Blind Ambition

My friend Anna co-owns Hollywood Access Services, LLC (H.A.S.), a company that supports people with significant vision loss. You know how there’s closed captioning for people with difficulty hearing? Well, H.A.S. produces the equivalent – called audio description – for blind people. Specifically, audio description is recorded narration of a film or TV show’s visual elements that is designed to flow with the program audio by fitting in between lines of dialogue, sound effects, and music. H.A.S. creates both audio description for TV/film studios as well as for individuals with its service Solo-Dx, which plays as an MP3 along with a movie. (Yes, shameless plug, but I’m glad to promote such a great service.)

A plug so big I could seal a leak in the Hoover Dam.

A plug so big I could seal a leak in the Hoover Dam.

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.

Blind? No. More likely: Jordana

Blind? No. More likely: Jordana

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.

Well, that doesn't look terribly effective. I know I'm missing a step.

Well, that doesn’t look terribly effective. I know I’m missing a step.

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.

Hanson's GPS was way more advanced than a game of Marco Polo, although who doesn't love a game of Marco Polo (in a pool, away from sharp objects and treacherous cliffs...)?

Hanson’s GPS was way more advanced than a game of Marco Polo, although who doesn’t love a game of Marco Polo (in a pool, away from sharp objects and treacherous cliffs…)?

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?

I know the exit is around here somewhere.

I know the exit is around here somewhere.

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.

Meandering on,



22 thoughts on “Blind Ambition

  1. Pingback: Blind Ambition | Jeffthompson61's Blog

  2. I wonder if we get stuff like that here in South Africa. My poor mother has pretty much lost her sight and finding life extremely frustrating. Still manages to get clothes to match though 😀 , no mismatched socks there 🙂

    • Directly from my friend Anna: the short answer is that it will work for people in other countries, but it might not sync up perfectly (by a second or two overall) because of the DVD’s format. An adept blind user could, however, tweak a little when he/she notices the movie and description have gotten out of sync, and it shouldn’t be a HUGE deal.

      “If someone in South Africa would like to try a Solo-Dx track for free to see if it works, we can certainly hook that person up (tell them to email” Anna and the others at Hollywood Access Service would be glad to help you work through it if your mom wants to try.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Jordana. Thanks for the ‘like’ on my post about the ‘abilities’ of blind and otherwise ‘disabled’ people. I love the honesty about your pre-conceptions. The info about the ‘Audio Description and Captioning’ is very interesting and I’ll be following it up. I don’t know whether we have anything like that in the UK.

  4. If you get a chance to watch that Master Chef season (the most recent one), I recommend it. Christine’s cooking was amazing. Sometimes it was really hard to watch her work with a knife. You’re just waiting for something really disastrous to happen but she just knocked it out of the park every time.

    Great story, thanks for sharing. And I thought I was the only grown up who wore mismatched socks on purpose. Of course my 10 year old niece thinks it makes me the coolest aunt ever. Most other people look at me like I’m a 45 year old who got permanently stuck in the fourth grade. It’s fun and it makes me smile so :p to them!

  5. Before even starting your hike, you’ve already found one of the things which makes the trail so special – inspirational people. It really is amazing what some people are able to overcome in hiking the trail. This summer I met a hiker named Pacemakerman, a 67 year old who had undergone five heart bypasses, had a stent, and of course a pacemaker. Despite all this, he has successfully section hiked the whole trail!

  6. Sometimes I marvel over how some “disabled” people are more skilled than the rest of us. I watched an episode of some cooking competition recently, and one of the finalists was a blind girl. It was so neat to watch her cook. Her food looked intricate and gorgeous, and according to the judges it tasted amazing, too. I love being blown away by what human beings are capable of!

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