I bet you didn’t even know that service exists, did you? Yeah, I didn’t know either before Anna moved to L.A. and got involved in it five years ago. Nor had I really thought about the challenges that blind people encounter on a daily basis, challenges as micro as seeing a movie with friends or as macro as overcoming employer prejudice to maintain a full time job. In fact, according to the National Federation for the Blind, only 37% of legally blind adults in the United States are employed.
And, to be honest, my perception of someone who is blind probably reflects a cultural prejudice. I think to myself, “Wow, how does this person even function? Someone must help her pick out her outfit every day.” Yeah, it’s a nebulous enough thought, but considering that my clothes don’t match half the time, I’m incredulous that a blind person could accomplish such a simple task on her own.
And the feelings only snowball from there. “How can this person possibly use a computer?” It’s an innocent enough question, based on my own ignorance, but ultimately I can see how this would lead to skepticism in a person’s abilities and unfair treatment. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I’d have to say that (mostly due to ignorance), I have my doubts.
So, when Anna – who clearly keeps her pulse on newsworthy activities of blind Americans – recently forwarded to me an article about Mike Hanson, a blind Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, I sat up and took notice. Hanson’s story really put things in perspective.
Other blind people had hiked the A.T. before, but what made Hanson’s trek special is that he did it without the aid of a guide animal and relied solely on his GPS phone and trekking poles for navigation. Hanson downloaded the Loadstone GPS system on his phone and spent several years tailoring the maps and creating virtual checkpoints within the system.
Ultimately, in 2010 Hanson began his thru-hike. He used the GPS system to regularly gauge his location and assess the next checkpoint. Between stops he would use his trekking poles to “visualize” the trail and obstacles in his path. He also relied on his sense of hearing to observe other features, such as water sources.
Although extreme weather and environmental conditions forced Hanson to skip a few sections of the trail to reach Mount Katahdin before it closed, he ended up hiking a total of 1,700 miles.
So let me get this straight. I have a knack for getting lost in a paper bag, and Mike Hanson walked from Georgia to Maine in seven months without the benefit of sight? I can’t even figure out how to organize my iTunes library, and this guy programmed his phone to tell him exactly where he was along a 2,000+ mile stretch?
It’s really exciting to see how technology continues to open doors for the visually impaired. But, technology or no technology, if you’re looking for inspiration, look no further. His name is Mike Hanson, and I’ll be lucky to show even a fraction of his courage and grit during my A.T. trek.