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blind travelers network

Meet Stacy Cervenka, creating an online community for blind travelers 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 Stacy Cervenka, from Lincoln, NE, USA. Stacy’s Holman Prize ambition is to research, develop and launch a “blind Yelp” of sorts, called the Blind Travelers Network. Similar to TripAdvisor or Cruise Critic, the site would give blind individuals crowdsourced knowledge about the accessible places and services that they can’t currently access anywhere else. 

“If we go to a resort in Jamaica because they have scuba diving, we’re not protected by the ADA there, so what do we do if we get there and they don’t let us dive?”

These are the questions that keep Stacy Cervenka awake at night. And they’re not just anxiety dreams: they’re real questions that she confronts every time she travels.

“The ADA doesn’t cover Jamaica,” she offered, over the phone last week, “it doesn’t cover Europe or Canada. Canada is just developing it’s disability laws now. If you travel somewhere where you’re not protected, and someone tells you can’t get on the bus – you can’t get on the bus.”

Stacy, who lives with her family in Lincoln, Nebraska, is quite good at painting a mental picture: a blind family, eager to see the world, cut short by a society that doesn’t understand their needs, or worse, their capabilities. As a blind person, once you start imagining all the ways your trip could go wrong, it’s a bit of a downward spiral. But on the flip side – where does a blind person go to have the time of their life? Also a valid question.

This is why Stacy hatched a new idea to meet a need that, oddly, hasn’t been met yet: the Blind Travelers Network. Think Yelp, Trip Advisor, or Cruise Critic – but designed for the betterment of a population who wants one thing, more than anything else: information.

Stacy grew up in a place where community was everything. Raised on the suburban outskirts of Chicago, she was a blind girl, but she was also the oldest sibling in a family that trusted her implicitly.

“We were the ultimate latchkey kids,” she explains. With a father who was a harbormaster and a mother who worked nurse shifts until 11 p.m., it was common for Stacy and her little siblings to spend entire days taking care of themselves: cooking dinner, hanging out with friends, playing in the neighborhood, and only seeing their parents for a few minutes at bedtime.

These were neighborhoods with big block parties, neighbors that watched out for each other, and fire departments that would crack open hydrants on hot summer days. But despite the nostalgic memories, Stacy acknowledges that something major was missing.

“Looking back, I really wish that I had more exposure to blind kids and successful blind adults. My relationship with my family was mostly normal, we all competed in sports, did a lot of the same activities, and spent a lot of time together because our parents worked a lot – but I think I would have had a lot more confidence if I had had exposure to other blind kids and successful blind adults.”

Nonetheless, Stacy developed a passion for travel, and by the time she was a young adult, had traversed the country several times, getting to know its diverse climates, people and cultures. She found beauty and adventure in Wyoming, idyllic summer lodges in the Midwest and Florida.

One thing nagged at her all along, though, frustrating because she had no power over it. What if, on all her travels, she was missing something? Not the visual information that most sighted people would assume she desired, but rather, the accessibility that blind people so deeply deserved; the hospitality that all travelers deserve; the sheer immersive experience, regardless of the level of her sight. She wanted a way to optimize her adventures.

“When my husband and I were first dating in DC,” she remembers, “he wanted to set up a date at a horseback riding place. He set it up, paid for it, and when we go there they didn’t let us ride. We went there really excited to have a romantic date.”

There wasn’t much they could do. “They didn’t know about the law – so the law didn’t matter,” she says. “You can’t call the cops and they’ll show up and handcuff them. The only way to enforce it is to get legal advocacy, and that stinks.” Lawsuits, she says, are not the best end to a romantic first date, for anyone: “We didn’t want to have to fight the system.”

Stacy also knew a review on a mainstream website wouldn’t do her or blind travelers any good. In fact she knew: a blind person wanting to ride horses would only get shouted down: “I could have written something on Yelp or someplace, but you would just get people saying ‘they’re just worried about your safety!’”

Soon she and her husband were married, and planning a honeymoon. Again, Stacy found herself scouring travel sites, like a tortured detective, unable to find the exact clues she needed. “I learned a ton on Cruise Critic!” she insists, “but I still had a ton of blindness-specific questions. You just can’t get those answered on there.”

Two years ago, Stacy took her family to Disney World. This time, she took to Facebook, sourcing a wealth of great information from blind friends and others who knew about accessibility and also had a healthy appreciation for Disney theme parks. And yet, she knew the thread would be lost to the sands of time, couldn’t be easily archived and tagged. This was Information that other blind parents could use “about how to get around, how to manage transportation, how to navigate, how to keep track of our children at the pool,” and nit wasn’t available to those who might need it later. “I just wanted a place for us all to be able to share that.”

The Blind Travelers Network (BTN), she hopes, will provide an answer to this problem, and build a strong new community at the same time. “The goal is that blind people will come to the site and share information about places they’ve been, and ask questions about places they want to go. It’s that simple. It’s not so much about being positive or negative, it’s about being accurate.”

Much like other online communities, though, Stacy knows that she can seed some contributions here and there, but much of the work is in mobilizing the blind internet through social media, word of mouth and other savvy marketing strategies. “It’s only going to be a useful resource if lots of us write reviews. You can still get information about the goulash or the bread pudding on Yelp – BTN is meant to be a site where people can go to get information that they can’t get anywhere else.”

As a founder of the site, Stacy is creating a platform based on her own lived experience, drawing from her travels, struggles and successes to know what works and what doesn’t. “My goal is to create something that I would use myself,” she says. “The Holman Prize will allow me to create something that I’ve always wished existed.”

“In increasing number, blind people understand that fully living in the world also mean fully participating in the richness of travel and recreation,” said Bryan Bashin, CEO of the Lighthouse in San Francisco.  “Right now blind people had no effective online way to benefit from each others’ experience when it comes to finding unusual accessible opportunities or preparing for accessibility challenges. Thanks to Stacy’s work soon we will be able to better prepare for our next adventures.”

Get to know the other two prizewinners, Conchita Hernández and Red Szell.

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.