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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.

 

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.

 

Announcing the 2018 Holman Prize Semifinalists

Our 2018 Holman Prize applicants were met with a challenge in the first round: to create a 90-second video pitching a dream project, and giving us a taste of their motivations and personality. We received applications from every continent (except Antarctica), and have narrowed the field down to 42 worthy applicants.

The most important thing about the Holman Prize, though, is the entire group of applicants and the impressions they make on the world. Our 2018 candidates pitches were viewed thousands of times on YouTube: that’s thousands of people watching videos that chip away at stereotypes of blindness and offer a multifaceted view into the wide ranging and one-of-a-kind ambitions of blind people worldwide.

Below is the list of semifinalists for the 2018 Holman Prize. In June, their proposals will be reviewed by the 2018 Holman Committee — a fresh group of highly accomplished blind women and men from around the world, comprised of some returning judges and some new to the committee.

Click on each name to watch their original pitch video, share, and spread the word: This is what blind ambition really looks like.

The 42 Semifinalists, in alphabetical order:

Becky Andrews, a marathon runner and cyclist, would use the Holman Prize to implement a series of empowerment retreats for blind and visually-impaired women.

Manuel Aregullin, an assistive technology instructor who has also studied music in Cuba for more than twenty years, would use the Holman Prize to teach Cuban music to large groups of students, as well as upgrading the assistive technology he uses in his lessons and purchasing more instruments.

Michael Armstrong would use the Holman Prize to train for a triathlon, which he would complete using a non-visual technique called Vibravision that would enable him to compete without the aid of technology or a sighted companion.

Edward Babin, a songwriter, producer and entrepreneur who performs as Eddy Echo, would use the Holman Prize to organize a showcase for blind and visually impaired musicians in New York City.

Zeljko Bajic, a radio producer and host, would use the Holman Prize to create a podcast “for and about blind people living all over the world.”

Luanne Burke, a seasoned long-distance runner, would use the Holman Prize to educate rural visually-impaired communities around the world – including countries like Scotland, China and New Zealand – about the joys, and logistics, of guided running.

Stacy Cervenka, who works in the disability employment field, would use the Holman Prize to launch an accessible travel forum similar to Yelp or TripAdvisor, geared specifically towards blind users.

Peggy Chong, the “Blind History Lady,” would use the Holman Prize to conduct research into the Blinded Veterans of WWI through the Maryland Historical Society, Library of Congress, and more.

Jean Elston would use the Holman Prize to travel North America, creating small paintings and sketches that she will turn into larger pieces when she returns home. Jean would also create a video blog of her journey, to give her audience more insight into her process and challenges.

Matt Formston, a longtime surfer, would use the Holman Prize to teach his blind and low-vision community how to become surfers themselves and to “share the feeling of freedom” that surfing can provide.

Divyanshu Ganatra, an entrepreneur and avid paraglider, would use the Holman Prize to facilitate mountaineering, rock climbing, scuba diving, paragliding and more for both his visually-impaired and sighted peers, with the hope of creating a larger dialogue around disability.

Nathan Gibbs, a tech consultant and web developer, would use the Holman Prize to continue his “As Alexa Sees It” project, which is intended to make Amazon’s Echo technology even more useful for blind and low-vision consumers.

Leona Godin, an actor and writer, would use the Holman Prize to expand her magazine “Aromatica Poetica,” which is “dedicated to the arts and sciences” of smell. Furthermore, she would use the prize money to fund her own prize, geared in part towards visually-impaired writers.

Carol Green, a teacher of the visually impaired, would use the Holman Prize to teach Braille, in the Navajo language, to blind children and adults in the Navajo Nation during a summer program that would also include life skills training.

Andrew Hasley, a biologist and geneticist, would use the Holman Prize to facilitate a conference for blind scientists and students from across the globe, called “Scienc’ing While Blind,” where participants could network and exchange tips and tools.

Markus Hawkins, a long time practitioner of the healing arts, would use the Holman Prize to travel to China to study the healing art of chilel, and then incorporate it into his practice upon returning home.

Conchita Hernandez, who is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in Special Education, would use the Holman Prize to create a workshop in her native Mexico for professionals in the blindness field, and blind people of all ages.

Andrew Hesser, would use the Holman Prize to travel throughout the UK producing nature documentaries to facilitate the blind and low-vision community’s connection to the great outdoors, all in character, using an alter ego named “Bryan.”

Justin Holland, a bodybuilder and video blogger, would use the Holman Prize to travel the world and engage with blind and low-vision communities, encouraging them to get involved in adventures and athletic activities.

Georgina Hollinshead, who says she was “born a crafter,” would use the Holman Prize to launch a social enterprise called Hook and Eye Crafts, geared toward teaching blind and visually impaired people the joys of knitting, crochet and cross-stitch.

Alieu Jaiteh, the founder of the blindness advocacy organization Start Now, would use the Holman Prize to provide various skills, including computer literacy, cane travel and Braille, to blind and low-vision participants in rural Gambia.

Ambrose Lasoy would use the Holman Prize to develop a program to enable his fellow blind and low-vision Kenyans to become dairy farmers and entrepreneurs.

Rachel Longan, a psychotherapist and singer, would use the Holman Prize to travel both the United States, and around the world to countries like Russia and Tanzania, teaching pre-existing vocal choirs how to make their organizations more accessible and accommodating for blind and low-vision participants.

Rachel Magario, a seasoned traveler and video blogger, would use the Holman Prize to retrace the footsteps of James Holman’s first travels across Europe, for a video series called “In the Footsteps.”

Zahra Majid, who is currently pursuing a degree in media studies, would use the Holman Prize to travel and meet with visually impaired students around the world, in countries including Canada, the United States and Scandinavia, in order to gather a wealth of information for a database project she is calling VIAdvisor.

Dr. Sakui Malakpa, a university professor originally from Liberia, would use the Holman Prize to purchase laptops and other training tools for blind and low-vision communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Michael McCulloch, a retired aerospace engineer, would use the Holman Prize to produce an audio described documentary film about his upcoming hiking trek to Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. He would also write a book entitled “The Blind Man’s Guide to Machu Picchu,” containing hiking instruction, tips and more.

Louie McGee, an athlete and current high school senior, would use the Holman Prize to fund his training for the Iron Man competition, with a speaking tour to follow.

Francis Okello Oloya, a psychologist, would use the Holman Prize to create a guide dog program for his blind and low-vision community.

Joshua Pearson, an accessibility specialist and folk singer, would use the Holman Prize to record under-the-radar musicians around the world, in countries including the United Kingdom, Thailand, Vietnam and more.

Kellsea Phillips, a passionate athlete and aspiring competitor in the TV show American Ninja Warrior, would use the Holman Prize to train for, and attend, more competitions and auditions for the show.

Sandeep Kumar (People’s Choice Finalist), who has developed a tool called Eye Renk that allows the visually impaired to easily differentiate between various ocular medications, would use the Holman Prize to travel and teach underserved communities about Eye Renk.

Mariano Reynoso would use the Holman Prize to bring the sport of Beep Baseball to his home country of Argentina.

Maria Saavedra, a dance instructor originally from Colombia, would use the Holman Prize to launch a dance academy designed specifically for the visually-impaired community.

Marco Salsiccia, an accessibility specialist and self-proclaimed “hockey nut,” would use the Holman Prize to  travel for a full year with the San Jose Sharks hockey team, attending at least one game at each arena, in order to assess the accessibility of each rink and promote hockey to blind and visually-impaired athletes.

Nicole Schultz-Kass, a vocational rehabilitation counselor and YouTube blogger, would use the Holman Prize to interview and adventure with blind and low-vision people in 25 different locations around the United States, compiling the experiences on her YouTube channel,  “CraftyBlindChick.”

Matthew Shifrin, an actor and composer, would develop a multi-sensory comic book experience called “Hapticomix,” based on the Daredevil series, that incorporates surround sound, original music, a full cast, motion-simulation, and smell.

Red Szell, a writer and broadcaster, would use the Holman Prize to undertake an extreme sports triathlon to conquer Am Buachaille, one of the most remote rock pinnacles in the UK.

Aishwarya T.V., a filmmaker and rehabilitation counselor, would use the Holman Prize to create a training center for the blind and low-vision community to study elements of filmmaking like script writing, film editing, sound mixing, production and more.

Johnny Tai, a Martial Arts trainer, would use the Holman Prize to provide martial arts courses for the blind and visually-impaired community in his native Taiwan.

Danny Thomas Vang and Jeshua Gilbert Aveno would construct a multi-sensory “escape room” that enables visitors, and visually-impaired users in particular, to gather information and instructions from their environment.

Antyenette Walker, who performs under the name Young Ant, is a hip-hop MC who would use the Holman Prize to create more music and share it with her fans around the world.

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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

Start Dreaming: Holman Prize Applications Open in January

We’re thrilled to announce the return of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, our annual $25,000 award for blind adventurers and creators.

In 2017, the Prize’s inaugural year, we received more than 200 applications from two dozen countries. We couldn’t be prouder of our three winners, who encompass a wide range of ambition, daring and creativity:

Ahmet Ustunel is training to kayak Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait, completely solo; Penny Melville-Brown is taking her YouTube baking show to six continents; Ojok Simon is teaching his fellow Ugandans to become self-sustaining beekeepers.

Named after the 19th century blind world traveler James Holman, the Holman Prize empowers blind men and women from around the world to complete the journeys and projects of their dreams.

The 2017 Holman Prizewinners smile with the Holman Team on Ocean Beach during Welcome Week.

 

What would you do as a Holman Prizewinner?

Applications for the prize open on January 16, 2018.

We encourage you to start planning ahead! The initial application is a quirky one: we ask that you send us a 90-second YouTube video explaining what you would accomplish as a Holman Prizewinner (as well as a brief written questionnaire). Once applications close, a select group of semifinalists will be chosen to submit in-depth written proposals, and later, finalists will be interviewed by LightHouse staff. Check out last year’s finalists’ video proposals to get acquainted with the types of projects you can pitch.

To learn more about the prize, and whether your idea qualifies, please visit our website.

You can read more about the Holman Prize in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED’s California Report

If our FAQ page doesn’t answer your questions, feel free to get in touch with Max Levenson, Holman Prize Coordinator, at mlevenson@lighthouse-sf.org.

A Blind Baker, Beekeeper and Kayaker Unite in San Francisco

Fourteen months ago, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin proposed a wild new idea: What if we create a prize to fund a blind person to do something ambitious? What if we fund their dreams ahead of time, to get them out in the world leading, creating, exploring and changing the face of blindness rather than simply rewarding them for past achievement?

Turns out dreaming big sometimes pays off, because in January this year we announced the very first Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, an annual set of awards – three in the first year – of up to $25,000 each financing and supporting blind people worldwide in pursuing an ambitious project of their design.

After a rigorous application process including a social media competition, multiple rounds of judging and a detailed project proposal, we found our inaugural Holman Prizewinners, an unlikely trio from vastly different walks of life. The three winners, kayaker Ahmet Ustunel, baker Penny Melville-Brown and beekeeper Ojok Simon each have one-of-a-kind projects that allow them to build and foster social impact in their immediate community.

Read what the San Francisco Chronicle has to say about the inaugural Holman Prizewinners.

This week, we hosted the prizewinners in San Francisco for a full week of trainings, meetings, skill-sharing and fun before they commence their projects starting October 1. It was a busy week, but was more than we could have ever hoped for.

We started out the week by heading to One Market Restaurant, where Penny baked with some of San Francisco’s top pastry chefs, exchanging tips and tricks, learning new methods, and even teaching them a few non-visual techniques. We want to extend a huge thank you to Michael Dellar for opening the restaurant to us and extending himself to give the blindness community such a warm welcome in the food and hospitality world. Watch this video of Penny and Mac folding a peach galette together.

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.
Penny smiles with One Market pastry chefs Mac and Jan, who she just presented with the pewter medals she will give to all her baking partners along her journey.
Penny smiles with One Market pastry chefs Mac and Jan, who she just presented with the pewter medals she will give to all her baking partners along her journey.

Penny is finishing out her American adventure with three more major cooking stops: China Live in San Francisco, Cheeseboard in Berkeley, and Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. She’s planning lots of updates and videos, which will be coming out weekly starting next week at Baking Blind.

Ahmet Ustunel, who actually lives in the same bustling SF downtown as LightHouse headquarters, was more of a tour guide than visitor this week. He took us to Lowell High School, where he teaches, and gave his fellow prizewinners a tour. Not only did Ahmet introduce us to some of his blind students, but also let Ojok climb up onto the roof of Lowell’s garden shed to investigate the beehive there!

Ojok and Lowell student Ellie show Ahmet the ropes as he feels a beehive box.
Ojok and Lowell student Ellie show Ahmet the ropes as he feels a beehive box.

We’ll be honest: For a minute there, we were a little worried Ojok almost wasn’t going to make here from Uganda due to a passport snafu, but with a lot of faith and a little luck, we welcomed him with open arms on Wednesday afternoon. He wasted no time – and within 12 hours he was running along Ocean beach and talking bees with fellow blind beekeeper Aerial Gilbert.

On Thursday the Holman crew headed over to the Arkansas Friendship Garden on Connecticut Street in the SF hills, where the journalist and author Meredith May keeps an active colony of bees regularly producing honey. Within minutes, Ojok had his hands in the hives – with no gloves, we might add – gently manipulating all the little worker bees without being stung once. At the end of the afternoon, everyone even got to dig their hands into some honeycomb and taste the sweet stuff right out of the hive.

Aerial Gilbert wears a protective hat and examines a wooden beehive frame.
Aerial Gilbert wears a protective hat and examines a wooden beehive frame.
Ojok holds up a beehive in a wooden frame for everyone to examine.
Ojok holds up a beehive in a wooden frame for everyone to examine.
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 then produced a small jar of honey that he had brought with him from Uganda, and the group got to taste the difference between the fruity, nectar-like honey of San Francisco’s Italian bees and the smoky, meaty honey made by Ojok’s Africanized “killer” bees. Ojok will return to Uganda next week and begin expanding the Hive Uganda program, which already has 38 blind and low vision sighted beekeepers, to teach honey farming to dozens more over the course of the next year.

On Friday, Ahmet took us out on the water – which, as he’s told us many times, is “his favorite place in the world.” The prizewinners and some documentary filmmakers hopped on a few sailboats with blind sailor Walt Raineri and the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS), who took them all for a spin around McCovey Cove. Ahmet showed off some prototypes of the system he’ll use to autonomously navigate the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey next year, including directional and depth-sensing tools, all of which provide audible feedback. Learn more about his sonar technology from our livestream. As Ahmet’s project beings, you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram – and keep an eye out for him at your local waterway this fall while he trains for his big crossing, make sure to his page, he is the kind of guy that will buy instagram video views to motivate himself on social media!

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.
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.

If the live-streams, descriptions and photos weren’t enough, don’t worry: We had our cameras and microphones following along with the prizewinners all week long, and we’ll be soon bringing you scenes from the week.

Announcing The 2017 Holman Prize Finalists

In January, the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco announced The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, a set of annual awards of up to $25,000 each for legally blind individuals with big plans. In six months, we received over 200 video applications, chose 51 semifinalists, and selected a committee of accomplished blind people to choose our inaugural prizewinners.

Our Holman videos were submitted from 27 countries and were viewed more than 75,000 times on YouTube. This week, we’re proud to announce our elite group of ten finalists, plus a “Peoples’ Choice” finalist who we honor for receiving the highest number of YouTube ‘likes’ for his ambitious idea. These finalists will all be in the running to make their ambitions a reality when our Holman Committee meets in San Francisco this June.

The ten finalists we selected (plus one selected by the internet) are as diverse and dynamic a group as you could imagine, including those who want to give back to their communities, those who seek to push the boundaries of science and tech, to those with infectious enthusiasm for a particular craft.

Over the next month, we hope you’ll sound off on which Holman Prize candidate you want to see take their ambitions on the road. Feel free to tag Holman Prize on Twitter, Instagram and head to the LightHouse’s Facebook page for more updates.

Meet the Finalists

Ahmet Ustunel, who lives in San Francisco, plans to take a solo kayak journey across the Bosphorus Strait from Europe to Asia. To prepare, he proposes to develop his non-visual kayak guidance system over the course of several months, including several voyages around San Francisco Bay, practicing a total of 500 miles over the course of the year before embarking for Turkey.

Caroline Kamaluga lives in Zomba, a city in the Southern Region of Malawi, where women and especially blind women are lucky if they receive sufficient education. One of these fortunate few, Kamaluga proposes to give back to her community by developing a mentorship for blind girls throughout the country. Currently an elementary school student teacher, she hopes to foster a new sense of strength amongst the girls of Malawi.

Jamie Principato is a physics student from Colorado who wants to show the world that rocket science is within reach for blind and low vision students who have a motivation to thrive in the sciences. Jamie is developing a series of workshops called Project BLAST, which will use adaptive technology to allow blind students to send high altitude balloons to the outer limits of the stratosphere.

Muttasim Fadl, who lives in Baltimore and trains blind and low vision students here in America, wants to return to his home country of Sudan and give back. Over two months of travel through the country, Muttasim would like to deliver both valuable tools, such as white canes, as well as lectures, in order to enable blind students to succeed in their pursuits.

Ojok Simon, who lives in rural Uganda, wants to create jobs where they are not available. A beekeeper by trade, Ojok wants to train blind and visually impaired people in his community to build and maintain their own bee farms to inspire a future generation of apiary entrepreneurs.

Peggy Chong calls herself “The Blind History Lady.” Based in New Mexico, Chong has a passion for uncovering stories about great blind individuals, much like James Holman, whose stories might go otherwise without note into the annals of history. Chong proposes to travel throughout America, visiting archives and collecting information about these individuals who might have at one time been Holman Prize contenders themselves.

Penny Melville-Brown, from the UK, has a baking show unlike any other. She proposes a whirlwind itinerary across the world in which she visits culinary experts both blind and sighted, cooking together, talking about food and documenting it all on video. Brown would like to make “Blind Baking” a household name.

Rachel Magario, who was born in Brazil and now lives in Colorado, has a passion for exploration, and with a travel show all her own, she hopes to document how blind people experience the world in a format that is fascinating for any audience. Like a blind Anthony Bourdain, Magario proposes to trip around North America this year, landing herself in some unlikely spots and crafting a fun, relatable narrative about how blind people explore.

Saghatel Basil has ambitions of peace in the Middle East. After growing up in Croatia, Syria and Yemen, and now residing in Sweden, Saghatel wants to embark on a path of peacekeeping trainings around Europe that will allow him to give back to those uprooted by various conflicts in the Middle East.

Tony Llanes believes that blind folks can have a crucial role in maintaining the infrastructure and safety of his home, the Philippines. An amateur radio operator, Tony proposes to train a cadre of blind individuals to build a radio network that will serve as a lifeline in times of natural disaster. Prone to extreme weather, earthquakes and other fast-acting crises, Tony’s project would turn blind radio operators into valuable agents of disaster relief.

Peoples’ Choice Finalist: Felipe Rigoni Lopes has big ambitions to become the first blind president of Brazil. Though Felipe’s educational journey has been largely funded through scholarships, he applied to the Holman Prize to raise awareness and help propel other blind individuals who find themselves drawn to participate in politics.

Help The Holman Prize grow:

Press: press@lighthouse-sf.org

Sponsorships: jsachs@lighthouse-sf.org

General inquiries: holman@lighthouse-sf.org

This Is What Blind Ambition Looks Like: Announcing the 2017 Holman Prize Semifinalists

In January we announced the inaugural Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, an annual set of awards of up to $25,000 that finance and support blind people worldwide in pursuing their most ambitious projects. All applicants were met with a challenge in the first round: create a 90-second video to sum up a project of their choice and promote it through social media to garner widespread support. 

Between January and March, we received more than 200 video pitches from 28 countries on six continents. Projects ranged in focus across travel, activism, scholarship, craft, sport and much more. Our candidates’ pitches were viewed more than 65,000 times on YouTube: that’s thousands of people watching videos that chip away at stereotypes of blindness and offer a multifaceted view into the wide ranging and one-of-a-kind ambitions of blind people worldwide.

Seeing the range, scope and heart of our applicants’ videos was a joy, and their ideas blew us away. Deciding on a list of semifinalists proved to be difficult for our team, but we narrowed it down to 51 projects of all kinds from around the world.

Here is the list of semifinalists for the 2017 Holman Prize. In June, their proposals will be reviewed by LightHouse’s prestigious Holman Committee — comprised of highly accomplished blind men and women from around the world.

Click on each name to watch their original pitch video (or peruse our YouTube playlist), share, and spread the word: This is what blind ambition looks like.


Iman (California) wants to make a “reality TV”-style documentary about the lives of blind people.

Saghatel (Armenia) wants to develop his conflict resolution program in the Middle East.

Dan B. (Colorado) wants to complete an endurance run along the Great Wall of China.

James (Tennessee) wants to provide white canes to blind people in developing countries.

Joshua B. (Louisiana) wants to bring Braille training to Kyrgyzstan.

John (Texas) wants to establish an art gallery for visually impaired artists.

Georgie (United Kindom) wants to paint the Seven Modern Wonders of the World.

Melanie (Australia) wants to learn to dogsled, ice-climb and ski across Alaska.

Jack & Dan (New Jersey) want to ride across America nonstop with four blind cyclists.

Peggy (New Mexico) wants to illuminate the lives of blind people in American history.

Arne (Denmark) wants to ski to the North Pole.

Christina (California) wants to make a musical theater pilgrimage around the world.

Angela Denise (California) wants to build community with her ukulele from Hawaii to Australia.

Brett (Manitoba, Canada) wants to expand his public good clothing brand, The Blind Kid.

Muttasim (Sudan) wants to return to his birthplace in Sudan to become a catalyst for change.

Ioana (Montreal, Canada) wants to transcribe, record and perform classical guitar globally.

Natalie (California) wants to produce a new R&B album called “Blindsided.”

Riikka (Finland) wants to launch a one-year training program for aspiring singers.

Nicole (California) wants to travel around America and gather stories.

Jennifer (California) wants to develop a tactile-audio graphic novel called “Beulah.”

Caroline (Malawi) wants to provide better accessibility for blind students in her country.

Yves (Switzerland) wants to improve access to zoology education – specifically, penguins.

Marty (New York) wants to produce a documentary about discrimination against people with disabilities in the military.

Mirjana (Sweden) wants to trek through the mountains with a film crew.

Abigail (New York) wants to produce a podcast about disability culture.

Antonio (Philippines) wants to train blind people to become radio operators.

Felipe (Brazil) wants to further his political career, eventually becoming Brazil’s first blind president.

Alex L. (Minnesota) wants to teach ballroom, latin and swing dance to blind people around the U.S.

Rachel (Colorado) wants to document her world travels in a video series called “The Unseen Traveler.”

Dan M. (Michigan) wants to skateboard around the world and connect with blindness organizations along the way.

Linn (Norway) wants to record her debut album with friends in the Nigerian Afrobeat scene.

Penny (England) wants to expand her video blog, “Baking Blind,” to include travel, promotion and guests.

Graham (California) wants to go on a solo singer-songwriter tour, performing across the U.S. and UK.

Laura (California) wants to publish a tactile children’s book called “The Adventures of Penny the Guide Dog.”

Nino & Marie (Michigan) want to ride tandem bikes from France to Romania.

Dan P. (Georgia) wants to build a car to go 225 miles per hour — becoming “the world’s fastest blind man.”

Boonsiri (Thailand) wants to establish the Mae Sot Blind Centre for Children in Thailand.

Den (California) wants to follow in James Holman’s footsteps and circumnavigate the globe.

Serena (California) wants to study the art of making and roasting coffee and open a blind-run coffee shop.

Jamie (Colorado) wants to lead blind students in designing and creating balloon payloads to launch into space.

Alex S. (United Kingdom) wants to assemble a blind crew for a transatlantic sailing trip.

Jana S. (Indiana) wants to produce audio portraits of the U.S. National Parks.

Kaiti (Ohio) wants to start her own music therapy practice.

Ojok (Uganda) wants to teach blind people to be keep bees and sell their honey as a source of income.

Chandni (London) wants to work with exercise instructors to make fitness classes accessible to the blind.

Gary (Canada) wants to finance a Eurotrip for the Canadian Blind Hockey team to drum up support for the sport.

Penn (Colorado) wants to establish a four-day adventure camp for blind youths.

Deon (California) wants to travel and photograph guide dogs and their human masters for a coffee table book.

Ahmet (California) wants to kayak across the Bosphorus Strait between Turkey and Asia.

Poonam (India) wants to solo travel the world on public transportation and see who she meets along the way.

Christopher V. (South Africa) wants to take an eight-month expedition through the Mediterranean.


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