We were honored to welcome Patricia Walsh, a Paralympics and Iron Man triathlete, award-winning engineer, and author of the autobiography Blind Ambition, as keynote speaker for the 2017 AFB Leadership Conference.
Narrator: Opening graphic: Logo - American Foundation for the Blind.
AFB. Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss.
Patricia Walsh - Ironman Triathlete and Author, “Blind Ambition”.
Keynote Address - AFB Leadership Conference - March 3, 2017 - Arlington, Virginia.
Logo - No limits. (In print and braille.)
Narrator: AFB President and CEO Kirk Adams at the Leadership Conference, standing behind a podium with the Marriott Crystal Gateway logo.
Kirk Adams: Last week my new hometown paper, The New York Times, published an article. The headline was, “The Worst That Could Happen: Going Blind, People Say”. So, for a lot of people the thought of losing your vision is a very scary prospect and people think of closed doors and lost opportunities, but as most of us in this room know that doesn’t have to be the case.
So, I came on board at AFB May 1st last spring, and I think May 2nd Scott called me and said, “You know we’ve got to get a keynote speaker for the conference,” and I said, “Oh, well let’s call Patricia.” My friend, Patricia Walsh is going to be speaking to you in a few moments, she’s just a perfect example of someone who’s pushed herself to pursue her dreams and to show there’s no limits to a blind person’s possibilities. Since losing her vision at age fourteen, Patricia has become a Paralympian, she’s raced in more than a dozen marathons and ultramarathons and competed in two it says—Iron Man? Is that Iron Woman triathalon?
Patricia Walsh: I guess so, yeah.
Kirk Adams: Okay, she’s an Iron Woman. In 2011, she set the world record for blind triathletes, shattering both the male and female records that were 50 minutes. (cheers and applause) She spent some time as a software engineer working for Microsoft among others, in her spare time became and author and published her book Blind Ambition. It is just my true pleasure to introduce you to my friend, Patricia Walsh.
Narrator: Kirk Adams leaves the podium as Patricia Walsh walks to the podium.
Patricia Walsh: Good morning, everybody. This is my first time attending the AFB conference so I am very happy to be here. So, I am going to go ahead and just set an alarm so that we have, kind of stay on time and what I would like to do is I’ll go ahead kind of walk through my story and some of my slides and leave some time for some questions.
So, before I get started I will say, I use slides but they are only pictures so I don’t use any text. For those of you who can’t see them you really, should… we should be good and I just have them for an opportunity for people who are visual to have a landing point.
I am very thrilled to be here, as Kirk mentioned that my big claim to fame was in the Iron Man. In 2010, I did my first Iron Man, I was the first blind female to have done an Iron Man with a female guide, and in 2011 I got the world record which I'll walk through.
What I have on the slide today is a picture of myself receiving one of the large checks, one of the promotional. So, there’s a race in New York City, the New York City Triathlon and it’s one of the few opportunities for individuals with blindness and visual impairment or with disabilities to race for money. The way they had it, it was based on comparing percentage of improvement over the person who previously won it.
So, I won this big check. And at the time, I was working for a startup called Mozido, and we did payments processing so I actually worked in the payments industry. Now, this was my first time receiving a large check and it’s about maybe two and a half feet by a foot and a half. So, believing that I work in the payments industry I was under the impression I knew a lot about payments. What was not communicated to me was that you don’t take this check to the bank. (laughter)
So, I had a guide at the time, and my guide was going out and she was like 20 years old so she left with her friends and I have a tandem bike in a box, I have my bag, I have my laptop bag for work. I have 3 bags and my purse, and I’ve got helmets and I have this big check and I am trying to make my way through New York City, navigating with a cane to the airport.
I get to the airport and I’m right about to go through the security and there’s this woman I ran into, and she was a competitor of mine and we weren’t real friendly—we were not. A little adversary...She came up to me and she was like, “Oh, you must be real sentimental.” And I am like, “No, I’m not sentimental.” And she says, “Why are you carrying that check?” I said, “Well, I’m taking it to the bank.” (laughter) And so that is how I found out that they send you a paper check later.
(laughter, applause)So, first, I dropped the check right there it may as well—it might still be at JFK airport. (laughter) That was in 2014, I don’t know, it was quite a while ago. So, of course I went to work and I told everyone this story and a large part of my job is printing out ACH payments which is how checks are cashed in the background and the funny part to me was hearing everyone else retell the story to other people. (laughter) That brought a lot of joy. (laughter)
So, I started my career at Oregon State University. I went to—I started in elementary education and history. And the reason I had selected elementary education and history is because I was guided by what I felt a person with visual impairment or with blindness was limited to do. And I should probably explain my vision. I have never seen out of my right eye and I have a little bit of light perception on my left. So, I have five grades of light perception because I had a brain tumor in 1986.
My eyes look normal, they move normally—even my right eye, which I’ve never seen out of, looks right at people which I think throws people because I guess visually, I don’t appear blind. But my vision is—I don’t see print, I don’t see the screen, so I don’t have any residual vision in that regard other than fact of the light perception. So, when I went to university, I, well first and foremost, was getting a lot of discouragement from my professionals and from my family to go to university.
And the message that I was sent was that for a person with blindness or visual impairment to attempt something bigger and better would be an exercise of failure. And what they believed, and okay, and let’s remember, it was a hard message but they were intending to be protective of me—what they believed was that I was in some sort of denial based on the fact that I believed I could do more. And I think that’s a really, hard idea to wrap your mind around. That they were trying to be protective of me and thought that my belief in my capability was denial. Denial of my disability.
And what I want to separate there is that there was this inherent belief that a person with disability cannot do more. And I think now that we’re in this brilliant age of technology, you know, that’s an idea of the past. That’s not—that’s not the truth anymore. (applause) Thank you!
So, when I went to university I was initially making what I thought was a responsible decision to go into the field of elementary ed and history. There is no problem with those fields—those are perfectly respectable fields.
The only problem that exists is that I’m not myself interested in any career in elementary education and history. (laughter)
It didn’t matter—there was absolutely no reason why I would make a decision based on my limitations to go in a field that I probably won’t be successful in. Because that’s not what I want to do.
So, I worked, I did about four terms towards elementary education and history. I did not have any financial support and I didn’t have any financial aid at the time. So, I ran out of money and I had to take a couple—I had to take a year off to figure out how to get some financial support.
And in my year off, I had an opportunity to work with John Gardner and he—with the idea behind the Tiger tactile graphics and braille embosser... He was my first example of someone who was blind who was successfully employed. He was a physics professor, he was working.
I was at that point about 19 years old and had never met someone with blindness or visual impairment who could serve as a role model to me. I think those people were there—I wasn’t connected to them.
So, the idea that he was succeeding and was building technology that was so new and he was innovating and he was bringing some—certainly the intent of making science and math and engineering and technology accessible to the blind was so inspiring to me. He was my first example of someone who was doing more.
So, I worked with him, and I drastically oversold my skillset. He asked me oh, a long series of questions about my comfortability with technology. And I said yes to all of them. (laughter)
And the answer to all of them was no. (laughter)
I went home and I asked my roommate to teach me how to do email because I just accepted a job as technology support. (laughter)
I don’t recommend this strategy but it worked for me in this one case and so I definitely had to learn from the—you know—the trial by fire, you know, so I had to really learn quickly. The best thing I’ve ever done for myself was really embracing technology and understanding how it can improve and level the playing field for me. So, after a year of working with him and improving my technology skills, I started as a braille proofreader for him and then moved up. I worked with them for quite a while.
Then I came back to university and I enrolled in computer science and at the time it was an interesting introspective, it was an interesting internal conflict. Because my professors were coming in and they would say, “Well, how are you going to do this?” And I would say, “I don’t know either.”
So, what I always encourage people particularly for those of you who teach kids with visual impairments and for those of you who are working with adults with visual impairments, people ask me all the time how I’m going to do something. And I often don’t know. You know, when you’re growing, when your growth and you’re going to the next level you’re going to face challenges that you have not faced in the past. I don’t always have a skillset. But the secret in that is that that is the same experience that individuals with vision have.
Anytime you’re going to the next level, anytime you’re going to a new challenge they don’t know how they’re going to do it either. So, where it feels intimidating and it might even feel like a separate experience but different, it’s actually the same experience.
So, people are always asking me, “How are you going to do this?” I say, “I don’t know, but I know there’s a way. And we’re going to figure it out and we’ll do some trial and error.”
And I set the expectation that we’re going to figure this out together—that I don’t know.
So, I started computer science and my first term—I think my professors were also of the mindset that this was a little bit of denial and they thought that this was not a good fit for me. And to their point, because I had not previously understood technology, I didn’t have the grades to—I didn’t have any evidence to show them that I could do it. Because I hadn’t had the right tools up to that point so I couldn’t show them a 4.0 GPA. I was solidly average, but I wasn’t...you know I wasn’t really excelling in any field and that’s largely because I didn’t have the right tools, I didn’t understand. And I think I didn’t have the belief that I could do more. And I think that really will guide your behavior.
So, I started computer science, my first term was pretty rough. My second term got a little better, I think what the real key for me was, was making a few allies in the department. I think it was a big lesson for me in learning about the messages I sent to other people.
So initially when I started in computer science I didn’t believe that the class time would be valuable to me because I couldn’t see the lecture. So, I’d come in late and I’d leave early.
Well, I was sending a message that I don’t care. What the reality was I just didn’t think it was beneficial to me.
So, what I really learned is how to work directly with your professors and once I worked directly with my professors they would make special office hours for me, they would use the research assistant’s time for me, they were wholeheartedly committed to my success once I showed them that I was really invested. And once I demonstrated to them that I was invested and communicated to them that I didn’t know how to do this either and they worked with me and gave me all the resources.
And really, no one was happier to see me succeed than all of my professors, they wanted to help—they didn’t know how to help me.
So, for those of you who are teaching younger students, and again for adults, but I would say almost more important for younger students, learning how to advocate for yourself is the number one skill that I use every day. And that is learning how to communicate to someone else how to help you. They want to help, they don’t know how to help.
I recently started a new job and they were so terrified about my vision that they hired someone to come in and teach them how to interact with a person of blindness. (laughter)
And I would love the phone number of whomever they called because they literally wrote down a list of pet peeves of mine and taught them how to do these pet peeves. (laughter)
So I walk in to my first day of work and this person had explained to them that if they want me to come to them they should all go, “Come to my voice, come to my voice.” (laughter and groans)
Well, that’s fun on its own. But, I was going into a conference room and imagine twenty people are at the table, and all twenty, “Come to my voice, come to my voice, come to my voice…” (laughter) And I was thinking to myself, “Maybe I would just rather be unemployed.” (laughter)
“Maybe, maybe my limitation isn’t my vision, but more how other people interact with me.” (laughter)
So those moments, I’ll be honest, those moments are hard to master patience. And I think it’s those moments where we have to remember to be a self-advocate and to say, “I greatly appreciate the spirit of what you’re doing but this would help me more.” And it sounds so easy. It sounds so easy. But from my experience, this is an ongoing thing that happens eight hours a day, all day, every day, if not more. So, your patience wears thin. I don’t care who you are. I’m a decently patient person, we’ll say I’m 70% patient on the spectrum. (laughter)
But you get fatigued. You know, your nerves wear thin no matter who you are. And really, you become good at what you practice and you’ve got to practice being a good self-advocate and you have to practice being patient with people who mean to help you but don’t understand how to helpful, how to be helpful. You also have to practice how to be a gentle educator such that they know how to be helpful. But also, that you are appreciative of the spirit of what they’re doing. With all that said, I went to Oregon State, I got my degree—I started my degree in computer science and as I became more and more successful in computer science, as I learned to be an advocate, as I learned to use technology, as I learned how to teach myself a little bit and to really work heavily with group studying and teach myself that way. Having come from an environment where I was taught to believe that my want for something better was denial, I really got on a track of wanting to prove myself.
So, I got a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. (crowd reacts with surprise) I’ve never used that degree. I wanted to know what I was capable of, I wanted to know what I could do. Electrical engineering, I’m proud of achieving that degree, I’ve never used it.
I did, a week ago today, I received an award from Oregon State University where I was inducted into the Early Career Council for engineers. And at the time I felt a little bit of an impostor because as I got more and more in my athletics, my jobs got less and less technical. I got more into management and as we get more into management, I think that’s true for all industries, you do become a little less technical. I was speaking to myself as I was receiving this degree, what I do today is largely oversighting. I oversee a rollout of a payment solution for all of Chevron in North America. And I was saying to myself that what I do today is an engineering background but isn’t necessarily engineering. It was an interesting moment for me to reflect now that I’m ten years into my career of what really went into getting that degree. That was a 24 hour day, 7 day...there were moments that were humiliating, there were moments that were discouraging , there were moments where I did not believe this would be possible. It was wholly uncomfortable.
What I got out of it was a comfortability being uncomfortable, because that is where growth happens and when I went to speak at my university, it was such an awe-inspiring moment in my own life to reflect on how far I’ve come and to see how many people were invested in my success. I spoke at my university and I had about 40 professors who I had taken classes from that came. And a lot of them are in retirement, a lot of them traveled to come see me speak and it was a reminder to me of what a beautiful time in my life that was to reinvent myself and to become something better. I had this inherent belief in my aptitude. I had no evidence to support it. So, I made there be evidence. I am so proud of that today and particularly at a time in my own career where there are some changes happening and anytime there are changes you know, you do have those moments like, I recently went through interviewing for a new job, which I’ll come into later.
An interview can be very discouraging, for anyone. It’s a discouraging experience for anyone. So all I have to say is I got a degree in elementary education—oh no, excuse me, that was not what I did, (laughter) that’s opposite, opposite, opposite.
I got a degree in electrical engineering and computer science and I went on—I was a software engineer at Microsoft for about seven and a half years. After I got my—after I got my masters in executive non-profit leadership at Seattle University (whistle)...thank you. Also, I’ve never used it. (laughter)
But I managed to pay for it, so I still feel fine about it. (laughter)
When I got my world record for the Iron Man distance triathlon, I got recruited to the U.S. National Team. So, then I started competing internationally. I got my first bronze medal At the International Triathlon Union in Bejing, China in 2011. I since (cheers)...thank you. I since got three bronze medals at World Championship, I’m a four-time gold medalist for North and South America, I’m a five-time U.S. national champion, a 2012 athlete of the year. And most recently I represented my country at the Paralympics, which it was such an honor. (applause) Thank you.
So, the next slide I have is a picture of swimming and I’ll explain how I swim. And that is, I have a tether around my thigh tied to my guide’s thigh. But as you can imagine, we can’t communicate, we can’t talk. So your vocabulary is really down to two words and that is you can pull or you can push and that’s left and that’s right.
With my vision, I have a little bit of light which when it comes to water it doesn’t help with navigation at all but it helps with making me feel less like I’m going to die today.
And so for my category, I’m in the B-1 category, they make me wear a blindfold and that’s fine. For the bike and the run, it doesn’t really impact me at all. On the swim, it causes some anxiety. Because I don’t see that little tiny bit of light, and I have total sensory deprivation so it has been a real challenge, swimming has definitely been the hardest. Of the three disciplines, swimming is certainly my weakest. However, I have improved quite a bit but it still, it will always be a challenge.
What I think about when I think about when I swim is I think about all the strategies that have come into place to help me overcome anxiety. And I think for people with blindness and visual impairment whether we determine anxiety or not, I notice that when I have new experience or an environment that doesn’t work well for me...for example, the grocery store. Grocery stores are chaotic. I’ve been blind a long time and I still get a little bit of anxiety walking into some more chaotic environments.
So, what I would say for those of you who are teaching students—teaching students, working with adults—is first of all, from memory, that this experience happens. That there are moments that just cause a little bit of anxiety and I would say work on those strategies that are like, for example, for swimming, one of my strategies for swimming is really focusing on what we call mindfulness, which is what you have control over right now, what is your technique, how can you be more powerful, and how can you propel yourself more. It’s really focusing on those things we do have control over and letting go of the bigger picture which is you’re lost in the ocean right now and you don’t know where the shore is. (laughter) And how many—you know. And you start thinking of this bigger picture of everything that could go wrong.
Anyone can experience anxiety. If you instead start focusing on what are the things I do have control over, what can I do for myself, how will I breathe, what are the things that I can bring back in to bring that anxiety level down.
And I’ve had on millions of occasions I’ve had people ask me about fearlessness, about bravery, and I understand how I might appear fearless on the outside because I am definitely comfortable with risk taking and I understand that. I have fear every day. I have fear at work of being lesser than, I have fear among my peers and dear friends that you know, you’ve got these comparisons. I have fear of crossing streets, I have fear of new environments, fear of being lost at the airport—these things never happen but I think that’s human condition.
You’re never going to extrapolate out of fear. What you’re going to do is you’re going to learn strategies to cope with fear, you’re going to learn strategies to move on, and strategies to propel yourself forward.
And I think understanding that that kind of more emotional and human element of it is really one of the keys of being successful...is how to bring that anxiety back home, because the alternative is to be frustrated and quit, right?
And I can tell you that I’ve been frustrated and quit on things a million times but always regretted it. I want to quit because it was a conscious choice of mine that there was a trade-off position that was made and I decided that this was the wrong thing for me. I don’t want to quit because I got stressed out and I gave up. You know, it’s one of these things. It’s not a decision you make once, it’s one of those things you have to practice every day. It’s every day you fill up with anxiety.
(electronic voice in background)
So, this is a story that I like to talk about. So, I went, I did a race in Magog, Canada, and this race was all for points, all for qualifying for the Paralympics, everything was high stakes.
My guide, who was one of my favorite people, she has a great sense of humor. We got to Magog, we got to Montreal and drove down to Magog and it was a lot harder than we expected. Our luggage never came. So, we didn’t have a bike and we didn’t have any of our uniforms, we didn’t have any of our equipment.
And we were really trying to be extremely resourceful so we got a beach cruiser, we rented it from like a local bike store, and we were going to tape tennis shoes we bought at Walmart to the bike so that we had clip-ins.
We were reading the minutia of the manual for athletes to try to figure out what exactly were the uniform requirements and we bought black swimsuits where we would puff paint the right things on them.
So, we were trying to be as resourceful as possible because at this point we are there, it’s for points, there’s no way we’re not going to do this race. We end up getting—the race check-in ended at 10 a.m., we got our bags at about 8:45. (audience gasps)
So we drove to a local bike shop that was not open yet and I preferred to put my bike together myself which there are...you know, it’s a little bit more challenging and one of the things that’s key for me, I don’t know how other people feel, but with blindness people making a lot of sound is a little distracting to me so I asked my guide to be quiet and she was doing her best but she is definitely one who talks a lot. (laughter)
So, her version of being quiet is she was circling around me playing music on her phone. I was like, I don’t know how to handle this. So, I’m putting my bike together and finally a couple of mechanics show up to open the shop.
I am trying...they don’t speak English, they speak French, and I don’t speak French. So, I’m trying to mime to them that I am a blind person. I am putting together a tandem bike in your parking lot and I have a race to get to immediately. So, this is now your emergency. This is an emergency, I made this situation for you to handle and this is all happening through gesturing.
So it was really chaotic. It ended up that we got the bike put together only to discover the bike didn’t fit in our vehicle. (audience groans)
Yeah, and we were about 20 miles away—it was such a crazy situation.
What we decided to do was the hatchback, so we opened the back and we had no means of tying the bike so what we did was I put all the seats down and I laid down and I held the bike with my arms. (laughter)
The bike is on me half out of the vehicle. (groans and laughter)
And we drove for 20 miles that way. So once we got there at about 9:55, we got out, so they were about to close the gates.
Claudia looks at me and says, “I don’t know what to do,” and I say “Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”
It’s kind of happening in the moment, you know. I went up to the official who was closing the gate and, “I am so happy to see you!” and I gave her the biggest bear hug that really was a restraint. (laughter)
So as I was restrain...embracing her Claudia snuck in behind me, we got in right before they closed. (laughter and applause)
So, what I’ll talk about now, this is a leadership conference and I’m going to talk to you a little bit about my recent experience. I’m going to talk to you about some leadership principles that I think are valuable.
Oh, I just hit 25 minutes. Ok, I’ll be real quick. I’ve got to be timed.
I’m talking about some leadership principles that I think are important and that is of course good communication. And that is...I think there’s a lot of things to this, that’s saying what you mean to say. Okay, so it’s being clear, I think that’s listening to other people but I would also say it has everything to do with speaking to your audience, knowing the level of awareness your audience has and I would say speaking to… trusting that your audience is competent.
One thing that I think we all struggle with is group work. Right? And I spoke to a college last week and I am speaking to everyone now: it’s hard to work with people. I think it’s the number-one challenge I face in my career is working with people who are so different. People who...your perception and my perception often is that people seem real apathetic to me. I think that’s because my base level is intense by most standards, I understand that. And learning how to see the strengths in others and how to bring out the strengths in others, lift others up, that’s next level leadership. Right? That’s how...you can only be so successful on your own.
The problems you’re going to solve on your own are going to be relatively small problems. If you’re going to solve big problems, you’re going to need a team. And being an individual contributor on a team only gets you so far. If you can make that team be a high-performing team by bringing out their strengths, that’s how you’re going to see real growth in your career and your opportunities.
The good news about that is that none of that has anything to do with vision. You know, every single one of us has the aptitude and capability of being a person who can drive a successful team.
I think commitment to execution, and everyone believes that they’re good at commitments and execution but what this really means is how you get things done.
Are you successful at getting things done? And for me, sometimes what this means is taking on less. Once you get stretched thin, it’s really hard to follow through with things.
So, I’m going to tell you really quick. So recently, my first startup...I loved my start-up. I’ve never grown so much as in the four years that I was in the startup.
I was with some of the architects who worked on First Data, which is one of the most widely used payments platforms in the world. So, I was in a room full of people who were so good at what they do, I had to sprint to keep up. I mean, we were doing book clubs, I was reading tech books, it was one after the other after the other. Just to keep up. Not even to excel.
Eighty percent of startups fail and yet, we were all shocked when we fell apart. So, I had to go looking for a job and I looked for a job during the holidays which was really challenging. My vision was a problem, they did not know how to handle it.
So, one thing I’m very encouraged by is the work that all of you are doing because the one thing that would really help me a lot, is if we could get some more examples of individuals with visual impairment and blindness in the workforce.
(applause) Thank you.
The reason it’s hard when I go to an interview is because everyone I’m speaking to doesn’t have an example of someone they know who is blind or visually impaired, someone they’ve worked with in the past who’s been successful. So, for them, this is the first encounter they’re having with someone who’s blind who wants to work for them. So, they don’t know how it’s going to be done.
And the truth of the matter is they don’t need to know how it’s done, they just need to know that it’s possible. And they don’t have an example.
So, it’s not my business to explain to them how it’s done, I just need to communicate to them I am capable of performing the correct functions for this job.
So, when I was interviewing...the actual first day of interviews, we will just talk of one incident. So the first day of interviews actually, went pretty well. And... but I think largely because I was sitting down without my cane, I don’t look blind, I don’t think they understood. I didn’t hide it from them, but I didn’t really sell it either. (laughter)
So, it was a day or so... initially, my person who, they said I was going to get an offer in three days. Three days later, I didn’t have an offer.
So, I wrote them a message and was like, “Is there anything that I could help you with from my end?” Which what I’m really saying is, “Why don’t I have an offer?” (laughter)
So they wrote me back with a real strange meeting request for 7pm which I thought was extremely strange—it was a phone call. And it had no...the subject was something really ambiguous, it had no content.
I was thinking to myself something’s gone sideways here. So, sure enough, I get on the call and they’re asking me questions about my vision that are progressively inappropriate. (audience groans)
So the first question they asked me is they described this: what about if we’re in this high-paced meeting where there’s three people on two different conference bridges and they’re sharing information this, that way, and the other? And I said that...I said that, I said, “Well, that sounds disorganized.” (laughter)
And I said, “If you put me in a confusing situation, I will be confused. But I will not be more confused than my sighted counterparts.”
And I said, “What I would love to do is come in and coach your team on how to better organize an effective meeting.” (laughter, cheering, applause).
The advice I would give to an individual with blindness or visual impairment, the advice for interviewing would be different than the advice I would give someone without a visual impairment, and that is to say I wouldn’t advocate someone else being a little edgy in an interview scenario, but for someone with a disability, I would. I would advocate pushing back a little bit and the reason being: the precedent you set. If you set a precedent, you won’t answer inappropriate questions. Be prepared for a lot of inappropriate questions.
So, after that, they asked ever more questions. They asked me...this went on for about almost an hour...they asked me what about (they were all scenario based) and they asked me, what about if I’m at the airport and I get really lost and no one can come get me, and then I miss a client meeting, and then they would lose a 600 million dollar deal, and it was a long, long list of scenarios.
And I said, “Okay, I’m going to answer that as if you asked an appropriate question.” And I said, “If you’re asking me about travel, the answer is yes, I can travel.” And I ended it there.
And we went on several more and the final question is they asked me what about if I’m traveling or I’m in an unfamiliar environment, and there are no women with me, and I have to use the restroom. (audience gasps)
So at that point, I directed my response directly to HR because she was on the phone, and I directed it directly to her and I said, “Okay, I’m going to save you from yourself. And I am going to end this right now. Because we have gotten into unsafe territory.”
So, one of the things, and particularly, when you’re...you know, we’re talking about younger students with visual impairment, we’re talking about adults with visual impairment, I think one of the key things that has helped me be successful is having the presence of someone who owns the room. And 99% of the time I’m scared that this isn’t going to go well. I don’t know.
I walked into a meeting yesterday with the CEO of Chevron, I have 3 months into my job. I don’t have the depth of context I would want to have for that conversation. We were talking about budgets that are in the 600 million dollar range. And I...my confidence that this is going to go well is medium, at best. I don’t have a lot of familiarity of my team, so I don’t have...it’s not that I don’t trust my team, it’s that I don’t know my team.
So, I’m making commitments and making statements that I can’t...just let me back up just from the idea that I’m new and I think a lot of the ability to be successful particularly with visual impairment is to have the presence of someone who is—having some confidence, having some confidence.
So anyway, so what I would say is that really, for the most part, the skillset that will make you a successful individual with employment is the same. The way that you have to interact with people is a little bit different. You know, be very careful to trust best intentions. Be very careful to remember that while you might be annoyed and while your patience might be running thin, which is human condition—you can’t stop that.
But you have to remember people are trying to help you and they genuinely don’t know. And for me it’s a compounding situation, I deal with it a million times a day. For them it’s the first time they have ever experienced this situation. So, we cannot assume that someone’s going to handle a new situation the first time well. Right? It’s not going to go well.
So, being a general educator, learning how to advocate for yourself and communicating how to help you, and if you don’t know, communicating that also, and then of course, I think, being mindful of the precedents we set of what we are willing to accept—what we are willing to take. And I think when people are asking inappropriate questions, it’s the right time to set a boundary that you won’t take it, you won’t take it.
So, what I have on this slide right now is a picture of myself in 1986 when I had my surgery. And at the time my family was so fearful for my future and they think we really—all we saw was walls everywhere. That I was going to have to learn everything that I cannot do. And what I have on the right is a picture of myself receiving an award for athlete of the year. We did not know what I could do. (applause)
So, I would say interviewing was a low moment in my life, because I had—until this point I had a really, easy time getting new jobs. It was all just based on the timing and the climate, and it was hard. It was hard. And I’m also 10 years into my career. It’s a lot easier to get an entry-level job than it is to get a more senior job. It was—to say it was discouraging I mean, it was—it was low. It was a low moment.
But it has really caused me to reflect on how far I’ve come and how much work it took to get here and how much support I had through my various educators, my various TVIs, services for students with disabilities at my university—the people who really helped me understand what technology was available to level the playing field. And I know I couldn’t have gotten to this level without their support. For all of you who are doing that type of work, I can’t thank you enough for teaching true independence, which is really, the belief that I am capable, rather than just the tactical of how do I do this next challenge. So, thank you all for your work and I have one more little story—I’m running a little over on time, but we’re going to do our best here.
(background computer speech)
As a member of the Paralympic team I had the opportunity to meet the President of the United States, so I met Obama in September. I was under the impression that we were going to get about 15 seconds just to shake his hand and say thank you for your service, and we ended up getting two or three minutes. So, I had prepared, knowing myself well enough to know that I don’t always handle these situations really well, I had prepared about 20 seconds of what I was going to say. When we had two to three minutes, I fell apart. (laughter)
So, I met the President of the United States, I said thank you for your service, and then there was this dead time. So, I blurt out, “Will you play basketball with me?” (laughter) Okay. I love basketball but I have a real loose grasp of the rules. You know, I love basketball, but I don’t think I totally understand it and uh...I’ve never played basketball in my life. (laughter)
Okay, so then his response to me when I say, I blurt out, “Do you want to play—will you play basketball with me,” and he says, “Oh, do you have moves?” (laughter)
And I honest to God said, I said, “No, but I talk about it all the time.” (laughter)
And then it was a pretty steep decline from there. (laughter) I then met Michelle Obama, she’s much taller than you would realize, but then I was in total meltdown and all I could say is, “I’m proud of you.” And I’m just, over and over and over—I’m hugging the First Lady and saying, “I’m proud of you, I’m proud of you.” I am proud of her, I think she is—she is certainly a hero of mine, and I think she is such a perfect...(applause)
So you know, I meant what I said, I don’t know if it was necessary to say it 30 times. (laughter) It seemed a little insincere. She kept saying I’m proud of you—and so this exchange is, “I’m proud of you.” “No, I’m proud of you.” (laughter)
And then I met Joe Biden and by that point I think I was just crying. (laughter). You know, the funniest part to me is I don’t think I began to realize how poorly I handled this—in my mind it was like, “This is going great!” (laughter)
So, about 20 minutes later, this hit me like a brick with how poorly—Did I just ask the President to play basketball with me? There’s a million things I could have said. I volunteered for his first campaign. I could have said that. You know? I don’t...there was a million things I could have said. And I remember this moment of introspection where I am saying to myself, I’m saying, “You’re a really, intelligent woman, like—why didn’t you think of any these eight things you might have said?” And then I was like, “Are you sure you’re intelligent?”
(laughter) I remember this moment in my mind and was like, “Is that something you’ve heard other people say?”
(laughter) So, it took me a little while to recover from that one.
Thank you all for coming, you guys have been a really, great audience, thank you all for the work that you’re doing. (applause) Thank you.
Narrator: Ending graphic: Logo – AFB, American Foundation for the Blind.
Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss.
To learn more about AFB and how to help us create a world with no limits, visit our website at www.afb.org.
Logo – no limits. (In print and braille.)