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Holman Prize

Announcing the 2019 Holman Prizewinners

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

San Francisco, CA, Thursday, July 11

All inquiries and interview requests to: press@lighthouse-sf.org.

LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Holman Prizewinners will each use their $25,000 awards to promote blind empowerment by building a tool for blind people to find exoplanets, taking a plunge into public transit in six cities around the world and developing a network of blind mentors for the first time in rural Gambia.

In just a few months, three intrepid blind individuals will set off around the world in a daring series of groundbreaking adventures as the 2019 winners of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition.

We announce the three 2019 Holman Prize winners: Yuma Decaux, Alieu Jaiteh and Mona Minkara after a rigorous, multifaceted judging process. Each winning project embodies its own sense of adventure and ambition – Yuma plans to give blind citizens advanced tools to participate in astronomical research, Alieu will create a network of blind mentors in his home country of The Gambia, where this is unheard of, and Mona will immerse herself in an adventure on mass transit systems worldwide, documenting the experience on film.

Created to change perceptions and popularize the concept of “blind ambition”, the San Francisco LightHouse’s Holman Prize Holman Prize annually awards three blind adventurers up to $25,000 to support their ambitious dreams.

Now in its third year, the prize is named for James Holman (1786-1857), a Victorian-era adventurer and author. As the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, he holds the further distinction of being the most prolific traveler in history, sighted or blind, prior to the invention of modern transportation.

“While many awards in the blindness field look toward past accomplishment, the LightHouse is determined to spark new initiatives for future growth by some of the world’s most ambitious blind people,” said LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin.

The LightHouse was first introduced to the three applicants through their 90-second video pitches. You can see their original pitches here:

Yuma Decaux

Alieu Jaiteh

Mona Minkara

Yuma Decaux, Alieu Jaiteh and Mona Minkara were part of a competitive pool of 111 applicants from six continents.

View all 15 Holman finalists’ video pitches.

The three Holman Prizewinners will fly to San Francisco in September 2019 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 media. 

Our 2018 prizewinners are each in the final stages of their Holman projects. Stacy Cervenka launched the Blind Travelers’ Network last month, Red Szell successfully completed his extreme blind triathlon and Conchita Hernandez will soon host a blindness workshop in Mexico. 

LightHouse is still interested in finding corporate or philanthropic supporters for the 12 finalists who we found irresistible but simply couldn’t fund this year.  For possible support please contact Jennifer Sachs at jsachs@lighthouse-sf.org 

Applications or the 2020 Holman Prize will open in January 2020. Please consult www.holmanprize.org for details.

 The Holman Prize is determined by a prestigious international group of judges, 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 the fall of 2020 in San Francisco.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners. 

About the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition

In 2017, LightHouse for the Blind, headquartered in San Francisco, 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

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 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. 

Announcing the 2019 Holman Prize Finalists

A photo collage of the 2019 Holman Prize Finalists.
A photo collage of the 2019 Holman Prize Finalists.

The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, a set of annual awards of up to $25,000 each for legally blind individuals with big ideas, is proud to announce its 2019 finalists. We received 111 applications from six continents, and narrowed down the field to 41 semifinalists. The semifinalists’ proposed projects were incredible, and highlight advocates, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and more; that made it a tall order to narrow it down to just fifteen finalists.

This week, we’re proud to announce our elite group of fifteen finalists, including a “People’s 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 fifteen finalists include an activist, a pole dancer, a bird expert, a snowboarder, a few sailors and more. 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 2019 Finalists

Abdullah Aljuaid (People’s Choice)

Abdullah is interested in e-commerce. With the Holman Prize, he would create a global consultation app for blind people to find information on learning, mobility, fitness and e-commerce.

Krystle Allen

Krystle, who once advocated for people with disabilities in Tokyo, would use the Holman Prize to pay for fifteen blind women to participate in the Miss Blind Diva Empowerment Fellowship Program. This is a sixteen-week program that provides personal and professional development and ends with the Miss Blind Diva Empowerment Pageant.

Trevor Attenberg

Trevor loves science and the outdoors. With the Holman Prize, he would travel and teach blind people to identify birds by sound and explore other natural soundscapes.

Natalie Devora

Natalie is an author and activist. With the Holman Prize, she would travel and collect stories from people of color with albinism around the world and share these stories in an anthology and documentary.

Yuma Decaux

Yuma loves hiking and surfing. With the Holman Prize, he would build an online community to make astronomy more accessible to blind people, with the hopes of a blind person discovering an exoplanet.

Deniz, Yunus, Utku and Mina

Deniz, Yunus, Utku and Mina are from Turkey. With the Holman Prize, they would take the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing and create a documentary about it to inspire blind children to travel independently.

Pauline Dowell

Pauline and her guide dog live on a sailboat on the Boston Harbor. She would use the Holman Prize to form an all-female crew of blind sailors to compete in the 2020 Newport to Bermuda Race, which goes from Newport, Rhode Island to the island of Bermuda.

Stephanie Campbell

Stephanie is a newlywed whose wedding received media coverage when she requested her guests wear blindfolds during the vows. With the Holman Prize, Stephanie would film the pilot for a sensory travel show, that explores destinations non-visually through the senses of sound, smell, touch and taste. She would then shop this pilot to television executives with hopes for a series pickup.

Dennis Gallant

Dennis worked as a teacher ranger with the National Park service. With the Holman Prize, he would create a podcast to highlight the specific sounds from various national park locations, which would help blind people learn about the natural world in an accessible way.

Alieu Jaiteh

Alieu is the founder of Start Now, a training program for blind people in The Gambia. With the Holman Prize, he would provide eighty blind people with rehabilitation training in rural Gambia.

Lisamaria Martinez

Lisamaria has been active in sports all her life. Recently, she’s discovered pole dance. With the Holman Prize, she would use workshops, training and audio description to make pole dance accessible to blind people across the United States.

Bonface Massah

Bonface is a human rights activist. With the Holman Prize, he would create parent circles, so parents could discuss how to raise children with albinism and change the perception of children with albinism in Malawi.

Mona Minkara

Mona is working on postdoctoral research in computational chemistry. With the Holman Prize, she would film a documentary series called Planes, Trains and Canes, where she would navigate and access the public transportation systems of five cities around the world.

Kris Scheppe

Kris is the North American representative for Blind Sailing International and would use the Holman Prize to form a crew of blind sailors to complete in the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile race from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Pamela Thistle

Pamela, an extreme sports enthusiast, enjoys many sports but her favorites are mountain biking and snowboarding. She would use the Holman Prize to train to heli-snowboard off the mountains of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.

Announcing the 2019 Holman Prize Judges

In its third year, the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition received 111 applications from six continents. The semifinalists’ proposed projects are incredible, and highlight advocates, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and more. It won’t be an easy task to choose the three 2019 prizewinners from such a strong and diverse group.

The Holman Team is in the process of selecting finalists for the judging committee to select from, but in the meantime, we invite you to peruse the whole group of semifinalist submission videos to experience the diversity of people and proposals in the field.

This week, all semi-finalists have submitted their complete application packets, hundreds of pages of ambitious detail which will help them change the world’s perception of blindness. In just a few weeks, we’ll welcome our judges at LightHouse in San Francisco to review the finalists’ proposals and select the 2019 Holman prizewinners.

As always, the prestigious Holman judge panel represents a leading cross-section of blind talent and experience, a group devoted to the highest ideal of blindness, both personally and professionally.

Meet the Holman Committee:

 A headshot of Jennison Asuncion.

Jennison Asuncion, Engineering Manager, LinkedIn

“I lost my sight before I was two. So to me, being blind has always felt normal. It is part of me but does not define who I am.”

Jennison Asuncion moved to the Bay Area in November 2013 to lead LinkedIn’s digital accessibility efforts. Originally from Montreal, he has been working in digital accessibility for over ten years. In 2012, Jennison co-founded the annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). Held annually on the third Thursday of May, GAAD is dedicated to raising awareness of digital access and inclusion by and for the more than one billion people with disabilities. Jennison sits on the Board of Directors for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired San Francisco, AMI (Accessible Media Inc.), and Knowbility. 

A headshot of Bryan Bashin.

Bryan Bashin, CEO LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Bryan Bashin has led a diverse life since he graduated UC Berkeley in history and journalism. Mr. Bashin first spent 15 years as a journalist in television, radio and print, specializing in science news. In 1998 he was hired as Executive Director of the Sacramento Society for the Blind, where he quintupled the number of hours of teaching and developed innovative programs such as the Senior Intensive Retreat and summer immersion camps. In 2004, Mr. Bashin was hired as the Region IX assistant regional commissioner for the US Department of Education’s west coast branch of RSA, overseeing funding for $500 million in federal disability programs. In 2010 he was hired to lead the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco, where he works today with a staff of 140. Mr. Bashin is a relentless innovator, working with a remarkable idealistic staff. Throughout his career, Mr. Bashin has worked in the confluence of high technology, social advocacy and governmental partnerships.

A portrait of Eric Bridges.

Eric Bridges, Executive Director, American Council of the Blind

“I believe that people who are blind or visually impaired should strive to be the best they can be, and I believe that each blind or visually impaired person has the right and responsibility to define success on his or her own terms.”

Eric joined the staff of the American Council of the Blind in 2007. In 2013, he became the Director of External Relations and Policy, cultivating many key relationships with business, industry, government officials, and agency staff. Two years later, the Board appointed him executive director. He is responsible for overseeing the daily operations of both of ACB’s offices. 

A portrait of Kerryann Ifill.

Kerryann Ifill, President of the Senate, Barbados

“The art of living with blindness demands absolute creativity; creativity in attaining and maintaining your own independence, creativity in charting a path that encourages others to emulate your example, creativity in ensuring that others value and recognise your individuality and the right to be the whole person you were designed to be.”

Kerryann’s life continues to be characterized by landmarks. As the first totally blind student completing mainstream education to post graduate level; becoming the first female to hold the office of President of the Senate, the only person with a disability and the youngest person. She has served both professionally and personally in various organizations for persons with disabilities, both locally and regionally and currently hold the office of President of both my the National United Society of the Blind Barbados and the Caribbean Council for the Blind. She represented her country and at several local, regional and international fora on a cadre of issues related to disabilities. The Holman Prize embodies her belief that blindness is not a burden, but an exciting opportunity.

A portrait of Anil Lewis.

Anil Lewis, Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute

“Blindness is a paradigm shift.”

A passionate advocate for the rights, education and employment of blind people everywhere, Anil currently serves as the executive director of Blindness Initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, MD, where he leads a dynamic team of individuals responsible for the creation, development, implementation, and replication of innovative projects and programs throughout a nationwide network of affiliates that work to positively affect the education, employment, and quality of life of all blind people.

A portrait of Sile O’Modhrain.

Dr. Sile O’Modhrain, Professor, University of Michigan

A professor in performing arts technology at the school of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan, O’Modhrain brings a wide breadth of personal and professional skill to the Holman Prize committee. With past careers in sound engineering, technology, music and more – and passionate study in the fields of arts, assistive technology, and haptics – O’Modhrain is constantly in search of better ways for blind people to access information and work in the world. 

A portrait of Sassy Outwater-Wright.

Sassy Outwater-Wright, Executive Director, Massachusetts Association of the Blind

“There is no one right way to do vision loss. There is your way, and individuality is essential to accessibility. We’re writing history now, deciding how to combine technology and our own humanity to redefine what independence means to us as individuals who are part of the same community. Dignity, opportunity, innovation and accessibility feed off each other.”

Sassy is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually impaired (MABVI). She lost her sight at 3 due to retinoblastoma, and has had several rounds of cancer since then. She is a passionate digital accessibility advocate, specializing in technology for people with multiple disabilities, and studying how intersectionality, artificial intelligence, and intersecting marginalizing factors affect people. She lives in the infamous Salem, Massachusetts, and it fits her perfectly.

A portrait of Britt Raubenheimer.

Dr. Britt Raubenheimer, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“Losing vision was a hurdle, but it forced me to grow. When I lost my sight I thought I would need to discontinue my work and many of my activities. But instead, overcoming my inability to see taught me self-confidence and encouraged me to explore.”

Britt is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, MA. Working with a team of other scientists, students, and engineers, she collects and analyzes measurements to understand interactions among coastal waves and surge, beach and dune evolution, groundwater, and winds and precipitation during extreme storms. When others evacuate before a hurricane, Britt often is on her way to the beach. Deploying her instruments in the ocean requires SCUBA, and Britt is the only legally blind, certified, university research diver. Britt resides in northern Idaho, where she serves on the board of the Idaho Commission for the Blind, and enjoys skiing, hiking, and knitting.

A portrait of Jason Roberts.

Jason Roberts, Author, ‘A Sense of the World’

An accomplished author, Roberts’ acclaimed work, about the intrepid blind traveler (and namesake of this prize) James Holman, “A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler,” was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, long-listed for the international Guardian First Book Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and Kirkus Reviews. Born in Southern California, Roberts earned his high school diploma at fourteen, then took a five-year hiatus from education. He worked as a day laborer, dishwasher and late-night disc jockey before matriculating at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He lives in Sausalito, California, with his wife, a chemical engineer, and their two young children.

A portrait of Sharon Sacks.

Dr. Sharon Sacks, Retired Superintendent, California School for the Blind

Dr. Sacks is recently retired from her post as Superintendent of the California School for the Blind. During her tenure, Dr. Sacks led a staff of 150 and promoted education excellence for students served on campus and through outreach programs throughout the state. Prior to her role as superintendent, Dr. Sacks was the Director of Curriculum, Assessment, & Staff Development at CSB. After receiving her doctorate, Sharon coordinated programs, and was a university professor in moderate/severe disabilities at San Jose State University, and programs in visual impairments at California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Sacks worked as a TVI for eight years as a resource and itinerant teacher prior to assuming leadership positions.

Dr. Sacks is a strong advocate for ensuring quality services for children and adults who are blind or visually impaired through her direct work with families, consumer organizations, and professional organizations. She is the recipient of the Mary K. Bauman Award for Distinguished Service in Education, and a past president of AERBVI. Dr. Sacks currently serves on the Lighthouse’s Board of Directors.

A portrait of Zack Shore.

Dr. Zach Shore, Historian

A historian of international conflict, Dr. Shore is the author of five books, including “A Sense of the Enemy.” Shore is Associate Professor of History at the Naval Postgraduate School and Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He earned his doctorate in modern history at Oxford, performed postdoctoral research at Harvard, and held a fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

A portrait of Kathryn Webster.

Kathryn Webster, President, National Association of Blind Students

“Though a single inconvenience, blindness has the power to ignite strength, resilience, and confidence. We may grow exhausted of educating society of our abilities, but who more qualified than blind communities to shatter the glass ceiling that eternally perpetuates negative misconceptions?”

Kathryn graduated from Wake Forest University with high honors, receiving Bachelor of Science degrees in Statistics and Computer Science in 2017. Her scholastic achievements propelled her into a career with Deloitte & Touché, LLP where she specializes in strategic transformation and data analytics. Kathryn recognizes the value in intertwining corporate prowess with civic engagement, thus jumpstarting a statewide transition program for blind and low vision youth, designed to ignite confidence and independence, demonstrate the value of mentorship, and encourage Virginia’s youth to shoot for the stars. Kathryn proudly serves as President of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS), Kathryn lives each day with true authenticity, bringing difficult conversations to the table and engaging in a persistent challenge to be the best version of herself. 

Holly Scott-Gardner stands outdoors on a lawn, in front of a tree and a potted plant.

Holly Scott-Gardner, Blindness Advocate and Blogger

“I view my blindness as an integral part of who I am. It has shaped my experiences and more often than not presented me with opportunities I don’t believe I would have had if I could see. The so-called difficulties of blindness more often than not result from a world that is not built with blindness in mind. Whether I’m faced with an inaccessible payment terminal, or a stranger who insists I shouldn’t cross the street alone, I am wrestling with an inaccessible world and the misinformed views many hold on blindness. My blindness isn’t the thing that needs to be changed.”

Holly is a public speaker, blindness advocate and Youtube creator in the U.K. When Holly was still a teenager in school, she realized that she could use her voice and experiences to change how blindness is viewed. Eight years after setting up her blog she has spoken in Parliament, lobbying the government to alter its provisions for disabled students, advocated for the rights of disabled survivors of domestic abuse at the European Parliament in Brussels and represented disabled students at her university by winning the seat of disabled students counsellor. She aims to ramp up her advocacy work after graduation, with an outlook on international blindness movements. Read Holly’s essay about her experience as a camp counselor at Enchanted Hills Camp.

Ahmet Ustunel stands in a park with red rock craters, holding his white cane.

Ahmet Ustunel, Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired and 2017 Holman Prizewinner

“As a blind person to educate the public about blindness and as an educator to inspire my Blind students, I am trying to foster the same qualities Holman demonstrated: immense courage and passion, persistence, a curious and adventurous spirit, strength of purpose, and belief in one’s self. As a blind teacher of blind students, I tell my students that being blind should never prevent them from achieving their goals, although they might need to deal with prejudices, discrimination, and an inaccessible physical and educational environment. I let them know that limits and barriers they encounter are not results of blindness itself; they are just products of prejudice and discrimination in society. Even worse, sometimes they are our own mind’s products. I want my students to understand blindness as a characteristic of a person rather than a limitation.”

Ahmet is a full-time teacher of the visually impaired in San Francisco. He is also an avid outdoorsman and one of the inaugural recipients of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. He began solo kayaking in San Francisco Bay shortly after moving to the United States from Turkey a decade ago. With the Holman Prize, Ahmet achieved his ambitious goal in July 2018 by paddling across the Bosphorus Strait, which divides the European region of Turkey from its Asian counterpart, completely alone. Read about his solo kayaking journey from Europe to Asia.

Announcing the 2019 Holman Prize Semifinalists

A compilation of photos of 41 Holman Semifinalists.

This year, we had 111 candidates from six continents for our third annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. We received ideas in 90-second pitch videos from advocates, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and more. It wasn’t easy, but we’ve narrowed it down to 41 semifinalists, including one People’s Choice Semifinalist.

We’re already proud of the impact our applicants have had on the world. Our 2019 candidates pitches have been viewed thousands of times on YouTube—that’s thousands of people whose expectations of blind ambition and ability have been challenged. This is an impactful feature of the Holman Prize, but the best is yet to come.

Below, we present the full list of 2019 Semifinalists. Each will send a detailed proposal and budget to be reviewed by the 2019 Holman Team in May. This year, we will select a People’s Choice Finalist from this group—that means the semifinalist with the most YouTube likes by May 10 will automatically become a Finalist. Help them out and like your favorite pitch videos! Final judging will take place in June, when the winners will be determined by an esteemed panel of blind judges who themselves are role models of blind ambition.

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

Meet the 2019 Holman Prize Semifinalists:

Michael Aguilar 

who is passionate about inclusivity in the beauty industry, would use the Holman Prize to develop his accessible makeup brand Visionary Cosmetics, which uses braille labels and vivid color descriptions.

Chad Allen

who’s been a performing magician for over twenty years, would use the Holman Prize to digitize notable magic books and make them accessible to blind people  for the first time.

Krystle Allen

a disability rights advocate, would use the Holman Prize to pay for fifteen blind women to participate in the Miss Blind Diva Empowerment Fellowship Program that provides personal and professional development.

Abdullah Aljuaid

the People’s Choice Semifinalist, would use the Holman Prize to create a global consultation app for blind people to find information on learning, mobility, fitness and e-commerce.

Trevor Attenberg

who loves science and the outdoors, would use the Holman Prize to travel and teach blind people to identify birds by sound and explore other natural soundscapes.

Alexandria Brito

a powerlifter, would use the Holman Prize to train and compete in powerlifting competitions with the hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics.

Fernando Botelho

who works in social services, would use the Holman Prize to teach blind people how to build accessible, low-cost computers.

Stephanie Campbell

a newlywed who requested her wedding guests wear blindfolds during the vows, would use the Holman Prize to film the pilot for a sensory travel show, that explores destinations non-visually through the senses of sound, smell, touch and taste.

Yuma Decaux

who loves hiking and surfing, would use the Holman Prize to build an online community to make astronomy more accessible to blind people, with the hopes of a blind person discovering an exoplanet.

Deniz, Yunus, Utku and Mina

who are from Turkey, would use the Holman Prize to take the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing and create a documentary about it to inspire blind children to travel independently.

Natalie Devora

who is an author and activist, would use the Holman Prize to travel and collect stories from people of color with albinism around the world, to share these stories in an anthology and documentary.

Nicolas Dewalque

an athlete who hopes to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics, would use the Holman Prize to train and complete in the Coolangatta Gold race in Australia, which involves kayaking, swimming, running and paddling a surfboard.

Pauline Dowell

who lives on a sailboat on the Boston Harbor with her guide dog, would use the Holman Prize to form an all-female crew of blind sailors to compete in the Marblehead to Halifax Race.

Jesse Dufton

who’s an experienced winter mountaineer, would use the Holman Prize to lead an expedition on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. If successful in ascending a peak that hasn’t been climbed, he would propose the peak be named “Blind Ambition”.

Craig Faris

who loves hiking, camping, traveling and sailing, would use the  Holman Prize to train and purchase assistive technology to sail a 7000-mile course from North America to New Zealand.

Matt Formston

who’s a two-time world champion in para-surfing, would use the Holman Prize to run surfing workshops for blind children and youth all over  the world.

Dennis Gallant

who has worked as a teacher ranger with the National Park service, would use the Holman Prize to create a podcast to highlight the specific sounds from various national park locations to help blind people learn about the natural world in an accessible way.

Reem Hamodi

who grew up in Iraq where she didn’t have access to books in an accessible format, would use the Holman Prize to set up a system to record audiobooks and distribute them online to blind students in Iraq.

Finn Hellmann

a Brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast, would use the Holman Prize to travel and train with blind Brazilian jiu-jitsu experts worldwide, and then teach other blind people this accessible martial art.

Zackery Hurtz

a musician, would use the Holman Prize to develop Reference Point Navigation, which provides accessible indoor and outdoor access to information and navigation on mobile phones.

Alieu Jaiteh

who runs a training program for blind people in The Gambia. would use the Holman Prize to provide eighty blind people with rehabilitation training.

Larry Johnson

who’s worked as a radio and television broadcaster in the United States and Mexico, would use the Holman Prize to travel to Cuba to teach a motivational workshop in English and Spanish to empower blind people.

Jennifer Lavarnway

a former music teacher who loves to cook, would use the Holman Prize to travel to Naples, Italy to train in the art of pizza making and open her own pizzeria back home.

Paul Lemm

who taught himself to program, along with other blind developers, would use the Holman Prize, to develop their prototype software Sable to allow blind people to create audio games without coding or scripting.

Joshua Loya

who is an athlete and martial arts enthusiast, would use the Holman Prize to train and seek setting the world record for distance traveled on a wave by a blind surfer.

Shon Mackey

who’s competed in dancing competitions and talent shows, would use the Holman Prize to open Blind Rhythm Dance Studio to teach dance to blind and low vision individuals.

Lisamaria Martinez

who has recently discovered pole dance would use the Holman Prize to develop workshops, training and audio description to make pole dance accessible to blind people across the United States.

Bonface Massah

a human rights activist, would use the Holman Prize to create parent circles, so parents could discuss how to raise children with albinism and change the perception albinism in Malawi.

Marx Vergel Melencio

who plays acoustic and electric bass, would use the Holman Prize, to develop a device he created called VIsION, a wearable AI device for the blind, with the goal of mass production.

Mona Minkara

who is working on postdoctoral research in computational chemistry, would use the Holman Prize to film a documentary series called Planes, Trains and Canes, where she navigates and accesses the public transportation of five cities around the world.

Natalie Minnema and Sarina Cormier

who are from Canada, would use the Holman Prize to create an online platform that focuses on blindness awareness and accessibility training for employers and organizations.

Shawn Prak

who has a passion for electronics, building and repairing, would use the Holman Prize and his many skills to renovate his home.

Terri Rupp

who’s a writer, disability rights advocate and a marathon runner, would use the Holman Prize to form Project Runstoppable, a program that empowers blind children through a running curriculum.

Kris Scheppe

is the North American representative for Blind Sailing International and would use the Holman Prize to form a crew of blind sailors to complete in the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile race from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Brian Malvin Sithole

who co-founded Alive Albinism Initiative Trust, would use the Holman Prize to open a manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe that produces sunscreen for people with albinism.

Claire Spector

a textile artist, would use the Holman Prize to bring together blind weavers and blind textile artists to create new art, develop online and traveling exhibitions, and strengthen confidence in art-making.

Joshua Tatman

a motocross racer, along with his friend Pat, who is also blind, would use the Holman Prize to travel the country to motivate blind people to try different sports like snowboarding, jet skiing, sailing and more.

Johnny Tai 

who has a bachelor’s degree in social work, would use Holman Prize to film a series of professionally audio-described self-defense videos that blind people could access online.

Pamela Thistle

 an extreme sports enthusiast, would use the Holman Prize to train and heli-snowboard off the mountains of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.

Ness Vlajkovic

who’s finishing up her degree in journalism, would use the Holman Prize to open a braille bookstore in Perth, for blind and Deafblind people to have easy access to hard copy braille books.

Michelle Young

 who’s worked with blind people on structured discovery in Qatar, the United States, and Australia would use the Holman Prize to hold residential workshops on structured discovery and echolocation orientation and mobility techniques.

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Why every blind person should apply to the 2019 Holman Prize

Holman Prize applications are open until February 28, 2019. Learn how to apply.

Being successful as a blind person is not about being a superhero. We often see images of people with disabilities atop mountains, creating beautiful things or connecting their community in big ways. But often the narrative is over-simplified to the exclusion of the real factors that got those people to where they are: research, planning, collaboration, humility and a whole host of other skills that maybe aren’t as glamorous as the idea of scaling a craggy peak on your own. But these are the real stories we want to hear.

Truly, every blind person has a dream and a set of proclivities, and the Holman Prize is about nurturing those passions and goals at every level. The prize does not reward superheroes; it rewards everyday people who can demonstrate a commitment to a project that is meaningful to them. That’s why, we believe, every blind person in the world should apply.

Apply in 2019

On January 15, 2019, applications open for the third annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, funded by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This prize awards up to $25,000 each to three blind individuals who wish to push their own limits and carry out a “dream” project of their own creation.

The Holman Prize is named for 19th century explorer James Holman (“the blind traveler”), who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, and the most prolific traveler of any person before the era of modern transportation.

Our inaugural prizewinners, Penny Melville-Brown, Ojok Simon and Ahmet Ustunel recently completed their year-long adventures. On November 29, they will be honored at our LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition, where they will share their stories. Although their Holman year may be over, Penny, Ojok and Ahmet are determined to continue to push boundaries and change perceptions about blindness around the world.

The 2018 winners, Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernandez and Red Szell are just starting their Holman journeys. Each has already accomplished a great deal in the nascent days of their projects.

Stacy Cervenka: The Blind Travelers Network

Stacy is busy working with a website developer, web designer and business analyst on creating The Blind Travelers Network, an online community for blind people to crowdsource information about the accessibility of places they travel. Besides reviews, the website will allow people to communicate with each other and share their travel tips and stories through message boards and blogs. Stacy has been conducting focus groups with blind people to learn what features they would find useful on The Blind Travelers Network. She will be seeking people to test a beta version of the website towards the end of winter. The public rollout of the website will be in the spring.

Conchita Hernández: Changing lives in Mexico

Conchita will convene the first-ever blindness conference in Mexico run by blind people and registration is now open for “Cambiando Vidas” or Changing Lives, which takes place in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico from July 26-28, 2019. Conchita is currently contracting with teachers and exhibitors. The conference will have workshops for blind people, parents of blind children, and professionals in the blindness field. Conchita explains that in Mexico, sixty percent of blind children don’t have access to an education. With Cambiando Vidas, Conchita hopes to begin a systematic change by creating a community of people and more resources to help improve prospects for blind people in Mexico.

Red Szell: An extreme triathlon in Scotland

Red is training to complete an extreme triathlon that includes off-road biking, an ocean swim and climbing a 200-foot sea stack called Am Buachaille. Recently, Red and his climbing partner Matthew traveled to Sardinia where they began climbing Le Grand Mammut, a challenging, but less difficult rock climb that would help him train for Am Buachaille. Le Grand Mammut is about 500 feet high, but at 200 feet, Red, dehydrated and with a case of sunstroke, was forced to execute an emergency rappel down the cliff with Matthew. Red reflected on the failure to summit in his blog entry, “I needed a reminder that the sport I love is more than just a physical challenge. It’s about risk analysis, problem solving and above all, partnership.”

The six Holman Prizewinners come from varied experiences and backgrounds with projects that are vastly different. From academia, to art to athleticism, the Holman Prize welcomes pitches of all kinds. Starting January 15, it’s your turn to upload a 90-second video to YouTube and fill out the official Holman Prize application.

Want to know more and stay in touch? Visit holmanprize.org, follow the Holman Prize on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or send an email to holman@lighthouse-sf.org to be subscribed to the Holman Prize mailing list.

Photos: LightHouse’s first-ever ‘Celebration of Blind Ambition’ in San Francisco

Last Thursday, the LightHouse gathered hundreds of friends, supporters and community members at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in downtown San Francisco for the LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition. At the gala, which was LightHouse’s largest-ever, we honored blind pioneers, role models and citizens for their audacity and ambition. It was a celebration, a fundraiser and an invitation for our community to partner and become more deeply engaged with the work of the LightHouse.

With over 300 people in attendance, it was an evening of community and camaraderie. Emcee Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, set the tone for our daring evening. LightHouse student Jorge Ellington and his band started the evening right with live Latin Jazz. We honored seven blind leaders throughout the night, and capped off with presentations from our agency’s Holman Prize for Blind Ambition.

We were proud to present our new LightHouse Awards: to acknowledge longtime leaders from the field of blindness, who have had a great impact on the community. This award honored trailblazers in education, technology and policy. LightHouse Newel Perry Award was presented to Cathy Skivers by Bryan Bashin. The LightHouse Dr. Isabelle Grant Award was presented to George Kerscher for his work to made electronic books accessible. Erin Lauridsen, Director of Access Technology presented the award to Dr. Kerscher. The LightHouse Chris Buckley Award honored Scott LaBarre and Maryanne Diamond for their work advocating for the Marrakesh Treaty to make books accessible to the global blind community without exception. Benentech’s Jim Fruchterman presented the award.

Ceremonial medals were given to the 2017 Holman Prizewinners, who were honored for the completion of their year-long projects which furthered the cause of blindness across six continents in the fields of adventure sports, entrepreneurship and cultural exchange. Holman prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown recounted her perilous, near death car accident and subsequently meeting and marrying the love of her life. Ojok Simon spoke of teaching over 45 blind people the art of beekeeping this year, and brought honey from Uganda to share with all. Ahmet Ustunel imparted his kayaking adventures in Turkey, and the technology he crafted to aid blind kayakers navigate independently.

Julie Cabrera, and Enchanted Hills camper who grew up to be a counselor helped us raise funds to rebuild the Wing Creek Chapel and accessible nature trail at Enchanted Hills, which were destroyed in last year’s Wine Country wildfires. The evening supported the life-changing programs of the LightHouse with a portion supporting to Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind. The event raised over $180,000. Thank you to our sponsors.

EXPLORATION SPONSORS – Individual

  • Jennifer and Ken Bunt

Corporate

  • Walt Disney Company Employee Matching Gift Program
  • Microsoft

AUDACITY SPONSORS – Individual

  • Drew Kebbel
  • Sharon and Richard Sacks

Corporate

  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Herbst Foundation
  • Merchant’s Exchange (Julia Morgan Ballroom)
  • Patson & Co
  • Swinerton
  • U.S. Bank

ADVENTURE SPONSORS – Individual

  • Jennison Asuncion
  • Lisa Carvalho and David Mager
  • Gena Harper
  • Jerry Kuns
  • Josh Miele, Liz Ruhland and Fred Ruhland
  • Fred and Kristine Silva

Corporate

  • One Market Restaurant, Michael and Leslye Dellar
  • Google/ Laura Allen
  • HP
  • Humanware
  • Maze & Associates
  • Mutual of America
  • U.S. Bank

OPPORTUNITY SPONSORS – Individuals

  • Barbara Lassen
  • Joan Dove
  • Chris Downey and Rosa Downey
  • Eric and Jacalyn Mah
  • Michael Nuz
  • Alice Wingwall and Donlyn Lyndon
  • Stanley Yarnell and Victor Rowley

Corporate

  • Bauke Family Foundation
  • Disability Rights Advocates
  • Fitness SF
  • Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP
  • Turner Construction

Baking Blind: How Penny Melville-Brown changed perceptions about disability by cooking across six continents

Belgian-born chef and entrepreneur Noam Kostucki summed up 2017 Holman Prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown like this: “She’s bonkers. She’s completely mad.” This from a man running a restaurant in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle — but he meant it as a compliment. And for those who know Penny, it’s pretty much spot on.

Penny has big ideas and the gumption to carry them out — there’s no stopping her once she puts her mind to something. The woman has fortitude, military-learned logistics skills and an uncanny ability to connect with everyone she meets and put them immediately at ease.

From the onset, Penny’s Holman prizewinning project looked to be the one with least risk involved (compared to tending killer bees and solo-kayaking a highly trafficked shipping channel). Her plan was to leave her home in the green, port-side town of Fareham, UK and travel to six continents over the course of one year. Along the way she stopped in Costa Rica, Malawi, Australia, China and the United States, and met with chefs, other blind people and community leaders all over the world. She traveled with her nephew Toby Melville-Brown who documented her whirlwind world tour in a video blog series, Baking Blind.

“Some people were tentative and quite cagey before I showed up,” she says. “As soon as we were cooking together, they forgot I was blind. Then it was just two people sharing an experience together. Usually they had something simple in mind that they wanted to cook and I bullied them into doing something much more interesting.”

The risks of cooking seemed minimal to an experienced baker like herself— a burned wrist here, a nicked finger there — and yet somehow Penny’s project was the one with the most sturm und drang. Penny’s tour was met with much more intrigue than she had planned— coming face-to-face with Tropical Storm Nate in Costa Rica, a visa-related marooning in China, an air-sea rescue in Australia, to name a few. But Penny took it all in stride, and embraced the uncertainties as an unavoidable and rich part of her journey.

“As I crisscrossed continents and connected with people in vastly different cultures, I became even more convinced that something like this needed to be done,” she says. “There is very little media coverage of a blind person interacting with the rest of the world as an equal —  an ordinary person, who is really keen on something, operating as an equal with others around the world.”

Penny has a special connection with the namesake of the Holman Prize, James Holman, a 19th Century world traveler known as the first blind man to circumnavigate the globe. Both became blind while serving in the British Royal Navy (albeit nearly 200 years apart). Penny served for 22 years in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Royal Navy, reaching the rank of commander. She was also the first woman to hold the position of naval barrister. After being medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1999, she created her business Disability Dynamics to help other people with disabilities find employment.

“The majority of disabled people acquire their disabilities during their working lives, as they’re growing up or while they’re working,” she says. “If you’ve build yourself the strength of character motivation, optimism, determination, those skills will take you through life’s challenges of any sort, like acquiring a disability or getting a job.”

So much of Penny’s work focuses not only on changing the minds of people with disabilities themselves, but changing widespread public perceptions about disability. And when asked to identify the highlights of her Baking Blind tour, it’s the small human connections that Penny pinpoints — the ones that ripple out into the collective psyche to help evolve peoples’ understanding of what it means to be disabled.

Her favorite moment was cooking with two 20-year-old women in China, who didn’t even know how to hold a knife — and how quickly they formed a bond and began helping each other, growing more confident with each passing moment. Or wending her way through the bush and scrubland of Kiama, Australia with an Aboriginal chef as a guide to show them which plants were edible. Or even cooking deep in the jungle of Costa Rica with Chef Noam during a tropical storm and being forced to improvise due to the ironic lack of running water.

But the end of Penny’s journey around the world didn’t turn out quite as she had expected. During a visit to France just before Christmas to explore new cooking opportunities, Penny almost died in a serious car accident where she fractured several vertebrae in her neck and broke multiple ribs and her sternum. She spent two months in intensive care and was put into an induced coma for five weeks.

Penny says, “The breathing tubes stopped me talking so communicating with the French medical team was a challenge for all of us and even more complicated by my blindness. When you’re blind and in intensive care, and trying to communicate in a foreign language, it’s not easy. I had a whole vocabulary of sound effects that I used to communicate with the nurses.”

It was an incredibly trying time for Penny and her loved ones, but Penny fought hard — facing her rehabilitation head-on, and recovering much faster than her doctors anticipated.

“When you’ve already overcome significant life challenges, you’re an old hand at it,” she says.

And though Penny still has some recovery to do, she’s hard at work producing Baking Blind videos that she and Toby shot while traveling all over the world for the Holman Prize. She’s also working on a cookbook using recipes and ideas from her world travels.

The strange lesson in all of Penny’s adventures is that the most serious mishap occurred not while she was stuck in muddy, pockmarked roads during a downpour in Costa Rica, or eating unfamiliar foods in the villages in Malawi — but while she was driving in a taxi in a major European metropolis. It goes to show that risk is unavoidable, and Penny would tell you there’s no use holding back from the things you want to seek out in the world.

“Life is all about taking risks,” says Penny. “And we survive to tell the tale.”

In little more than a month, Penny will again return to San Francisco to regale attendees at the LightHouse Gala about her accomplishments and discoveries during her year-long adventure funded by the Lighthouse’s Holman Prize.

About the Holman Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Holman Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.