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2018 Holman Prize

Meet Red Szell, braving Scotland’s most extreme triathlon with the Holman Prize

Holman Prize LogoSince 2017, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has presented the Holman Prize, which funds the ambitions of three blind individuals. One of the 2018 prizewinners is Red Szell, from London, United Kingdom. With the Holman Prize, Red will train for an extreme triathlon to include a 10-mile off-road tandem ride, an ocean swim and a 200-foot climb up one of Scotland’s most dramatic oceanic rock formations, Am Buachaille. 

It was 2013, and at 46 years old, Red Szell was on top of the world. Or it must have felt that way – pulling himself up the last craggy expanses of rock to become the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, a narrow, jutting 449-foot sea stack off the north coast of Scotland. About 10 meters from the top, he reached a plateau – a quiet place just below the summit where the layers of red sandstone part just enough to expose a wide swath of the North Sea. As the sun shone in and the wind whipped his face, that’s when Red had an epiphany: “I realized I never would have done this if I wasn’t blind.”

Red wasn’t always blind, but he was always a climber. Raised in rural Southeast England, Red led the childhood one would imagine in the idyllic British countryside – climbing trees, riding bikes, hoofing it to the nearest village a mile away and always looking out for his siblings, six and seven years younger than him. At the age of 12, Red saw a TV interview with Chris Bonington, the beloved mountaineer, telling the tale of his climb to the top of the Old Man of Hoy. “It just clicked,” says Red. “I’d always loved climbing; but I knew right there that my life just wouldn’t be complete until I had climbed one of these sea stacks.”

Soon, Red was spending his teenage summers climbing in the Welsh mountains with the army cadets, learning from some of the best climbing instructors on offer. He was accepted into Cambridge University and his dreams danced before him. Then, at age 20, something odd happened. Strolling down the street with his parents one afternoon, Red ran smack dab into a pole. “Once I’d convinced my parents I wasn’t on drugs,” he jokes, “I went to the doctor.” The doctor looked at his eyes and said he had a progressive condition with no cure. He would become blind and there was no way to stop it.

At first, Red tried denial. He kept climbing. On the weekends, he and his college buddies would continue what Red calls the “rich tradition” of climbing the old college buildings on the historic, flat old Cambridge campus, celebrating in the way that college students do when they reached the top. One night shortly after his diagnosis, descending after one such illicit climb (and likely relying on his undependable vision for guidance), he made an error. Red lost his footing and plummeted 20 meters down the Fitzwilliam Museum’s concrete facade. That likely would be the end of the story, had he not landed in a fortuitously-situated Rhododendron bush.

“At that point I thought, this is just stupid. I’m either gonna kill myself or just stop.” So he hung up his harness and gave up hopes of being a climber. He had no idea that blind people had developed non-visual ways of scaling some of the world’s most challenging peaks.

Toppling his fear of blindness, though, took many more years. “I calmed down a bit,” he says, “but I didn’t come to terms with it. I was angry. I worked a bit harder, focused on my English degree, but really, I went into a sulk for about 20 years.”

More than two decades later, Red had trained to use a cane, read non-visually, cook, clean, and, for the most part, life life as a well-adjusted blind person. An accomplished journalist, author and eventually a father of two, Red raised two children simultaneously while he learned to work with his ever-changing vision – an accomplishment some might consider greater than climbing a mountain. He was still nagged, though, by his continuing passion for stretching his body, summiting real peaks and thus showing respect and care for his physicality.

In 2009, for his daughter’s ninth birthday party, he found himself at an indoor climbing gym. With just enough vision to ogle the courses set out on the multi-tiered, multi-colored walls, Red was transfixed. An instructor, noticing his interest, offered to belay him, if he wanted to try. And like that, Red was back in the harness. To his surprise, he found, like other elements of life – blindness was not the obstacle he imagined it to be. With his return to climbing, so returned the spirit of that 12-year-old mountaineer.

Four years of rigorous training later, Red became the first blind man to summit the Old Man of Hoy. Realizing that it was his blindness that led him there, he said, allowed him to embrace a new identity. “Whilst I’d kind of come to terms with losing my sight, and come to terms with using a white cane to get around and be identified as a blind person, I’d never embraced it. I’d never let it be part of me, it always felt like some kind of alien in me.” But by maintaining healthy exercise routines, Red finds it much easier to see blindness as part of his core identity. “As I’ve gotten more blind, you can start to feel less equal to the world around you,” he says, “and by maintaining my core fitness and my balance through pilates, yoga and swimming, that has helped me tremendously.”

In June 2019, for his Holman Prize project Red will return to sea stack climbing – but with slightly higher stakes. His “Extreme Triathlon” includes a 10-mile ride through a notably hazardous bog-land, a 200-foot abseil followed by a swim through open ocean, and a climb up the 213-foot ocean spire called Am Buachaille. But more than just a triathlon, Red has a plan to document the whole endeavor, working closely with action-sports adventure videographer Keith Partridge to turn the project into more than just a feat of strength, but a message to other blind people not to give up their passions because of a change in vision: “The Holman Prize gives me the platform to stand up in front of the world and say: ‘This is doable.’ Don’t think that because you can’t see you can’t push life to its extremes.”

When confronted with the potential risks, Red says he doesn’t tempt fate, but is confident in his ability to train and prepare for the utmost safety. “It’s a controlled risk. I always say I’m more likely to get run over crossing a busy road in London than I am on a rock face. The thing that scares the willies out of me is walking up a crowded pavement with smartphone zombies not looking where they’re going, pushing me into traffic. That scares the heck out of me. I’m much more in control when I’m swimming and when I’m climbing.”

Red makes a good point: for most of us, the insurmountable peaks are more like finding a good job, walking with confidence, staying fit and healthy or – in his case – making the commitment to fatherhood even when it’s scary. But whatever the goal, it’s better than a the decades-long slump. “I spent some really depressing times sitting on my sofa, drinking too much beer and saying ‘life is shit’ — and I look at that as kind of wasted time now. I wish I knew what was possible back then.”

“Accelerating the self-confidence and self-respect of blind people is key to what we do every day,” said  Bryan Bashin, CEO of the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco, “Exposing newly-blind people to a world of accomplishment and skills early can save years or decades spent needlessly in self-doubt.”

Get to know the other two prizewinners, Conchita Hernández and Stacy Cervenka.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners.

Support The Holman Prize

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the 2019 Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.

 

Announcing the 2018 Holman Prizewinners

Photo trio, from left to right: Red Szell, Stacy Cervenka, and Conchita Hernández
Photo trio of the 2018 Holman Prizewinners, from left to right: Red Szell, Stacy Cervenka, and Conchita Hernández.

LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s three Holman Prize recipients will use their $25,000 awards to promote blind empowerment in Mexico, complete a dramatic oceanic triathlon, and develop the first online community for blind travel.

This fall, three exceptional blind individuals will set off around the world on adventures they never imagined possible as the 2018 winners of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition.

The three winners, Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernández and Red Szell, were announced Tuesday, July 10, after a rigorous judging process. Each winning project embodies its own sense of adventure and ambition – whether it takes the winners on a mentally and physically daunting journey or allows them to build and foster something positive in their community.

Created to change perceptions and reclaim the concept of “blind ambition”, the annual $25,000 Holman Prize awards presented by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco will springboard future generations of blind entrepreneurs, adventurers and ambassadors.

Now in its second year, the Holman Prize is named after the 19th century explorer James Holman (known around the world as “the blind traveler”) the Holman Prize aims to launch worthy projects that will change the public perception of blindness for years to come.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” said 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.”

Last year’s prizewinners, are each in the final stages of their 2017 Holman Prize projects. One of the three, Ahmet Ustunel, will finish his project on July 22 when he navigates his kayak independently across the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey without any human guidance. Read more about the blind kayaker [Red Bull]the blind baker [Virginian-Pilot], and the blind beekeeper [BBC].


Meet the 2018 Winners

Stacy Cervenka


Stacy Cervenka’s project focuses on creating a modern-day tool that James Holman might have put to good use: it’s an accessible travel forum called the Blind Travelers Network geared specifically towards blind users, and shockingly, nothing like it exists. Think Yelp, Trip Advisor, or Cruise Critic – but designed for the empowerment of a population who wants one thing, more than anything else: information. As a “founder” of sorts, Stacy is creating a website from her own lived experience, drawing from her own adventures to know what works and what doesn’t for blind travelers.

Read Stacy’s story.

Conchita Hernández

Conchita Hernández’s focus comes from her own experience of immigrating to America from Mexico as a 4-year-old, a decision her parents made in hopes of affording better opportunities for their two blind children. She will use the Holman Prize to provide staffing, lodging and scholarships for her unprecedented “Changing Lives”(Cambiando Vidas) Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico in July 2019. Geared toward families, the conference will offer workshops on white cane travel, braille and daily living. In a place where blind people are openly considered to be a burden, Cambiando Vidas strikes at a deeper insight: you can have the best education in the world, but if your family doesn’t believe in you, you are at a great disadvantage.

Read Conchita’s story.

Red Szell

Red Szell’s project is an unprecedented physical feat. He plans to attempt an  “Extreme Triathlon” comprised of a 200-foot abseil followed by a swim through open ocean, a 10-mile ride through a notably hazardous bog-land, and a climb up a 213-foot ocean spire called Am Buachaille off the north coast of Scotland. But more than just a triathlon, Red has a plan to document the whole endeavor, working closely with action-sports adventure videographer Keith Partridge to turn the project into more than just a feat of strength, but a message to other blind people not to give up their passions because of a change in vision.

Read Red’s story.


Stacy, Conchita and Red were part of a competitive pool of applicants from every continent (except Antarctica). Applicants are required to upload 90-second YouTube videos to pitch their idea for a dream project with a $25,000 budget, before submitting formal proposals. View all 14 Holman finalists’ video pitches. Applications for the 2019 Holman Prize will open in January 2019.

The three Holman Prizewinners will fly to San Francisco in September 2018 for a week-long orientation before starting their project year on October 1. Once they land in San Francisco, the winners will not only meet and learn from each other, but they will engage with other blind teachers, technologists and leaders from LightHouse’s extended network. The winners will also create comprehensive plans to document and share their experiences along the way through video, audio, writing and other storytelling mediums.

Read more about last year’s winners.

The Holman Prize is determined by a prestigious group of judges, almost all of whom are blind. The prize is a flagship  program of the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco, who will salute each winner in an annual gala now set for November 29 in San Francisco.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners.


About the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition

Holman Prize LogoIn 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.

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

About the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco

LightHouse LogoThe LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call +1 (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.

Video: What it takes to win the Holman Prize

One year ago, we launched the first annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, and embarked on a journey to change the public face of blindness and empower people worldwide to challenge the status quo and reject naysaying narratives around blindness. It’s been an incredible year getting to know and following along with our 2017 prizewinners, Penny Melville-Brown, Ahmet Ustunel and Ojok Simon.

Just last week, Holman Prize judging committee member Sheri Well-Jensen wrote a warm and compelling essay about the prize in NFB’s monthly publication, the Braille Monitor, which we are crossposting below. As we approach our second annual Holman Prize application period (January 16 to February 28), we hope the new essay and its accompanying video will get to the very heart of what this prize is all about and set your gears in motion brainstorming possible projects and ways to contribute:

James Holman was not your average nineteenth-century blind explorer. Safe to say, “nineteenth-century blind explorers” is not really a reliable dataset. Traveling the world alone is not unusual for blind people today, so today we view James Holman as an outlier—a sign that we’ve made some progress in these couple hundred years. In the future, the strivings of today’s outliers will seem similarly achievable, and we will thank them for breaking the mold. This year, we saw the launch of The Holman Prize, dedicated to pursuing and promoting the passions of blind people everywhere, and it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the prize’s first three winners. First, though, you need to know a bit about James Holman.

James Holman was born an unremarkable middle-class baby in Exeter, England, in 1786. The second son of a local merchant, he was more or less expected to lead an unsurprising life, making himself a career in the British Navy, and like a dutiful second son of the time, he eventually set about doing just that. That was just about the last unsurprising event of his life. He first surprised himself in 1812 by becoming very ill and later going blind. Later, he surprised the rest of England (and possibly himself again) by ignoring the usual sorts of restrictive expectations placed on blind people and setting out to do marvelous things. After recovering from his illness, he wriggled out of a stultifying religious order for disabled military men (which was supposed to keep him safely at home and out of trouble) and set forth on a series of solo adventures. He began by booking passage for himself on a ship, not worrying much about where it went. From there, in a time before paved roads and reliable vehicles, he traveled alone through Europe, was run out of Russia (suspected of being an international spy), and returned to England to publish his first set of detailed books describing his adventures. He later circumnavigated the globe, noticing everything, restlessly trying to be everywhere and to do all there was to do. Holman’s fame spread; eventually Charles Darwin himself referenced observations of the natural world made by the “blind traveler.”

You can (and should) read about him in the exquisitely detailed biography by Jason Roberts (available on both NLS and BookShare). I sincerely promise that it will reshape your assumptions about what blind people could accomplish in the early nineteenth century.

So when the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco announced a competition for the first annual Holman Prize at the beginning of this year, they must have known they were setting a pretty high bar.

It was a prize clearly intended to reward the doing of splendid things: audacious things that startle, delight, and challenge.

As hoped, the announcement brought forth a glorious deluge of entries literally from around the globe. Asked to submit ninety-second YouTube videos describing an ambitious project on which they would like to spend $25,000, over 200 blind people responded with entries which ranged from the adorable to the impressive and from the truly beautiful to the unapologetically weird.

Once you finish reading the Holman biography, I heartily recommend that you spend a long, fascinating evening streaming some of those videos. We are, it turns out, a pretty audacious group of people.

But, in the end, only three could be chosen: the “Holmanest” of this year’s “Holmanesque” entries, if you will. It is my delight to introduce them to you here:

Penny laughs in the One Market Restaurant kitchen with pastry chef Mac while plating a peach galette.
Penny laughs in the One Market Restaurant kitchen with pastry chef Mac while plating a peach galette.

Let’s begin with Penny Melville-Brown. You would know immediately if you were in a room with Penny, the mastermind behind the “Baking Blind” project, because you would hear her signature laugh. Gregarious and confident, Penny has no doubt about what she wants to do. Like James Holman, she is a native of Great Britain, and like James Holman, Penny went blind while serving in the British Navy. She also shares Holman’s urge to travel. Penny intends to conquer the world kitchen by kitchen, exploring the cuisine from Costa Rica to China and filming cooking shows with local chefs as she goes. But this isn’t only about, maybe isn’t even mostly about, adaptive cooking techniques.

Penny’s project is about community and about the generous and welcoming spaces that open out when people share food. Penny’s positive nature and her humor draw people around the dining table where she presides, and the gastronomic wonders she creates make them sit down and stay put. As people break bread together, (and such bread you have rarely tasted) barriers fall, and they talk. With her recipes in hand, (and perhaps wielding a wooden spoon if necessary) Penny will weave these communities together as she goes. The chefs will learn from the blind cook, the blind cook will learn from the chefs, and everyone at table and watching on the videos will learn to trust one another just a little bit more.

Ojok smiles with his white bee hat and net catching the light, while bees fly around him.
Ojok smiles with his white bee hat and net catching the light, while bees fly around him.

Ojok Simon is a gracious, dignified man from Uganda whose gentleness and soft-spoken demeanor at first seem strangely at odds with his project. Ojok is a bee keeper: not just any keeper . . . Ojok Simon is a keeper of Africanized bees. Where many of us skitter anxiously away at the near approach of even a single honeybee, Ojok regularly sinks his hands and arms into billowing swarms of them, moving them about, adjusting their hives, and deftly making off with quantities of their honey. When I asked (admittedly in some alarm) about how this was done, another blind bee keeper from Northern California, Aerial Gilbert, helped make sense of it for me. Bee keeping, she explained, is a gentle endeavor; the keeper becomes known to his bees and learns to move deliberately and easily among them. It’s not a contest; it’s a dance. Ojok does wear protective gear and he does get stung, but he explains that he is not afraid of his bees because they have no desire to hurt anyone. If approached calmly, they will react calmly. This is remarkable enough, but Ojok’s Holman Prize was not awarded because of how handy he himself is around an apiary.

In a country where jobs are hard for blind people to find, Ojok’s project is to teach other blind Ugandans what he knows. At this writing, he has thirty-eight blind students ready and willing to learn from him, and he has established a small foundation to help purchase the startup gear each will need to become his or her own boss, selling beeswax and honey. Ojok nimbly avoids the problem of convincing Ugandan employers to hire blind people by setting these blind people up as their own bosses. In what has become the Holman tradition, his method is both startling and extraordinarily clever.

Ahmet stands up in the boat while preparing to set out to McCovey Cove.
Ahmet stands up in the boat while preparing to set out to McCovey Cove.

The third Holman prize winner, originally from Turkey but now living in San Francisco, is a special education teacher named Ahmet Ustunel. Ahmet is that high school teacher who wins the kids over with a combination of steady confidence and a touch of playfulness: the kind of teacher who’s cool without making too much of it. He exudes an insuppressible, quiet joyfulness. Still, because he is actually a little bit shy, you might walk right by him at a party without knowing he’s there. If you want to draw him out though, I suggest leaning over and whispering “ocean!” or “fishing boat” or better still “pirate,” and you’ll have his full attention.

He becomes very animated quickly, and will delight you with his stories about his times on, beside, in, and (sometimes temporarily) underneath various kinds of boats. Ahmet happily tells the story that his first career choice as a child was to become a pirate. When his parents described the standard eye-patch-sporting pirate to him, he was delighted; to quote four-year-old Ahmet: “If this is a successful pirate, and he has one blind eye, I’m going to be the best pirate ever . . .because I have two blind eyes!”

Ahmet’s project involves a kayak, a ton of very cool high tech equipment, and the Bosphorus Strait: a narrow body of water that separates Europe (on the west) from Asia, on the east. Ahmet plans to paddle his kayak solo across the strait: no mean feat when you consider the currents, the wildlife, the traffic buoys and, not to put too fine a point on it, but also the merchant ships (which are larger than most houses) that thunder along the Bosphorus on their way to the Black Sea. Ninety percent of his project, he says, undaunted, is in the preparation: the physical training, the testing of the technology, and working out logistics.

His kayak will be outfitted with all the cool gear a geek could dream of: GPS, radio, and all manner of obstacle detectors. That along with his sense of the sea, his hands in the current, and his knowledge of the wind direction will guide him safely across. And, if our own cool tech doesn’t let us down, we’ll get to follow along when he makes the crossing in July 2018.

The thing that distinguishes this first set of Holman Prizewinners is not their jobs or mastery of blindness techniques or their eloquence in discussing philosophy of blindness. Like all the rest of us, they sometimes drop things or come up short when a stranger on the street asks them some ridiculous blindness-related question. The spark that they all share is their conscious, enduring belief in blind people and their willingness to share that belief as part of their community, offering and accepting strength along the way. They reminded me that we all have a bit of James Holman in us. Over the next few months, we’ll cheer them on as they embark on their adventures. Next time, it will be someone else.

So, heads up, all blind adventurers, inventors, dreamers, artists, musicians, scientists, builders, healers, troublemakers, and all the rest of you daring, merry, audacious believers: it’s not too early to start thinking about next year. Applications for the 2018 Holman Prize open on January 16, 2018. Visit www.holmanprize.org to learn how to apply.

Sheri Wells-Jensen is a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University, a curious connoisseur of insuppressible blind living, who served on the judging committee for the inaugural Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, held in San Francisco in June 2017. The Holman Award is granted to those who have an idea that, if funded, will expand the possibilities for blind people. Submit your pitch video starting January 16