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2021 Holman Prizewinner Robert Malunda’s “Gateway to Elation”

2021 Holman Prizewinner Robert Malunda’s “Gateway to Elation”

(Listen to the complete interview above.)

Last July, fifteen blind and low vision judges from all over the world met to choose which three of the fourteen 2021 Holman Prize finalists would become the next Holman Prizewinners. After hours of passionate discussions and debate held over an entire weekend via Zoom, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin and the LightHouse Communications team that help facilitate the annual Holman Prize Award were tasked with the honorable job of breaking the great congratulatory news to the newly named 2021 Holman Prizewinners. Meanwhile, in a home a world away in Zimbabwe, Africa, Holman finalist Robert Malunda was hard at work turning his dreams of making trainings, resources, and education for the blind and low vision individuals of Zimbabwe a reality.

“Congratulations, Robert! You are one of the winners of the 2021 Holman Prize!” Bryan Bashin excitedly exclaimed.

Though his demeanor was calm, you couldn’t help but hear the ear-to-ear smile in the prizewinner’s voice as he graciously accepted the award and expressed the kindest and most sincere gratitude. “Thank you, so much,” said Robert Malunda. “I am truly grateful. I will not let James Holman or the Holman Prize down,” he stated, as the audible happiness and pride in his voice brought joyful tears to the eyes of the LightHouse staff as they continued to congratulate him.

Robert Malunda was born on August 15, 1988, in Bulawayo in the Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe. As an infant, Robert developed glaucoma. Due to limited availability of specialists and treatments, Robert lost his sight completely around three years old. Growing up blind in Zimbabwe can be incredibly difficult, as resources for blind and low vision children are very limited, but Robert’s family was determined to send their son to school.

“It was a very important decision, taking me to school,” Robert explains. “Most blind people in Zimbabwe do not go to school. So, I was taken to school at a relatively young age—around six years old. I was taught the same skills as a sighted person, but it was mostly academic in the mainstream school.”

While attending primary school as a child, Robert received fairly regular Braille instruction by a visiting teacher and was taught the same curriculum as sighted children, however, he did not receive any regular blindness skills education, such as orientation and mobility or assistive technology training. And although Robert was very successful in the classroom with his knowledge of Braille and applying his impeccable auditory-learning skills, having a lack of further blindness education left him with a disadvantage. It was when Robert attended Midlands State University of Zimbabwe that he found himself in the proverbial “pickle.”

“Before, I used to depend on the sight of my friends for studying. There were no books or accessible resources for the blind, so we had to ask friends to read for us. So, that is when I asked myself how I can do what I need to do for university by myself. I heard a lot of things about computers. I knew there are really a lot of great things about computers and what they can do for other people, so I was inquisitive on how this can be of help to the blind. I started to teach myself to use Microsoft Word and other word processing programs. I wanted to learn more and teach other blind people how to use these computers, too.”

At university, Robert began exploring what little he could on the computers made available to the students at the school. He shared his ambition with a friend in the United Kingdom. They then sent Robert a computer of his own. He began working with screen reading software programs like JAWS, and through much trial and error he was able to successfully navigate his way through university, sharing and teaching the tech skills he’d learned with his friends and peers along the way.

Learning how to be independent with the help of computers is what gave Robert the idea for his organization and Holman Prize project, Gateway to Elation. The purpose of this organization is to provide computer, orientation & mobility, and social skills training to blind Zimbabweans in rural areas across the country. Many blind people do not have any formal education like Robert was able to receive, therefore the employment and independence rate of the blind in Zimbabwe is very, very low. Robert Malunda will personally travel to these areas of the country where there are no government provided services or funding of any kind for blind people.

“My vision has been to reach as many people as possible,” Robert explains. “My Holman year will be spent mostly traveling around the country meeting new people and new blind people, those in the rural areas and even those in the cities, because life for a blind person is almost the same for those in the city as in the rural areas, because we face the same challenges. We can’t access information; we can’t access what other people do access easily…. Blind people in Zimbabwe often experience isolation. I envision a Zimbabwe where blind people are knowledgeable, independent and socially interactive.”

Technology training may have been the driving force for Gateway to Elation in the beginning, but Robert recognizes the isolation experienced by so many blind and low vision people in Zimbabwe reaches far beyond the lack of access to assistive technology. For example, there is a huge stigma about using a white cane. This is a problem seen everywhere in the world, but particularly in Zimbabwe, Robert explained.

“In primary school, I had heard that there is something called Mobility and Orientation, but it was not something I was taught. I did not even own a cane, which I think was a disadvantage for me. I received my first cane at 16, I did not use it. I think it was understood if you weren’t using the cane when you were young, then naturally it would mean that you won’t use it when you grow up. But for me, I realized that stigmatization needs to change. When I was at university it was difficult especially trying to navigate a big campus. Using a cane is very important for being independent if you want to go out on your own or do your own shopping. Being at university isn’t like a being at school as a child when these things are done for you.”

Robert wants to break the barriers and stigma of blind people and their use of a white cane for independent travel. Implementing orientation and mobility practices at an early age will help change the misconceptions of cane users and empower young blind and low vision children to take pride in using their canes and grow to become independent people. Robert also believes that by introducing social skills exercises while providing trainings for groups of blind and low vision people will create opportunity for socialization and community for those who ordinarily would not have these experiences. The isolation of people with varying disabilities in Zimbabwe from the general public makes it increasingly harder for these people to seek the resources and education needed to adapt to their environment.

Robert’s dream of building Gateway to Elation has been growing since 2016 and in 2018 he began researching funding opportunities.

“When I was searching for grants for Gateway to Elation was when I came across the LightHouse for the Blind and the Holman Prize. I made a pitch video that year, and then I did another pitch in 2019, I still have those pitches with me, but I did not actually apply. It was finally in 2021 when I decided to apply.”

Robert’s passion for his work can be heard in every word he speaks, and his expectations of changing the lives of blind and low vision people in Zimbabwe for the better do not end after the completion of his Holman Prize year.

“I also want to start a podcast. Even after my Holman Prize year ends, the podcast and YouTube channels will continue to document the lives of other blind people. The more people I reach the more blind people will be empowered and the more blind people can become more employable. The end goal is for them to be employed or able to use these skills for the betterment of their lives, either in school or professionally.”

Since winning the Holman Prize, Robert and Gateway to Elation have received wonderful responses. “It is a very prestigious award, the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition,” Robert explains. “The value and all the popularity of Gateway to Elation among the people of Zimbabwe, it is really amazing.”

For more about Robert Malunda and his journey teaching the blind across Zimbabwe, you can follow his organization Gateway to Elation on Facebook and on the Gateway to Elation website. Stay tuned for more updates on his progress and accomplishments as the Holman Prizewinner’s year continues.

The 2022 Holman Prize  applications are now open! Do you have your own Holman objective? Turn your idea into a tangible passion project and think about how you can present what Blind Ambition means to you in a 90-second pitch video and submit your application between now and March 20. For more information visit the Holman Prize website. Have fun dreaming up your Holman Prize Ambition, and who knows? You might just be one of this year’s three amazing winners!

Employment Immersion Students Make Their Mark at Federal Job Fair

Employment Immersion Students Make Their Mark at Federal Job Fair

On September 4, 26 blind and low vision jobseekers who are part of LightHouse’s Employment Immersion Program, assembled at LightHouse Headquarters and walked as a group to the Federal Building in San Francisco for a job fair.

The jobseekers, dressed in business attire and armed with resumes and cover letters, spoke with representatives from twenty Federal agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs, Social Security Administration, Transportation Security Administration, Department of Labor and more.

LightHouse’s Employment Immersion Program provides individualized training in job seeking skills to adults who are blind or have low vision. This includes resume and cover letter writing, interviewing, disclosing disability and more. With the unemployment rate for blind people in the United States at 70%, the Employment Immersion Program is dedicated to lowering that rate by providing students with the essential tools they need to be competitive in the job market.

Edward Wong, LightHouse Employment Specialist, remarked that other attendees at the job fair took note of the large group of blind people who sought the same employment opportunities as their sighted peers. “People noticed how many blind people were there. We were the white cane brigade.”

Are you a blind or low vision jobseeker? Visit our Employment Immersion webpage, call 415-694-7359 or email eiteam@lighthouse-sf.org to learn more.

LightHouse Satellite Offices

At LightHouse’s satellite locations, we are often training in the community, so please contact us to schedule an appointment.

Our satellite offices offer most services as our headquarters, and we’re always happy to refer you to the proper service and support. Below you’ll find a listing of services and locations.

Low Vision and Blindness training/support include:

  • Providing local, State and National Resources and Information
  • Counseling and Support Groups
  • Living Skills Assessment and Training  
  • Access Technology Assessment and Training
  • Orientation and Mobility Assessment and Training
  • Maximizing low vision through magnification, lighting and glare reduction strategies
  • Equipment Loan Program

LightHouse East Bay

Ed Roberts Campus
3075 Adeline, Suite 110
Berkeley, CA 94703
LIGHTHOUSE ERC RECEPTION : 415-694-7675
ED ROBERTS FRONT DESK: 415-694-7675 ext. 7770 
FAX: 510-845-8705
VIDEO PHONE: 510-356-0018
TTY: 510-845-8703
EMAIL: info@lighthouse-sf.org

Deaf-Blind Specialist: deaf-blind@lighthouse-sf.org

LightHouse North Coast

Grove Building 317 3rd St 
Box 3
Eureka, CA 95501
TEL: 707-268-5646
FAX: 707-268-5647
TTY: 707-268-5655
EMAIL: northcoast@lighthouse-sf.org

On our North Coast Resources page, you’ll find a listing of resources for people experiencing changing vision, people who are blind or who have low vision and senior citizens. 

Meet Amber Sherrard, our new Health and Wellness Program Coordinator

Meet Amber Sherrard, our new Health and Wellness Program Coordinator

“At the start of my childhood, I remember being happy, fearless, and free. But as I reluctantly grew up in a world designed for people to live with sight, I developed a deep fear characterized by tough questions with no answers.” Amber Sherrard has a knack for summing up the existential fear that can come with a major change in vision; and with Retinitis Pigmentosa setting in early in her life, Amber needed to develop a strong sense of who she was, outside of the level of her eyesight.

Before Amber began hitting the gym on a regular basis, finding dignity and self-worth through her ever changing situation at times felt impossible “I found bits and pieces of solitude in poetry, music, and theater,” she says, “but each time I was alone, the thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘why me’ returned. Deep in my innermost being, I knew I was called to a higher purpose, but when the negative thoughts and intense fear were upon me, it seemed like ‘someday’ would never come.”

Today, Amber is a powerlifter, a yoga instructor, and an incredibly motivating person to be around. Amber might seem like she’s got it all figured out to other blind people who find just stepping foot in a gym a little intimidating – but she started from square one, like everyone else. Amber also knows that health and wellness is about more than pumping iron, which is why in her new role at LightHouse, she is hosting regular workshops on healthy eating, yoga and inner-body exercises to improve the health of the “whole you.”

Amber remembers her ah-ha moment well: Fresh out of high school and on the first day of her blindness training program, her travel instructor, Arlene, told her about the gym across the street – a place called Curves. Arlene showed her how to get there, showed her the ropes and in doing so, eliminated the anxiety Amber might have felt getting to know a brand new gym.

The result was what Amber calls a “frenzy of independence.” Within a few short weeks, she was hooked, suddenly taking joy in a body that she once thought of as ordinary, now amazing. “I can remember people walking up to me and asking if I was an athlete or what sport I played,” she recalls, “those were my favorite compliments. I felt unstoppable. I felt as if my mind and body were so sharp and strong, that I could handle anything in life with grace, dignity, and ease.”

After graduating her blindness training program, Amber had a new mission: helping people find complete freedom, independence, and self-worth through health and fitness, just as she had done.

Amber received her bachelor’s degree In Nutrition and Dietetics from Louisiana Tech University.  There, she enjoyed a vibrant new social life and joined the Powerlifting team, competing in two nationals and one world competition, “I was the only blind person on my team and at nationals, but that meant nothing to me,” she says, “I was out to author and create a life that I loved. My entire being radiated with freedom, joy, and happiness and people noticed. For a young, single, black woman, who was legally blind, my life was extraordinary.”

Going on to become a Registered Nutrition and Dietetic Technician (NDTR) and a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200) Amber taught yoga full-time through grad school, eventually earning a masters degree in Health and Human Performance with a concentration in Health Promotion from Northwestern State University. Finally earning a credential as a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES), Amber wanted to turn her education into a new opportunity to mobilize a community in a bigger way than she had before.

We are pleased to welcome Amber to the team at LightHouse, and hope that you’ll sign up for one of her upcoming classes. Check the LightHouse calendar for all Health and Wellness events!

Interested in learning more? Contact Amber at asherrard@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7353.

Essay: A Google web developer on how EHC awakened her to the importance of accessibility

Essay: A Google web developer on how EHC awakened her to the importance of accessibility

By Raisa Cuevas

I was 11 years old when my uncle asked me to accompany him to Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind. I would be one of few sighted individuals at this gathering, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I grew up assisting Uncle B while walking around the city or doing small tasks around the house, but this was the first time I would be the minority amongst dozens of visually impaired attendees. I was a bit nervous, but I knew that my companionship would mean a lot to Uncle B.

At the camp, I spent much of my time joining my uncle in outdoor activities. One of the first things I remember is him suggesting we go pedal-boating in the lake. “But Uncle B, I can’t swim,” I anxiously warned. The thought of getting on the water terrified me. What if my uncle steers us into a rock and the boat tips over? How will I save him, much less save myself? “We’ll be fine,” he reassured us. I had no idea where he got this confidence, but I trusted him and helped us put on our life jackets.

We pedaled away for a good hour or so in the warm California sun. The water was so calm that I realized how irrational my fears were. Just as were my initial fears of attending the camp in the first place.

Throughout the day, I was challenged with interacting with the other attendees. I was already a shy kid to begin with, so it wasn’t easy reaching out for a chat with people who I wasn’t sure I completely understood. Most of the time I spent silently observing the laughter and happy conversations going on around me. People were making jokes, singing campfire songs, and living completely in the moment. I envied their ability to be fully present and uninhibited while my own mind was busy trying to take everything in.

I looked into the eyes of kids my age and wondered what different challenges they faced in their everyday lives. I looked at the older men and women, noticing their wandering eyes and bright smiles that carried a confidence and wisdom which truly fascinated me. This camp created a beautiful sense of community between people of all ages and abilities.

I didn’t think of it this deeply as the naive preteen at the time, but looking back, I’m so grateful to have experienced this at such a young age. Through this and other life lessons from my Uncle B, I’ve developed a stronger empathy for others and appreciation for my own abilities. I’ve opened up my mind to new experiences, trying my best to immerse myself in them completely.

Building websites for accessibility

More recently, I’ve realized how strongly my firsthand experience with the blind has helped me advocate for accessibility in my everyday work. As a web developer at Google, I carry a massive responsibility to build websites that are accessible to people of all abilities, languages, and network conditions. It’s not easy to address all these needs at once, but it’s important not to leave out any set of users when your audience is in the billions. Thankfully, my close relationship with Uncle B has helped me understand the needs of visually impaired individuals and to think critically about the experiences of other marginalized groups, as well.

For many years, Uncle B has been an active member of LightHouse for the Blind, the nonprofit organization that runs Enchanted Hills Camp. Since 1902, they have provided education, training, advocacy, and community for blind individuals like him. Through LightHouse, Uncle B learned much of his professional skills that allowed him to start his own business. This was five years after our experience at Enchanted Hills Camp. And when Uncle B asked his favorite niece to come work for him, of course I said yes.

I was employed as the bookkeeper, and I assumed this meant being his personal assistant as well. Although I didn’t mind bringing him tea and coffee, ordering books on Amazon, paying his bills on the phone, or whatever random task he’d ask of me, I continually found myself fascinated by how much he was able to do on his own. I often watched in amazement as he navigated the computer with special techniques like zoom software, a screen reader, inverted high contrast, and handy keyboard shortcuts. For quick personal notes that he didn’t want to keep in a Microsoft Word document, he typed them speedily on his old-school braille typewriter. He labelled buttons on his telephone, keyboard, and other electronic devices with textured stickers to help identify the keys. He read books at his desktop magnifier, which zoomed very closely and presented the inverted image on a high-contrast screen. His level of vision was very low, but fortunately he learned to be effective in an office environment through the help of LightHouse.

Through most of my bookkeeping responsibilities, I spent a lot of time at the computer with Uncle B at my side, and he instructed me to write Excel formulas for his monthly operating reports and inventory records. He would walk me through the steps as if he was looking at the screen with me. On breaks, we discussed our love for technology, his admiration for Warren Buffett, and other topics that enlightened and inspired me.

The lessons I learned from Uncle B have truly influenced the way I approach accessibility in my work. By observing the unique ways that he interacts with technology, it’s now second nature for me to think of the needs of different audiences when it comes to building a website or other digital experience. I proudly speak up for these users when stakeholders or team members overlook accessibility requirements for a project. It’s rewarding to share this knowledge with my colleagues and see them start to understand the importance of accessibility, thinking about it at earlier stages of projects.

It’s easy to overlook the needs of visually impaired users if you don’t have firsthand experience, but it’s not hard to learn ways to be more inclusive of everyone. There are millions of technology users across the world with various disabilities, including visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive. These people are using your products, and many are intelligent, committed business owners like my uncle.

Rebuilding Enchantment Hills

I feel passionately for the services that LightHouse for the Blind provides, and how they helped my uncle succeed. I admire their commitment to providing valuable resources to the blind community in California and around the world. When I found that Enchanted Hills had been burnt down in the Napa fires, I was devastated. That’s why I donated to #RebuildEHC, in hopes of restoring this unique and empowering place of retreat. And in my daily work, I continue to advocate for an inclusive and accessible web.

Blind at Work: The Woodworker

Blind at Work: The Woodworker

This weekend marks our very first session back up at camp since fires destroyed a large portion of Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa. Thanks to the hard work of the firefighters up at camp, our Tactile Art Barn survived and continues to be a venue for workshops and camp sessions. From February 1 through 4, we’ll be joined by students and woodworking hopefuls from all over, who will learn from internationally renowned woodworker Jerry Kermode and blind woodworker and construction manager George Wurtzel. George works up at camp year round, and in addition to his woodworking expertise, he has plenty to teach us about a life well-lived:

This session is all booked up, but if you’re interested in taking part in future woodworking or tactile art workshops, please contact EHC Program Coordinator Taccarra Burrell at ehc@lighthouse-sf.org or 451-694-7310.

Need Some Kitchen Confidence? Now Offering One-on-Ones with Cooking Instructor Sydney Ferrario

Need Some Kitchen Confidence? Now Offering One-on-Ones with Cooking Instructor Sydney Ferrario

If you walk into the LightHouse teaching kitchen on any given day, you’ll find our Cooking Instructor Sydney Ferrario cheerfully bustling around the kitchen, hoisting giant tubs of flour or dicing mounds of plump vegetables. We’ve seen a lot of gourmet concoctions from the LightHouse kitchen thanks to Sydney’s patient guidance.

Not only is she lively, informative, and knows her way around a stand mixer, but she also has plenty of adaptive techniques for cooking and baking to share with her students. She’ll show you that there’s nothing to fear about the kitchen, the oven, or even chopping unwieldy apples with a very sharp knife (hint: it’s all about curling the fingers away from the sharp blade).

Sydney is now offering one-on-one lessons and ongoing by appointment. If you’re connected with the CA Department of Rehabilitation and looking to develop skills in the kitchen (from labeling and organization to knife, stove top and oven techniques) individual trainings in our kitchen and final lessons in your home kitchen are available. These trainings will help you shop and prep healthy meals that work with a busy schedule and independent lifestyle.

If interested, please contact your counselor immediately to get the ball rolling! All interested students can call Sydney at 415-694-7612 or email sferrario@lighthouse.org to schedule a preliminary phone appointment and lesson times. Bon Apetit!

October 15 is White Cane Day, so we’re giving you a 10 percent discount on White Canes

October 15 is White Cane Day, so we’re giving you a 10 percent discount on White Canes

Blind people have used white canes as a tool to navigate throughout the world for hundreds of years. Since 1964, Americans have commemorated this symbol of freedom and independence by recognizing October 15 as White Cane Safety Day. In 2011, White Cane Safety Day was also named Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama.

During the week beginning October 15, the Adaptations Store will celebrate White Cane Safety by taking 10 percent off of all of the canes we have in stock to commemorate this invaluable tool.

You may think one long, white cane is just like another, but think again. Canes can be as unique as the people who carry them, which is why we offer such a plethora of options for you to choose from. Our canes range from lightweight to heavy, from rigid, solid canes comprised of a single piece of material, to canes that collapse into 5, 6 or 7 sections. We also offer telescoping canes in a myriad of styles with customizable grips and tips for you to make the selection that fits you best. Our cane tips range from the standard pencil to a rolling marshmallow, from steel to ceramic, so you can outfit your cane to suit your preferred amount of feedback and detection.

Our new line-up includes two telescoping canes, one from Ambutech, which adjusts and can be locked at the length you prefer between 31 and 69 inches. Another is a 9-section, light-weight mini telescoping cane available in 6 lengths, ranging from 51 to 61 inches. It collapses into its handle, making the entire cane only about 12 inches when completely collapsed. This cane

is so small it fits in your pocket, and makes a great backup cane so you won’t find yourself stuck without a cane. These small, compact canes are made by Chris Park, the manufacturer of both our rigid, lightweight canes as well as our 7-section folding canes. It is a wonderful solution for those who travel with dog guides, just in case your dog gets sick and you find yourself in a pinch. Take this versatile cane with you when you go out to see a movie or attend an event at a crowded venue.

If your cane is beginning to show its age, we can make it shine with a new coat of reflective tape, a new tip to give it a completely different feel, or perhaps a new denim or leather holster for hands free carrying.

During the week of October 15, to kick off White Cane Safety, we’ll give you 10 percent off of the cane of your choice if you call the Adaptations Store between Monday, October 16 and Friday, October 20. Canes are essential to the health, well-being and safety of blind people and visually impaired people, from beginners to veteran travelers alike. Don’t deprive yourself of this basic right to travel when and where you wish! Picking up a cane for yourself or a friend today.

Call our staff at 1-888-400-8933 to inquire about item pick up and mail orders or email us at adaptations@lighthouse-sf.org.

 

“Fear kept me away”: Our Sexual Health Coordinator on Why Her Department Exists

“Fear kept me away”: Our Sexual Health Coordinator on Why Her Department Exists

When Sexual Health Services Program Coordinator Laura Millar plans a new sexuality workshop or spends months gathering a LightHouse contingent to march in Pride, she does it from the perspective of someone who needed a strong community around blindness and sexuality when there wasn’t one.

“I do it for the isolated me,” says Laura, strong in her vulnerability. She does it for her former self who wasn’t yet ready to accept her blindness but needed resources, community and a place to share and ask questions.

Legally blind herself, Laura conducts research that examines how individuals who are blind or low vision learn about and navigate the world of dating, sex and intimate relationships. She offers workshops, trainings and in-services for adults and teens who are blind or have low vision, their family members and the organizations that serve them, ensuring that sexual health information and services are comprehensive, inclusive and accessible for everyone.

But the work Laura does is mostly uncharted territory. The main researcher on sex education for the visually impaired, Gaylen Kapperman, acknowledges in a 2013 Sex Education Instruction, that “little information has been reported in the literature on all aspects of sexuality as it pertains to those who are visually impaired.”

“If no one’s showing you these things or talking about these things, where do you go?” says Laura.

Studies show that 61% of blind adults or those with low vision say their vision status had a negative impact on the way they were able to participate in sex education. With mainstream sex education barely covering the bases (only 24 states mandate sex ed at all; 20 require it to be medically accurate) where does that leave people who are blind or have low vision? And for people who lose their sight later in life, many are confronted with identity issues and questions about dating and exploring sexuality without sight.

This was the case for Laura. Throughout her Master of Public Health and Masters in Sexuality Studies, she was losing her sight to RP and found that when she explored different communities or took workshops around sexual health, she was always the token blind person or disabled person in attendance. This also meant that the courses were geared towards the “able-bodied” and rarely were familiar with the needs of individuals with disabilities.

She was also new to the Bay Area, pregnant and coming to terms with becoming a single mother. She had just relocated to start graduate school and didn’t know anyone other than the acquaintances in her new cohort, most of whom didn’t even know she was blind.

She first took out her cane when she was pregnant, after she fell trying to catch the bus. But she says it was out of necessity and not because she was ready to “be seen”. Throughout her pregnancy, she spent her time at school or in bed, online. In her isolation, she turned to adult blogging and sought solace in an online relationship.

“The whole world was at my fingertips, in a computer,” she says. “If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have had a lot of meaningful human connection during that time. But it’s not the same as being in community.”

And as far as reaching out to the blindness community, Laura says, “Fear kept me away.” She was holding out hope for a cure for her blindness, and still lived life as if she were fully sighted, without learning any adaptive skills. When she finally sought services at LightHouse, a whole world of resources opened up to her.

As Laura reaches just over a year as the Sexual Health Services Program Coordinator at LightHouse, she’s heard countless stories similar to her own from other blind people. Stories about internet connections and online relationships, but also the dark side of isolation that involves self harm, self mutilation and self deprecation.

Laura acknowledges that a lot of people have similar feelings when it comes to understanding their sexuality. She finds this to be especially true in the blind community and disability spaces. “As a society we are incredibly uncomfortable talking about sex and disability, and that is without even getting into anything too taboo,” she says.

Laura’s programming is helping to change all of that. Over the next couple of weeks World of Sex will explore the kink community with Society of Janus presenters to demystify the kink community. “This is a wonderful opportunity for those who are curious to explore in a safe and supportive community” she says. For more information about those events visit the LightHouse Calendar.

“Each class, each workshop, normalizes the pieces of us,” says Laura. “I think every person that comes to something I do or is brave enough to show up, walks away with a little piece of them feeling seen. Even if it’s only themselves, seeing themselves. It’s healing. Being seen is as much about the outward being seen as the inward.”

Like her students, part of Laura’s journey with coming to terms with her own blindness and becoming a leader has been about unpacking her fear and embracing discomfort.

“Just by trusting myself and getting plugged in with other people on the same journey, I’ve finally been able to step out and be ‘blind and proud’,” she says.

A mentor once told her “‘You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.’ Without those words, I don’t actually know that I’d be here,” she says. “I can’t tell you the number of times, I’ve been so uncomfortable. But no one else is doing this, and it needs to be done.”

Read the Bay Area Reporter’s recent write-up about the LightHouse Sexual Health Services Department.

LightHouse Announces Three Inaugural Holman Prizewinners

LightHouse Announces Three Inaugural Holman Prizewinners

This fall, three exceptional blind individuals will set off around the world on adventures they never imagined possible as winners of The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. Today, we are pleased to share their names with the world.

The three winners, Ahmet Ustunel, Penny Melville-Brown, and Ojok Simon, were announced Thursday, June 29, 2017 after a rigorous judging process that narrowed down the applicants to eleven highly competitive finalists. Each winning project embodies its own sense of adventure and ambition – whether it takes the winners around the world or allows them to build and foster social impact in their immediate community.

Created to honor “blind ambition” in all its forms, the annual $25,000 awards will spring-board future generations of entrepreneurs, adventurers and ambassadors in the blindness community.

With over 200 applicants from 27 countries, The Holman Prize saw stiff competition in its first year. All applicants were required to upload 90-second YouTube videos to pitch their idea for a dream project with a $25,000 budget, and later asked to submit formal proposals.

Named after the 19th century explorer James Holman (known around the world as “the blind traveler”) The Holman Prize aims to launch worthy projects that will change the public perception of blindness for years to come.

“We are thrilled to support these three individuals,” LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin noted Thursday with the announcement. “They are all incredibly ambitious in different ways, and their projects will have a real effect on the way blindness is perceived globally. I think about Ahmet’s determination, Penny’s cultural savvy, and Ojok’s entrepreneurial spirit – this is what blindness looks like today. These three will change minds about what blind people can accomplish.”

The 2017 Holman Prize Winners

The Three Holman Prizewinners will fly to San Francisco in September 2017 for a week-long orientation before starting their projects 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 storytelling mediums.

Ahmet Ustunel’s project has a clear, unprecedented goal: to kayak solo, without eyesight, from Europe to Asia. With potential for a dramatic climax and high stakes, Ustunel’s proposal to cross the 3-mile Bosphorus Strait caught the attention of the Holman Prize Committee and proved to be a compelling and unprecedented undertaking. By training in California and working to develop a suite of non-visual guidance technology to thrive on his own in the water, Ustunel hopes to join the ranks of other great blind outdoor heroes such as Erik Weihenmayer, Lonnie Bedwell and others.

Get to know Ahmet.

Penny Melville-Brown has a project with a universal focus: food. With a deep belief in the power of food to connect people, Penny’s project is a bid to claim a place at the stove for blind chefs everywhere. Penny’s intentions are less about competition and perfection and more about connecting with others through culture and shared experience. Maybe she’s the blind Julia Child – or the blind Anthony Bourdain – either way, as Penny documents her travels and successes in her series, “Baking Blind,” the world will follow along with her.

Get to know Penny.

Ojok Simon will take on a drastically different kind of project than his fellow winners. Simon seeks to raise employment rates for blind and partially sighted individuals in rural regions of his home country of Uganda. His method? Teach them a very specialized and somewhat unlikely skill: beekeeping. For decades, Simon has been a passionate beekeeper finding ways to tend bees in nontraditional and non visual ways. Simon wants to impart his warm attitude and entrepreneurial spirit on other blind individuals in Africa and abroad, rather than seeing them relegated to poverty and reliance on charity.

Get to know Ojok.

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.