpreters throughout the morning.

To reserve your tour time in advance call 707-284-1263 or email monica@schulzmuseum.org. Tours are included with regular museum admission and the museum also offers large-print booklets of exhibition text at the front desk for low vision visitors.

Contact the MAD Lab

To contract for custom tactile maps of your neighborhood, workplace or university or propose a museum project like this one, visit http://lighthouse-sf.org/braille-and-accessible-design/.

To get to the other side: The Blind Captain makes his mark

If you picked up a newspaper, turned on the TV or navigated any Istanbul-based news site last weekend, you probably came across the story of 2017 Holman Prizewinner Ahmet Ustunel. It took two technical failures, three last-minute schedule changes, and a whole lot of training and improvisation – but we are pleased to share that, at just before 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 21, Ahmet The Blind Captain successfully navigated a hardshell ocean kayak solo, across the Bosphorus Strait, crossing from Asia to Europe without any visual cues.

A clipping of a Turkish newspaper shows Ahmet paddling out on the water with a headline in the Turkish language.
A clipping of a Turkish newspaper shows Ahmet paddling out on the water with a headline in the Turkish language.

For those who tried to view the historic event online: reality and ingenuity caused Ahmet to scrap the anticipated webcast in order to take advantage of an unanticipated time window.

Ahmet jumped into his kayak ahead of schedule, at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 21. Ditching the original plan on the advice of the coast guard, Ahmet aimed to take advantage of a window when shipping traffic was calm. He was told that the window was only a half an hour; a bit of a shock considering that he was originally planning on taking 90 minutes to make the 3-mile crossing. Suddenly, he had one third of the time he expected to get across the 3-mile expanse.

In the lead-up to the crossing, things had become more and more hectic. Ahmet had a few crucial bits of tech bite the dust just fifteen minutes before getting in the boat – the result of water damage from a capsizing during one of Ahmet’s training sessions earlier in the week. So when the time came, Ahmet reached for old standby tools: namely the Ariadne GPS app, a Victor Stream Reader, and good ol’ Mister Beep, outfitted to give him vibrating compass feedback as he worked furiously to hit each waypoint across the daunting mid-Bosphorus shipping highway.

Ahmet embraces his wife, Dilara, after reaching the other side of the Bosphorus.
Ahmet embraces his wife, Dilara, after reaching the other side of the Bosphorus.

“The only thing I was thinking was about paddling,” he said last Sunday, still a little buzzed from the day. And it’s remarkable that he was able to focus. It was all he could do to keep coast guard, friends and journalists from crowding him on all sides, indicating for them to hang back as they eagerly trailed his progress at every turn. It wasn’t hard to know he had reached the other side, either:,100 meters from his destination, he heard the sounds of cheering: friends, family and TV news cameras, welcoming him back with an audible beacon that made it easy to find his final waypoint.

As he celebrated on the shore, overheated and overwhelmed, Ahmet rebelled, jumping back off the dock and into the water – to cool off – but maybe also to show one last display of independence and remind everyone that he was entirely at ease on his home shores.

The beautiful thing about Ahmet’s achievement is not so much one feat of strength or bravery: it’s the consistency, the team work, the flexible and improvisatory way that he adapted to the challenges that inevitably presented themselves, his insistence on staying the course and doing things on his own steam when everyone else would gladly step in to help.

This isn’t the end for Ahmet. His newfound confidence as a blind sailor and the support of the Holman Prize now make him feel able to take on yet more adventures. He assures us that he plans to cross the strait again next year – this time, when no one is paying attention. “If in 20 years, it’s still amazing for a blind person to navigate a kayak solo,” he always reminds us, “then we haven’t done our job.”

Ahmet will be on one of three Holman Prizewinners to present on his year-long adventures at the first-ever LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition, on November 29, 2018. Get your gala tickets today.

For more updates about our other five Holman Prizewinners, follow us on Facebook and visit holmanprize.org.

Access Technology

The Access Technology department at LightHouse is here to facilitate the use of accessible technology among people of all ages and levels of expertise, as well as groups and companies seeking education or consulting.

We welcome those with changing vision or visual impairment to come explore ways to make their phone, computer or other devices easier and more comfortable to use. We’re here to help you find new technology tools to stay productive at work, or keep in touch with friends and family.

Training

Whether you’re just getting started with access technology, or you need to update your skills to keep pace with the latest and greatest tools and apps, LightHouse is here to help.

We have a variety of resources to educate and introduce you to different technology, and the ways you can use them. Our staff will take the time to learn about you, your needs and interests and the technologies you may have used in the past.

With an instructor, you can explore whether magnification, speech, Braille or a combination of these tools will best suit your needs.

You can meet one-on-one with an access technology instructor, and work on skills that will help you achieve your personal and professional goals. We also have group workshops to build skills and connect with the LightHouse community.

A male student uses magnification during an Access Technology training at LightHouse.

Corporate Accessibility Consulting

We invite companies updating their technology, or seeking an accessibility evaluation to make an appointment with the Access Tech department. Contact us about your company’s specific needs, and we can discuss how to help.

Here are a few of the services we offer:

Design consulting —We can help you plan and design a product that is accessible from the ground up.

Functional accessibility review — We utilize our expert access technologists to assess your website or app from an accessibility perspective.

User testing sessions — We organize our blind and visually impaired user testers of all backgrounds and levels of vision to provide feedback on your product or service.

Press for our consulting services:

TechCrunch: LightHouse Access Tech Director Erin Lauridsen interview on ‘Bullish’

The Verge: Soundscape, our new design consulting project with Microsoft

CNN: Erin Lauridsen on Google’s AI Technology 

Connect with us:

To sign up for access technology training, contact skuan@lighthouse-sf.org.

For design consulting and user testing services, contact elauridsen@lighthouse-sf.org.

 

Photos: Meet the YES Academy class of 2018

On Saturday, July 21, students gathered to celebrate their graduation from the Youth Employment Series (YES) Academy, LightHouse’s employment readiness program. Students ages 16 to 24 attended the month-long immersive program, which aims to build confidence through learning first-hand knowledge, collaborating, identifying strengths and interests and gaining a sense of direction through interactive work-based experiences.

Students organized, prepared and served a three-course dinner for the occasion. The graduates looked sharp in semi-formal attire that they selected and styled in conjunction with a professional attire seminar and a group outing to Macy’s.

Jose serves pasta to a table of guests
Jose serves freshly cooked pasta with meatballs to a table of guests
Kayla, her mother and a friend enjoying dinner seated at the table
Kayla, her mother and a friend enjoy salad and appetizers

Meet YES Academy 2018

This year’s YES Academy students each had their own immersive job experience in the community, commuting to and from work while staying in the residential facilities at the LightHouse’s downtown San Francisco headquarters. We caught up with them at the YES family banquet this weekend. Their names are listed alongside the company that they worked at this summer, along with quotes from each student about their experience.

Portrait of Kyle
Portrait of Kyle

Kyle – Center for Independent Living

“I did some inventorying of random assistive technology tools that they had. I also helped administer a presentation at senior retirement housing, where we showed off some assistive technology tools that might be able to help them.”

Portrait of Jose
Portrait of Jose

Jose – LightHouse Sirkin Center

“You need to manage your time, [otherwise] stuff starts to pile up.”

Portrait of Andy
Portrait of Andy

Andy – LightHouse Sirkin Center

“I packaged toilet paper to send off to war-torn countries. That was a very good experience.”

Portrait of Erick
Portrait of Erick

Erick – LightHouse Sirkin Center

“I actually had to do different stuff including reworking, sorting items, and then I had to do some machinery work.”

Portrait of Santiago
Portrait of Santiago

Santiago – Call of the Sea

“I went through the entire website catalog, all of the pages, and I looked at what was accessible, what was not accessible, what was somewhat accessible and needed to be improved. I wrote a business report with the details as to what needed to be improved and what the best way would be to improve it.”

Portrait of Steven
Portrait of Steven

Steven – Call of the Sea

“Me and my partner Santiago just worked on business reports, analyzing the company’s website and seeing how we can make it more accessible and what next steps the company needs to do to make it possible for blind or visually impaired people to access their website easier.”

Portrait of Kayla
Portrait of Kayla

Kayla  Roxie Theater

“It’s motivated me to send my resume and apply for other jobs.”

Portrait of Richard
Portrait of Richard

Richard – Roxie Theater

“I worked at the cash register. I wasn’t good at it but I kept at it, and I got better, and now it’s not a weakness anymore.”

 Looking for more information or to get involved in LightHouse Youth programs? Email youth@lighthouse-sf.org

 

Crossing the Bosphorus: Here’s how “the Blind Captain” will pull off his solo kayaking journey

Tune in to the livestream of Ahmet’s crossing!

Ahmet Ustunel won the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2017, becoming one of the prize’s first three recipients. On July 21, he will complete his project in one great flourish: with a solo trip across one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, alone in a kayak. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners this month, and we will continue to provide updates on the projects of our other two prizewinners from 2017, Penny Melville-Brown and Ojok Simon, as the summer continues.

In the hills of Istanbul, there aren’t always sidewalks. To get to where you’re going, you have to hug the sides of the busy streets, sharing the roads with the cars, bicycles and lifeforms of this city of 15 million. This is Ahmet Ustunel’s summer commute, a 90-minute trip that he takes each morning to the very Southeastern tip of Europe to the shores of the mid-city shipping channel known as the Bosphorus Strait, where he practices for his solo journey across the waterway at the end of the month.

Ahmet is starting to get a bit nervous. It’s early July, hot every day and this blind San Francisco schoolteacher has returned to his native ground to begin, quietly, the greatest adventure of his life. For the last seven months, he has lived on the water – venturing from his home back in San Francisco to seek out the Bay Area’s aquatic offerings nearly every week, sometimes with friends and sometimes, alone. He’s not nervous on the water. But he also knows that technology is a fickle friend. And with the devices he relies on to navigate, technical failure is a likelihood.

“I feel like I’m working full-time,” says Ahmet. “I’m pretty much working 16 hour days. Including the commute, my training takes eight to 10 hours. Then I take care of paperwork, permits so that we can film, logistics, finding a support boat.” Ahmet’s journey, it turns out, is more a test of planning and anticipating challenges than strength or skill.

Sound travels differently on the water. It slows down and dances lazily in the cool pocket of air just above the water’s surface. This can have an amplifying effect, making sound appear closer from great distances, but it comes with a price: sounds also stretch and bend, ricocheting off choppy breaks and skipping along with deceptive ease when the water is calm.

For a lone blind boater, this is a real consideration. “You can’t really pinpoint if something is going to hit you or pass by,” Ahmet tells me from Turkey earlier this week. It’s 10 p.m. there, but I can hear the sounds of the city behind him over the phone, like he’s out taking a stroll. “The sounds stretch out on the water. That’s the problem,” he says. “It’s not like listening to a car and realizing if you are in its way or not. And if it’s a big boat, most of them have their engines on the back so you hear the sound farther, but the boat is actually closer. You can have a 70 meter boat, like the size of a football field, but because the engine is on the back the boat is actually 70 meters closer than it sounds.”

Ahmet Ustunel pulls his kayak to shore while training for his solo journey across the Bosphorus Strait.
Ahmet Ustunel pulls his kayak to shore while training for his solo journey across the Bosphorus Strait. Photo courtesy of the Blind Captain.

One of the busiest waterways in the world, the Bosphorus is a highway for ships threading the needle between Europe and Asia. Ahmet was raised in this industrial landscape. Totally blind since age 3, Ahmet grew up on these shores, swam on these beaches, and most of all, dreamed of a day when he could captain a boat. Decades later and fully assimilated to life in America, wending his way through the bustling and at times chaotic infrastructure of Istanbul makes him feel a bit rusty.

When it comes to heavy traffic, the strait carries more than 40,000 boats and ships a year (approximately 110 a day). “I’m not afraid of capsizing or ending up in the water,” he says. “It’s fine. But the boats – they don’t pay attention. Most of the time they don’t look around. They assume that you are going to get out of their way, and that’s the only thing that scares me on the water.”

In an uncharacteristically theatrical move, Ahmet attaches his white cane to his kayak, sticking up right out of the stern. But the cane, which serves as a valuable navigation tool on the streets, is useless in water.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 21 (12 a.m. on Friday night in Pacific Time), Ahmet will attempt the journey he’s been planning since applying to the Holman Prize in January 2017 – here’s how he’ll do it:

Ahmet’s vehicle of choice is a Hobie hard-shell kayak, with a foot-paddle system that allows him to power the craft by pedaling, like a bicycle. In his left hand, he’ll hold a lever that runs down to the kayak’s rudder and allows him to steer and keeping his right hand free to manage his navigational devices.

Ahmet shows his sonar navigation system to a fellow blind sailor named Ben.
Ahmet shows his sonar navigation system to a fellow blind sailor named Ben.

The tech, which Ahmet developed with a team of volunteer engineers (many of whom also work at AT&T, in Atlanta) is fairly simple, but comprised of a delicate orchestra of devices that weren’t necessarily made to work together. There’s a talking depth sensor that Ahmet has repurposed to identify objects at a horizontal rather than vertical distance; a non-visual compass of sorts called Mr. Beep (originally an aid for blind rowers), which Ahmet has hacked to send vibrating feedback to his left or right hands to show direction while keeping his ears free to listen to traffic; and of course his phone, which will mostly function to livestream his progress to the world.

Ahmet’s friends on land will help him scope out the strait the morning of the launch, settling on a time when there’s the least likelihood of him paddling straight into a nautical traffic jam. But once Ahmet sets his boat in the water, he’s on his own, first paddling out 20 or 30 meters by hand, then pedaling by foot. The current is strong on the straight, stronger than northern California’s Tomales Bay, where Ahmet has practiced on his own in the past.

When he reaches the shipping highway in the middle, he’ll have to decide if it’s safe to cross. That’s when things become a bit risky. In case of emergency, Ahmet has developed a three-tiered code system with his support team, who could radio him at danger level 3 to let him know he’s on a collision course with a ship. At that point it’s still his job to get out of the way, and the team won’t interfere with any navigational needs or warn him about stationary objects.

When I asked him what he’ll do when he reaches the other side, Ahmet is characteristically humble: “I don’t know, have a tea.” Then, assuming all is well, he’ll hop back in the kayak and return to the other side (an unassuming and unpublicized second crossing).

The support team trailing Ahmet in the distance (he’s told them to stay far enough away that he can’t hear their engine) will include Sarahbeth Maney, a Bay Area photojournalist who has followed Ahmet through his whole journey and is working on a documentary about Ahmet called “The Blind Captain”, and Dilara Yarbrough, Ahmet’s wife and a Criminal Justice professor at San Francisco State. On the shore, Ahmet will be greeted by a contingent of enthusiastic friends and Turkish journalists, including publications such as TRT World, who have taken interest in his endeavor.

The team won’t be the only ones following him, though. Ahmet’s crossing will be live streamed through his Blind Captain Facebook page, and sighted map enthusiasts should be able to track his GPS location at his engineering team’s tracker page. The map will give those who are following along visually a sense of how efficiently he moved across the water, and the Holman team at LightHouse will recap his progress on the LightHouse Facebook Page as well.

Finishing the journey won’t change the course of history or go straight into a Guinness book, but Ahmet knows that the symbolism of his solo trek is powerful for the general public and other blind would-be adventurers alike. He has visions of the modified Mr. Beep becoming a mainstay for blind navigation of all sorts. Late last year, in an interview with Red Bull, Ahmet suggested that the hacked tech he developed could also work for blind runners, surfers, cyclists and others who need intuitive non- visual guidance.

Returning to Turkey has become a tradition for Ahmet and his family, and he has a group of blind friends and colleagues there even bigger than the network he has in the states. Next summer, he hopes to return to do something “a bit more social,” such as passing on his kayaking skills and love for the outdoors to other blind children who are nursing the same dreams of piloting their own destiny.

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernández and Red Szell.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.