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James Holman

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.

 

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

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.

Meet Penny Melville-Brown: Blind Baker and Holman Prizewinner

The LightHouse for the Blind announces Penny Melville-Brown of “Baking Blind” as one of the first three winners of the Holman Prize.

British Royal Navy veteran Penny Melville-Brown is not your average chef. First of all, she is, in fact, blind. But beyond that, Penny has a deep and unique understanding of food’s ability to break down cultural barriers and to connect people – blind and sighted alike – across the globe.

Today, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco announces Penny as one of three winners of the 2017 Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, a brand-new award for blind adventurers of all kinds.

Penny preps food wearing an apron in the kitchen

“While food is a mainstay across the media and popular culture, it is almost impossible to find any inclusion of visually impaired people,” Penny says.  With her Holman Prize project, Penny hopes to change that.

With the $25,000 Holman Prize, Penny will travel to Costa Rica, Malawi, Australia, China and the United States, all over the course of a year. Along the way, she will meet chefs, teach blind people and community leaders the techniques and panache of blind baking, and film these encounters to ensure that people change their assumptions about the capabilities of blind chefs.

Equal parts travelogue and instructional video series, Penny’s video blog will teach all of us, sighted or otherwise, something new about the art of cooking.

Penny dishes up some food in the kitchen, smilingPenny also 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). Now, like Holman, Penny will take off around the world, crossing multiple continents to teach others about the capabilities of those with disabilities.

Penny is one of three inaugural winners of the Holman Prize. Her fellow prizewinners, Ahmet Ustunel and Ojok Simon, hail from the US and Uganda respectively, and also have ambitious adventures planned over a range of geographies and subjects. Ustunel is planning a solo kayak journey from Europe to Asia, while Simon is planning to build out a blind-led social enterprise for beekeepers in Uganda.

They will all meet at the Lighthouse in San Francisco in September.

Penny began hosting and producing regular video segments this year for a program she calls “Baking Blind”. She takes pride in her collaborations, which will only grow with the help of The Holman Prize. A YouTube original, she can be seen in her videos making everything from apple tarts to lamb tajines and quail eggs in soy sauce.

Read about all three Holman Prize winners in-depth.

Holman Honorees: Meet the 2017 finalists.

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 2018 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, email press@lighthouse-sf.org.

 

Meet Ojok Simon: Blind Beekeeper and Holman Prizewinner

‘Hive Uganda’ Founder plans to bring honey production and beekeeping training to blind and low vision communities of Uganda.

Imagine tending a beehive – or a whole farm of bees – with hundreds of thousands of buzzing, pollen-loving insects crawling all over you, stingers at the ready. Now imagine doing it blind. Unimaginable for most, this is just a normal day for Ojok Simon.

Today, Ojok became one of the three inaugural winners of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition – an unprecedented $25,000 award for blind and low vision adventurers offered by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco.

Ojok, who is in his mid-thirties, lost his vision more than 20 years ago when Ugandan rebels beat him severely and he incurred serious head injuries. Due to a lack of medical attention, his vision quickly deteriorated. Yet he didn’t stop pursuing his education, or later, his passion for beekeeping.

Ojok works outdoors on his bee farm

“I was walking in the bush close to our home, when I found a clay pot with bees and honey inside,” says Ojok. “That became a turning point for me.” Now with more than 100 colonized hives, Ojok has become somewhat of a celebrity in his community – even more so now that he can call himself one of the three first-ever recipients of The Holman Prize.

Intriguingly, centuries before Ojok began cultivating honey, the scientific understanding of beekeeping biology was first worked out by a blind scientist, François Huber, who met blind adventurer James Holman during his world travels in the 19th century.

Ojok’s name was announced today along with two others, Penny Melville-Brown (UK) and Ahmet Ustunel (US by way of Turkey), who represent a wide variety of ambitions and geographical areas, with blindness being the unifying factor. Ojok will use the $25,000 Holman Prize to teach blind and low vision Ugandans to become beekeepers and entrepreneurs as part of his HIVE Uganda program. “I always feel a lot of pain when I see blind and partially sighted people living below the poverty line with limited employment opportunities,” he says.

Ojok siphons honey from a drum into a jar

The award will provide Ojok’s trainees with 60 high quality beehives and the necessary honey extraction equipment, as well as honey harvesting suits, gloves and boots, for a new generation of blind and low vision beekeepers. “I will prove to the whole world that being ‘out of sight’ does not mean ‘out of mind,” says Ojok.

Get to know the other two prizewinners, Penny and Ahmet.

Holman Honorees: Meet the 2017 finalists.

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 2018 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.

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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