Jack Chen wearing a helmet

Jack Chen on Misperceptions of Blindness and Completing the Race Across America

Jack Chen stands outdoors, wearing a helmet and athletic gear under a jacketRecently, we interviewed Lukas Behnken, producer of the documentary, Surpassing sight. Now Race Across America participant, Jack Chen, shares his thoughts with LightHouse.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born legally blind and went totally blind at 16. One formative thing that shaped my mindset today happened back in fifth grade. I was using a CCTV to do math and it was difficult because I had to magnify things so much that I was losing my place. One of my teachers said, “There’s no need for you to try this hard. You know the government will always be there to take care of you if you need it.”
I imagine this is not uncommon, but to me, it has represented that thing I needed to overcome in life: people’s low perceptions of what my capabilities are, and what my future would be. I think this has fueled my desire to tackle this particular issue.
In my career, I lead a group of attorneys who support the legal team who supports the  products for online advertising at Facebook. That’s a 120-billion-dollar business a year and the vast majority of the money generated is based on work that my team does. I’ve had the great fortune to get to where I am and I know one thing is true: I am not unique. There are many smart people. There are many capable people, and one of the people I met was Dan Berlin.
Tell us more about meeting Dan and how you two came up with the idea to do Race Across America.
Dan is almost totally blind himself. He was working for a food company in New York and had an opportunity to leave his job to purchase another small food company in Colorado and became CEO of that organization. He built that company into the largest producer of vanilla extract in the world.
I had started a podcast on disability and success, and he was one of the people I interviewed. After the interview we just kept talking. We had so much in common, including our love of endurance sports and our perspective on blindness.
Over time we asked ourselves, “What’s something super hard that we could do?” We came up with the idea that it would be awesome to ride our bikes across the country. At the time, we had no idea something like Race Across America even existed. Then we heard about it, and that it was a race, and not just riding your bikes across the country. It’s one of the toughest endurance sporting events in the world.
We started to investigate and put a team together and as we did, we asked ourselves “What is it that we’re actually doing here?” We’re proving to the world that there’s so much underestimation about the capabilities of people who are blind, to not only finish a race, but to find success at life in a particular profession. We wanted to get that message out to a broad audience and we couldn’t think of a better way than film.

How long did it take you and Dan to train for this race?
We first talked about doing it in March 2017. By July of that year, we got our first seed money, and by October we began training. We did the race in June 2018.
What were some challenges you faced during filming?
We had a serious crash. A couple of our riders went down really hard. They were going 22 miles an hour and hit a set of railroad tracks that went across the road parallel and not at a 90 degree angle. There were hailstorms, there was flooding. We had an RV sink up to its frame. I had an infection in my toe. Felix, our crew chief, had to call a physician I knew, who recommended some YouTube videos for Felix to watch on how to perform a procedure to lance my toe and drain the fluid.

What did you and Dan learn about the filmmaking process?
There is no formula to making a film. It’s like a startup company: You have to be willing to be flexible. We had hired a film crew to film the race, and they did a great job. But the producer didn’t have the creative spark we were looking for to put the story together, so we had to change producers in the middle of the film and that’s when we began working with [film producer] Lukas.
Lukas’ passion has always been social change and social impact, which is reflected in the work of his production company Sterling Light Productions. He was very open to learning about the misperceptions about the capabilities of blind people. He just seemed to understand intuitively that this was an issue that needed to change.

The documentary-making process was really interesting. We had 12 terabytes of video footage. How do you turn that into a film? You’ll see in the film how different people interviewed finished each other’s sentences or reiterated what another person said. The way the crew were able to do that was to turn all the dialogue into text and time code it. Then they could search the text and you could have something where, on film, Dan could finish my sentence, because we had some similar answers.
What do you want people to get out of watching this film?
We want a heart change. We want people in their gut to come away with a changed perspective on people who are blind or have low vision. Blind people should be appreciated for our contributions and what we can bring to any arena that we are in.

What: Surpassing Sight Private Film Screening with Audio Description and Q&A
When: Friday, January 27 from 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: LightHouse San Francisco, 1155 Market St. 10th Floor – Directions to LightHouse San Francisco
RSVP: Get free tickets for Surpassing Sight at LightHouse San Francisco.
Watch a trailer of Surpassing Sight with audio description.
Visit the Surpassing Sight website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *