Scaling Mountains Without Vision: Erik Weihenmayer on Breaking All Kinds of Barriers

Erik Weihenmayer

Erik Weihenmayer (Photo from

Erik Weihenmayer is not only an accomplished mountaineer but also the first blind person to reach the peak of the mighty Mt. Everest. The vision loss this natural-born athlete began to experience at thirteen hardly deterred him from intense physical activity: skiing, kayaking, rock climbing — nothing is off limits for Erik. Weihenmayer has been featured on the cover of Time for his mountain-climbing feats and has started his own organization, No Barriers, which seeks to bring together people with challenges (whether physical or mental), empowering them as a community. In this interview, Katie Grimes, managing editor of Exceptions Journal, talks to Weihenmayer about his approach to climbing, his inspirations, and the diverse challenges of living with limited vision.

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The Visual Connection

by Tammy Ruggles

When people hear that I’m a legally blind photographer, I’m often asked, “How do you do it if you can’t see?” Well, the thing is, I’m not completely blind, I do have some vision, and I use this residual vision to practice photography, along with my point-and-shoot digital camera set on auto, and a 47-inch computer monitor.

"Winter Branch," Tammy Ruggles

“Winter Branch,” Tammy Ruggles

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Making Braille Available

by James Salsido

I have always loved to read and write stories. I was lucky enough to be able to read books with normal-sized print thanks to a pair of reading glasses, and I continued to do so for many years, barely noticing the way my vision was changing — until a few years ago when I realized I was reading for 15 minutes at a time instead of 2 hours the way I used to. This scared me badly. So, I decided to learn how to read Braille.
I fell in love with the system almost at once, realizing that I could use it to read the way I had when I was younger. One day, a thought came to me as I was reading a Stephen King book; someone had to read the print version of this book and then rewrite — or to be more accurate, emboss — the raised dots I felt beneath my fingers, and I thought “I want to do that, too.” Today I am in the middle of a class that will allow me to do just that. I feel so grateful to Louis Braille (and the many others) who have made it possible to read again, and I am really excited to be able to give others the same opportunity this fantastic language has given to me.
Braille Alphabet
James Salsido is a guest contributor to Exceptions. Salsido lives in Romeo, Michigan, and is legally blind, and is currently in training to become a Literary Braille Transcriber.

Shining a Light on the Life of Alex Bartkowiak

By Lana R. Grasser

Nowadays it appears as though most people, engrossed in a fast-paced society, miss out on the little things in life—the daily sunrise and sunset, light shining through the trees. Alex Bartkowiak, however, always notices when someone enters the room. He cheers up when rays of sunshine beam through his bedroom window. Alex strives to absorb the world around him, and he is legally blind. Upon entering the Bartkowiak household, I was greeted by Alex’s sister, Rachel, and his mother, Maureen. Even with extremely limited vision, Alex was able to tell that I had arrived and greeted me with a friendly wave and big smile. You may be thinking that Alex was aware of my arrival as he heard our greetings, but Alex is also completely deaf. This combination of deaf-blind is due to CHARGE Syndrome, a genetic condition that 21-year-old Alex was born with. Often tricky to diagnose, persons with CHARGE Syndrome are typically recognized by variance in the usual ear shape.

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How a Blind Author Opened my Eyes

By Andrea Zuchora

“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race; it’s to test the limits of the human heart.”

–Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon track and field coach (1948-1972), co-founder of Nike, Inc.

It might be a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, but as a runner, this quote from Bowerman rings especially true for me. One of my favorite things about running is the discovery of what my body can accomplish; so far, I’ve run three half marathons and a myriad of shorter distances, from 5ks to 10ks. Personally, running is as much a mental exercise or pursuit as it is a physical one. I often find that the clarity of mind produced during a run has an incredible ability to dispel the haze surrounding problems in my life, and I’m able to see different solutions.

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The Blind Cook: Christine Ha on Creativity Inside and Outside the Kitchen

Christine Ha may be most famous for her victory on the third season of MasterChef in 2012, but her artistry extends beyond the kitchen. She holds an MFA in creative writing and serves as the fiction editor for the literary magazine Gulf Coast, blogs regularly on her website The Blind Cook, and maintains an active presence on various social media. After being diagnosed with an immune condition in 2004, Ha underwent progressive vision loss over several years, but her creative achievements have only continued to expand. With a recipe book under her belt and a continuous stream of artistic and public engagements, Christine Ha lives in a multifaceted world marked by diverse artistic passions. Here, Craig Pearson speaks with Ha about the roots of her creative interests, her path to success, and how she manages to keep so many pans in the fire.

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The Legend of Moondog

by Phil Olson

Louis Thomas Hardin wrote poetry, composed music, invented a series of instruments, was signed to a multitude of record labels, and conducted orchestras before royalty. He achieved acclamation in Europe and gained fame when musicians like Janis Joplin covered his work. He was one of the most well-known figures in New York City from the late 1940’s to 1972. From these descriptions, you’d think Hardin must have been a very rich and powerful figure, right?

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Interview with Geerat Vermeij

Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a professor of geology at the University of California at Davis, with research interests in marine ecology. Widely published and respected in the academic community, Dr. Vermeij has received prestigious awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal, and was named a National Ambassador for Braille Literacy by the National Federation of the Blind. Craig Pearson speaks with Dr. Vermeij about growing up blind in a sighted school system, balancing cutting-edge audio technology with Braille, and discovering one’s academic passions.

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Alex’s Great State Race

by Erin Surge

You’d have to live under a rock to have not heard even a little something about the rivalry between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. However, we mostly hear about the nasty pranks and childish insults thrown between the two. (I mean, really, how many articles about the stake thrown into the middle of Spartan Stadium by a Wolverine must we share on Facebook?) Something much greater than any of that was happening on October 24th, 2014.

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Braille, Beads, and Accessible Art: A Conversation With Two Multisensory Artists

Becca and Peter Khalil are lawyers by training who have, most recently, joined forces to create Beadtography, a craft business specializing in accessible mixed-media art. This husband-wife duo combines photography and beading to create unique pieces of art that feature Braille poetry to engage all on the visual ability spectrum.

Before creating their business, Becca and Peter were both invested in issues surrounding visual impairment. Becca has raised and socialized guide dogs for the blind since she was in the sixth grade, and has raised more than 20 puppies in training. She has volunteered as a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, Guide Dogs of the Desert, and Guide Dogs of America, for which she currently serves as one of the Vancouver, WA/Portland, OR area volunteer group leaders. Peter has had keratoconus, a degenerative corneal condition, since high school. During this time, he has had to adapt to visual distortions, variations in visual acuity, and a number of different treatment methods, the most recent of which was a corneal transplant. Peter’s efforts to adapt to a chronic vision condition have made him a passionate proponent of accessibility in all aspects of life.

In this interview, Craig Pearson talks with Becca and Peter about the inspiration behind their artwork, their creative process, and Braille itself.

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