Blind Mountain Climber
Erik Weihenmayer Conquers Everest
Erik Weihenmayer has never let blindness stand in the way of achieving his goals. Although he lost his sight at the age of 13, Erik has climbed the seven highest peaks in the world, including Mt. Everest. He’s also an accomplished wrestler, skier and sky-diver. In his most recent project, Erik, now 37, is helping to make Braille textbooks more widely and rapidly available to vision-impaired youngsters.
Erik’s advocacy of the Braille Textbook Transcription project arises directly from his own experience. At Westin (CT) High School and Boston College, Erik struggled with the need to move beyond his loss of sight, to be more than “the blind boy.” His success reflected many factors, including a strong support system that helped him build self-confidence. But as Erik notes, “Confidence without skill is empty.” For the blind, the essential skills include reading Braille and navigating with a cane.
Although initially learning to read Braille symbolized to Erik an embarrassing difference from his classmates, he soon found that it was a way for him to be reintroduced to the world. Now, for example, he could read aloud to his class a poem that he’d written himself. If he could do this, he thought, what else could he do?
Sports provided another way for him to connect with his surroundings. Climbing, he found, had a special appeal. “I loved rock climbing because I thought it was a wonderful way to problem-solve my way up the rock face,” Erik says. “Finding the patterns in the rock with my hands and my feet and my brain, using my leverage and my balance and my strength to work my way from point A to point B to point C was really super exciting and encouraging.” Through climbing, Erik deepened his understanding of friendship, teamwork and trust, learning how literally to put his life in the hands of friends.
Erik’s many other accomplishments include six years of teaching math and English to fifth-graders in Phoenix, AZ—a challenge even for the sighted!
Although Erik had exceptional support from parents, teachers and friends, his struggle to deal with his loss of sight was compounded by delays in obtaining Braille textbooks.
While books on tape and other audio technologies are enormously helpful to the visually impaired, Braille remains crucial. As Erik explains, “Braille is active. You’re engaged with the words and the images under your fingertips.” There are also times when sound can’t substitute for the written word—making a grocery list, using diagrams and maps, speaking from notes, and for Erik, reading a story to his five year-old daughter.
The transcribing of textbooks into Braille is now done almost exclusively by volunteers who are extremely dedicated but simply cannot keep up with the demand. Erik has worked with the American Foundation for the Blind, with the support of the Verizon Foundation, to develop a new college curriculum, the Braille Textbook Transcriber program, which aims to develop a cadre of trained individuals who can greatly speed the process. The Internet-based courses are being presented by Northwest Vista College of San Antonio, Texas. Participants who successfully complete the 36 credit hours will earn a national Braille Textbook Transcriber certificate.
Erik draws special inspiration from Helen Keller, whom he sees as a true pioneer—someone who can, as he puts it, “push an idea through all the uncertainty and chaos of life.” By this definition Erik is also a pioneer, using his extraordinary capabilities to help others meet their special challenges and achieve their full potential.#