Interview with Erik Weihenmayer, Mountain Climber and Former Middle School Teacher
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Erik Weihenmayer, an APH CareerConnect mentor, is a world class athlete. On May 25th, 2001, he became the first blind man in history to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. On September 5, 2002, when he stood on top of Mt. Kosciusko in Australia, Erik completed his 7-year quest to climb the Seven Summits—the highest peaks on each of the seven land continents. A former middle school teacher and wrestling coach, Erik is one of the best-known athletes in the world. He is also a prolific speaker and author of Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See.
To read more about Erik Weihenmayer’s adventures, read an excerpt from “Touch the Top of the World” or visit www.touchthetop.com.
AFB: OK, Erik. How did you decide to become a middle school teacher? Did any of your own teachers inspire you to follow in that path?
Erik Weihenmayer: Sure. Well, I decided to become a teacher because I thought it would be a great career where I could wear different hats. You’re an academic one moment, and you’re a psychologist the next moment, an athlete the next moment…you know, when you are out on the playground or coaching…so it enables you to play different roles. You can see the impact that you have on young people throughout the year, so it is not a job that you have to look very far to understand the meaning of what you are doing.
And then secondly, role models. I did have lots of role models. I had teachers in school who, when I wasn’t sure how smart I was or how much potential I had, they almost convinced me of that, by saying things like “Erik you are going to do great.” “You may be struggling now, but you are going to do so well.” “I’ve seen people who just sort of do mediocre in high school, but go on to excel in college and in life.” “I think you have so much talent.” It just sort of almost talked me into believing in myself. There were a lot of teachers like that.
I’ve had role models …people like Terry Fox, who was sort of the grandfather of disabled sports, who ran across Canada with one leg after he lost a leg to cancer, much of it on crutches. And climbing teammates, who inspired me to be a stronger person, better climber, a better friend. People like my family, my dad who is excellent because he walks his talk. He believes in leadership through example, not necessarily by words or intentions. I’ve been lucky to have lots and lots of mentors. I think that is incredibly important in anyone’s life to encourage and inspire them, let them understand that their own potential is a reality that they can strive for.
AFB: Thank you. That’s excellent. What assistive technology did you use as a teacher?
Weihenmayer: I used JAWS, JAWS for Windows, I used Braille ‘n Speak, and Braille 2000… that’s the Braille ‘n Speak with the braille display. I had a braille printer. I used an Arkenstone.
The other interesting thing was that I had to think of a way that I’d correct papers and write on the board. And correcting papers, I found that I did it through… The kids would read their writings on a tape recorder or hand in software, so I could read it on my computer with the voice synthesizer. As far as writing on the board, I had kids write on the board. I had a helper each day. Both of those I learned from David KeKe, who is a blind teacher in Massachusetts, who I contacted through the technology bank, through CareerConnect.
AFB: How about assistive technology you used as a mountain climber?
Weihenmayer: A lot of that is sort of invented systems. It is not necessarily using devices. It’s really developing a system by using your ear, using your sense of touch, using your sense of balance, and just using whatever strengths you have and compensating for the lack of sight. I know whether my ice ax has hit safely into the ice…whether my ice axe has made a safe strike in the ice and if it is going to hold my weight by the sound I hear versus the sight.
I listen to the sound of space—the sound of open space versus the sound of closed space—when I am climbing to give me an idea of where the drop-offs are. I communicate with my teammates and they communicate with me in specific ways to let me know the terrain in front of me. I use two long tracking poles that I use to scan them like 2 long canes and a friend will hike in front of me with a bell, kind of a bear bell from Alaska. They kind of jingle it in front of me. Jingling it to the left if the want me to move to the left, and jingling it to the right if they want me to move to the right and so on.
AFB: As a teacher and a wrestling coach you are in contact with kids who were making decisions about college and their futures. I’ve read that you also get a lot of emails from kids who are struggling to come to terms with losing their sight. What advice do you give them?
Weihenmayer: I get a lot of letters from kids and even more than that from parents of blind kids, or disabled kids, or kids who are struggling. Their parents are worrying about them and wondering what is going to be possible for those kids and I tell them to just have high expectations. The key is to really have tremendously high expectations and to teach kids how to be self sufficient and confident and give them the skills that they need to succeed. You can’t have self confidence without some real skills that enable you to be successful. You know, confidence without skill is just emptiness.
So, I tell them that and I tell them not to pity them, but to have a can-do attitude and really utilize the resources that there are to offer these kids, their schools, their teachers, assistive technology, and people and professionals within the blindness community and so on. And things like AFB offers, obviously.
AFB: You climbed the world’s highest mountains. How did you start climbing and what inspired you to first give it a try?
Weihenmayer: Well, when I went blind at 13, I realized that I wasn’t going to be a good baseball or basketball player like I enjoyed before. It forced me to look beyond the obvious, to things that I could still do well.
I was part of a recreational program for blind kids through the Cal Center for the Blind. They took us biking, skiing, sailing, and one weekend they took us rock climbing, which I found was the perfect sport for me. I was a wiry kid. I could monkey myself up the rock, and I could use my hands and feet as eyes and kind of scan my way up the rock and find the holes I was looking for without being able to see them.
I found climbing to be a very tactile sport. There’s no ball that is zipping through the air ready to crack you in the head. It is just you and the rock base. The rock is stable and your body is dynamic and you’re moving and trying to figure out the pattern of the rock. You know…connecting the dots point A to point B to point C…getting your body in the right positions to be able to do that. So it is actually a great sport for blind people and that carried me on to climbing bigger and bigger mountains, snowy mountains, ice faces, and developing different techniques to be able to do that.
AFB: Good. Any advice for blind or visually impaired job seekers? Specifically, what would be your top 3 tips to a blind or visually impaired kid or young person looking for a job?
Weihenmayer: What I touched on before, which was to really be the best. Learn the skills that you need–the blindness skills, the academic skills, the life skills, the social skills—that will enable you to be successful because when someone, such as a potential interviewer, sees someone who is blind and who is stunningly qualified for the job, I don’t think blindness will be as big deal as you might think.
So I say, just don’t give the potential employers any excuse to use blindness as a reason why you can’t do the job. Have answers for all those questions that they might ask. Do some research to be able to answer those questions.
You know a lot of that is through trial and error and really taking a lot of time to figure out techniques and skills and procedures and systems and so forth.
AFB: How about advice for other blind or visually impaired professionals who are not in the database, but might be considering joining the CareerConnect database. What would be your thoughts for them?
Weihenmayer: I would encourage them to join the database. What a thrill to be able to say that you had a contribution in the life of someone—a young person, perhaps, who is trying to take a look at the possibility of their own lives and find out what they are good at and you can help steer their career.
You can help them to break down some barriers that they may feel that are in their path, by the reality of what you’ve done, by your own success. You kind of give them direction and a path to follow so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It is an honor to be able to do that and have an influence on other people.
AFB: Any last words of inspiration or advice for parents other than what you said before or for professionals in the field of blindness who are working with blind or visually impaired people of all ages?
Weihenmayer: I would say that there is a very blurry line between the things we can’t do and the things that we can.
Maybe people, maybe the world writes things off as impossible a little too quickly, when they really aren’t—when they just haven’t reached out and figured out how to utilize their resources to the fullest degree or created those pioneering systems in their lives.
I think that it is everyone’s obligation they owe to themselves and to their lives to figure out their own way up their own mountain. So it is exciting to kind of figure things out in yourself and then use other people to help you figure things out so you can really reach your potential.