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Why Blind Cyclists Are Taking on the Toughest Race in America

Published: June 7, 2018

On June 16th, a team of four cyclists will start pedaling on a pier in Oceanside, California, and they won’t stop until they’ve reached the City Dock in Annapolis, Maryland. Team Sea to See will log more than 3,000 miles, crossing through desert, mountains, and plains. The scenery of the journey is superfluous, however, since all four cyclists are blind.

The team is taking part in the Race Across America, or RAAM, a bike race that has been widely declared one of the toughest in the world since it started in 1982. RAAM is longer than any of the European Grand Tours — and excludes their rest days — while remaining open to amateur cyclists and qualifying solo competitors. Racers climb an accumulated 170,000 feet and cross 12 states in under nine days.

Team Sea to See began as an idea between members Jack Chen and Daniel Berlin. Both are regular endurance athletes, but their participation in RAAM is aiming to draw attention to what they perceive as a systemic issue: blind unemployment.

Team Sea to See with their full crew.

Team Sea to See with their full crew.

Almost 60 percent of visually impaired people ages 21-64 are unemployed, according to Cornell University’s 2016 American Community Survey. While the latest national unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent, Team Sea to See believes U.S. companies are still missing out on the wide range of skills in the blind population.

“We’re trying to stoke the fire in the minds of hiring managers and companies everywhere that there is an incredible talent pool out there that nobody is tapping into,” Chen says. As an attorney in Google’s New York offices, Chen navigates his way to work in Chelsea with the help of a cane. He is totally blind, with no light perception whatsoever, but he hasn’t let that impede him from hiking the Inca trail, running nine marathons, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Daniel Berlin is similarly interested in epic adventures, having completed the Iron Man triathlon, two marathon trail runs in New Zealand, and crossing the Grand Canyon. Berlin is the CEO of Rodelle, a vanilla extract and spice company in Fort Collins, Colorado, and — although he perceives some light and contrast in his periphery — he is legally blind.

The most proficient cyclist on the team is Kristina Ament, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., where she lives with her guide dog, Higgins. Ament has been competing in ultra-cycling events for several years, like the 24-hour Bessie’s Creek race outside Houston, but the Race Across America will be her most ambitious race to date. Team Sea to See is rounded out by Kyle Coon, who has worked locally and federally advocating for blind employment. As a teenager, Coon was one of the first blind competitive rock climbers in the U.S. and he is one of only nine blind competitors to complete an Ironman Triathlon in under 12 hours.

Tina Ament with her pilot

Tina Ament (left)

The logistics of a cross-country bike race, Chen says, are incredibly complicated. Team Sea to See will be moving eight tandem bike riders (four competitors and four pilots), 20 crew members, and two RVs from the Pacific to the Atlantic — and that doesn’t include the film crew shooting a feature-length documentary. Preparation is key. The team can’t afford for any of its members to face injury from tripping over equipment, so strict organization will be a priority. For the visually impaired, that includes taping shapes onto gear to mark ownership. Each rider will ride for four hours and rest for four hours, with alternating cyclists constantly pedaling for about a week.

Team Sea to See will roll through most of the terrain types this country has to offer. While sighted cyclists might note the spectacular views and hazy sunrises during such a journey, blind riders will perceive the diverse American landscape differently. They are used to gleaning information about the world around them from their other senses. Chen says the feeling of the sun tells direction, a field of garlic is immediately recognizable, and even the sound of riding through a forest differs from cruising over a mountain. Berlin compares cycling blind to camping at night: “You can hear the snap of every branch, the experience is totally different. But it’s not that you enjoy it any less, you just experience it in a completely different way.”

Given the career achievements of the members of Team Sea to See, each cyclist is living proof of the potential of blind people in the workplace. When employers list the attributes of potential hires, they aren’t looking for someone who can drive themselves to work each day, Berlin says. “Some of the strongest candidates for being able to problem-solve, deal with pressure, interact with others, to listen, are going to be the people who have done that their whole lives because that’s what they depend upon.” Berlin started to lose his sight as a teenager, and he regrets that he hid it from others for years. Maneuvering around steady vision loss to finish school, play football, and work at the Hershey factory gave him a unique perspective and capability, however, that he believes is valuable to his career.

Dan Berlin with his teammate Charles Scott and their tandem bike.

Dan Berlin (stoker) and teammate Charles Scott (pilot)

Ament and Chen both navigated years of secondary education without sight — and largely without the current technology that aids blind people in school. While occasional braille textbook translations have been available, programs like Apple’s VoiceOver present renewed opportunities for the visually impaired in the age of the iPhone. Chen says web design and browsing has always been difficult for the blind because of its visual nature. “Tech can change it,” he says, “but the question is whether people are willing to consider the impact of what they build. Interfaces like dynamic-loading websites can be exclusionary to visually impaired people.”

One solution to the disparity of accessible technology could be the inclusion of more blind people in industry decision-making roles. “We see our role as driving awareness,” Chen says of Team Sea to See, “opening up this question, highlighting success, and then being able to partner with organizations on the ground who can match people with job opportunities to create environments where people who are blind can be successful.”

The other side of advocacy for blind employment is government policy. Ament was present at the White House South Lawn when George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. “I was thrilled that someone recognized the struggles that brought me down for around 20 years, that made me wonder if I was actually inferior or undeserving. I’d had employers tell me and my references that they wouldn’t hire a blind person,” Ament says.

The question now is whether or not the ADA applies to all web interfaces — and how best to enforce it. Ament says it absolutely applies, but a larger conversation about web accessibility needs to happen. That conversation may be getting underway, at least according to Kit Wessendorf, an accessibility engineer with the Paciello Group. Wessendorf says that companies and retailers have been seeking help to make their websites more accessible to vision impaired consumers — particularly after a handful of lawsuits against Target, Disney, and Netflix. “Whenever you try to make your practices more accessible, you’re making it easier and more organized for everyone,” he says.

“For many accessibility professionals, it’s personal,” Wessendorf says, “a person with vision impairment is not the liability that some employers perceive. Plenty of organizations are willing to help build the framework for greater web accessibility.” Wessendorf teaches disability etiquette, techniques for crafting inclusive information and communication technologies, as well as performing access audits.

Ament believes policy can only go so far in the struggle to combat blind unemployment: “The rest has to be done by things like we’re doing, when people are shown evidence that appeals to them on a personal level.”

That’s why the team has decided to take to the streets in an ultimate display of national publicity. Team Sea to See is trying to show as many people as possible that excellence is not only possible for the visually impaired, but right in plain sight. With a fleet of vehicles emblazoned with their logo and mission — and the lasting influence of a documentary film — these cyclists hope to move the meter on public perceptions of blindness across the country.

Follow Team Sea to See on Facebook for updates on their journey.

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  • This is an exciting adventure, Sea to See, these cyclists will be starting next Saturday. I think it’ll have positive empowerment for the blind and vision impaired afterward, such as opening doors for employment and more.

    There’s also an inspirational lesson here for everyone else that feels sorry for themselves and may be wallowing in self pity. 3,000 miles in 9 days is probably about how long I’d need to DRIVE across the U.S., much less bike it!

    The video here is really wonderful, and am looking forward to keeping track of their progress along the way. I think they’re ready, and it’ll be a great success. A sequel feature later this month would be great.