Episodes

Sounds Ambitious

The Be My Eyes Podcast
March 10, 2020

How would $25,000 change your life? The Holman Prize answers this question every year by supporting three adventurous souls. Any blind or visually impaired individual over the age of 18 with an idea and a dream can apply, and this year's application closes March 15th. To celebrate the prize’s fourth year, we'll meet the winners of the 2019 Holman Prize, Alieu Jeiteh, Mona Minkara, and Yuma Decaux in this week's episode of the Be My Eyes Podcast. Along the way, we'll learn how curiosity and ambition are helping them to shape their communities for the better while giving some inspiration for this year's winners to apply.

Show Notes:

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Episode Transcript

Mona Minkara:

Freedom is what I'm all about. Just give me my freedom.

Alieu Jaiteh:

I have seen blind people now taking control of their lives to do things. They're inspired because they have seen role models.

Will Butler:

There's five more days to apply for the Holman Prize, the annual $25,000 award, which is given to three people who are blind or visually impaired who have big dreams. Today, in honor of the Holman Prize's fourth year being run by the San Francisco lightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. We're bringing you exclusive interviews with the three Holman Prize winners from 2019. In 2017 and 2018, we saw winners with all types of ambitions, people who wanted to kayak long distances solo without any site, people who wanted to go on cultural ambassador missions around the world to share what they could do, people who wanted to make apps, people who wanted to put on conferences and people who wanted to help their communities.

Will Butler:

This year, the winners were equally as unique and equally as globally diverse. Every single winner started out the same way by uploading a video of themself, oftentimes taking just in selfie mode with your iPhone camera, to YouTube and in less than 90 seconds, telling the Holman Prize committee exactly what you would do with $25,000. There's a semifinal and a final round, and a professional judging committee of 15 blind judges, and if you make it all the way you get to travel the world or embark on whatever sort of project it is that you want to achieve. The Holman Prize has very few constraints. It's not limited to humanitarian efforts or blindness community related tasks, and the winners have been athletes, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizers and just people who are still figuring it out.

Will Butler:

You can submit your 90 second YouTube video via HolmanPrize.org. The deadline is March 15th. I suggest, if you're blind or have low vision, you go check it out immediately and if you're not, try to find someone who would benefit and send them this episode. Again, all the details are at HolmanPrize.org, that's H-O-L-M-A-N Prize.org. Here's the interviews. Alieu Jaiteh was born in The Gambia in West Africa. His Holman Prize project is pretty simple, to help more people specifically in rural parts of Gambia get better access to blindness tools and services. Here's Alieu's story.

Alieu Jaiteh:

Gambia is one of the smallest country in mainland Africa. It is in West Africa, so it is bordered by Senegal. Senegal surrounded The Gambia in all the three sides. We are colonized by the British, so the official language of The Gambia is English. We gained our independence in 1965, and our main staple food in Gambia is rice. But the cash crop that is mostly grown in The Gambia is groundnuts and cotton. Yeah. So we have different tribes, close to eight tribes that speak different languages. Yeah. I wanted to become an accountant, but I didn't realize this, simply because when I lost my sight in 2003 after high school, it was very difficult to realize this because I can't see anymore and I can't use any form of devices that could have helped me to realize my dream, living in a community where there were no services, there were no training opportunities in the area of technology.

Alieu Jaiteh:

So I wasn't able to learn technology, so I have to really depend on people for help, and many things I learned by myself. I thought that I needed a change in my life, I needed to ensure that I can able to do things by myself. So that is when I visited India on a leadership training in Kanthari where I learn social approaches and how to set up a social project, and also visited Louisiana Center for The Blind in the United States where I also learn additional training about rehabilitation and technology. That's really changed my life. When I went back home to The Gambia, I started a nonprofit to train people so that young people can realize whatever they want to be rather than limiting themselves to become ... doing things that they don't feel like to do. Sometimes you'll be walking around, doing ... maybe probably going to your normal walk in a business and somebody will just approach you to give you a coins, thinking that you are a bagger.

Alieu Jaiteh:

So you tend to look at people and get so confused, "What is this about?" So it's really how to call it an issue, where people just looked at blindness as a way of limitation, and it is not a limitation. It has to do with pity and charity. A misconception that has to do with, okay, fear of probably being hot. Let's say people want to protect you thinking that maybe you may be knocked by a car. So there is a lot of kind of, "No, you cannot do it. You need help." So there is lot of pity, charity, a lot of some social taboos linked to people who are blind, and this has to really ... doesn't really help somebody who really wants to do something. So I felt the attitudinal barriers continues to be a greatest problem faced by people with disability in my country and Africa at large.

Alieu Jaiteh:

But now with the introduction of my center now in The Gambia, my Start Now Center in Gambia. Now, many blind people are now going to university now, and now they are now studying what they want to do. Not only going to the college to be a teacher, but now they are pursuing courses that they feel like, because now they are using technology now to transform their life. Now they are using technology now to say, "Wow, I want to do political science." Some are using it to do other courses that really interest them. So when I lost my sight, I didn't learn how to use the cane. I didn't even have one cane. So I walk around by myself and just feeling the environment, walking slowly and this is how I was doing it. Sometimes I'll be on the way and somebody will just come and grab me, "Yes, where are you going to?"

Alieu Jaiteh:

"Yes, I'm heading to the highway," and then they will just hold my hand and then they move with me up to a certain point that they will probably take their own directs, and say, "Okay, I'm stopping here so you can manage," so I have to continue on that manner. Okay? So a lot of things it's like you have to walk slowly, just avoiding the traffic, listening to sounds. So I was working for close to five years without a cane, until [inaudible 00:08:18] unless when I visited India, that is when I learned how the important the cane is. When I visited Louisiana Center for The Blind, I was also able to understand more about the importance of the cane. So it's like, and many blind people in The Gambia do not understand the importance of the cane, especially in rural Gambia.

Alieu Jaiteh:

So it will be important for them to understand how the cane works, why do we hold the kin, the importance and the way the cane helps to really navigate and feel happy to move around. I have seen all the blind people as well in the community working in that manner, which is very risky. Though you have to also rely more on people, either your family member who has maybe some time to really guide you, so you tend to depend more on the human guide, and sometimes if the human guide is not available, you tend to go by yourself. So you tend to find out, in The Gambia, that many blind people tend to use their children as their guide, and this has affected the education of their children. I felt that this Start Now program in The Gambia that I have initiated in 2012 to date has greatly changed the mindsets in The Gambia.

Alieu Jaiteh:

I have seen blind people now taking control of their lives to do things. They are inspired because they have seen role models at Start Now that has really ... that are learning to change things. yeah, I feel like there are more changes now that if you're ... the society now are aware because my involvement in meetings, in radio talk shows, interview by journalist, is changing the mindset of the people. So the Holman Prize project comes to help other blind people in other parts of The Gambia who do not have the opportunity to travel in cities to learn computer training at Start Now, or to learn braille or to learn cane travel skills. So it's just a way of extending support to other blind people in other communities. So the Holman Prize will help to expand my dream of decentralizing services for blind people in rural Gambia.

Will Butler:

Mona Minkara is from Boston, the child of Lebanese immigrants. Mona had big dreams as a kid, and though she was diagnosed with a condition that would make her blind at a young age, Mona went on to get her PhD and become a professor of chemistry. But that's not what her Holman Prize project is about. Mona just wants to travel the world in a particularly interesting way.

Mona Minkara:

Before I even was diagnosed with losing my eyesight, I used to remember trying to freeze carbon dioxide by blowing bubbles into a glass of water and sticking in the freezer really quickly. It didn't work, but ... I tried to recharge batteries using magnets when I was a kid, and I used to watch a lot of Magic School Bus and Bill Nye The Science Guy, and just ... I was so curious about the world and I just knew I wanted to be a scientist. Then I was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy, and people were unsure of my future. I didn't really understand what was going on. So I continued pursuing science, but I didn't know how to look like. I didn't know I was going to be a chemist by training. That didn't really happen until I took quantum. I fell in love with it.

Mona Minkara:

When I was seven, we had just moved to Boston, it was second grade, I'll never forget entering Mrs. [Aucoin's 00:12:32] class as a second grader, and I was wearing this Mickey Mouse shirt and she asked me, "Are you ready?" I remember telling her, "I'm ready for anything," and that was the year that I was actually diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy. I remember when I was diagnosed I was like, "Wow, I hope I am ready for anything." I remember thinking back upon that question on the first day of class. When you get to know me more, you realize I have a million dreams, I love so many different things. I haven't done martial arts in a few years, but I love martial arts. I did that a lot in grad school, and I knitted and I went horseback riding. Those were my main activities outside of getting my PhD in chemistry.

Mona Minkara:

I love to use all parts of my brain and I love to explore the world, and I love both explore the world .. It's not that different if you think about it. Traveling as a form of exploration of society, it's a form of the world. Bioengineering is an exploration of what's going on in the biological world. They're just different worlds that I'm exploring. Freedom is what I'm all about. Just give me my freedom. Public transportation does that for me, and so I've always been interested by it, intrigued and I love it, and so I was like, "I want to see the world through public transportatio," and I'm very honored and humbled to say I won. I was like, "Oh, I'm going to travel the world now." Even the story of James Holman, this man who would ... didn't let the world define him 200 years ago when it was really easy to be defined by people.

Mona Minkara:

I don't know, it spoke to me. It spoke to me and spoke to the fact that it's great and honestly it's like things that sighted people don't even do. I don't know many sighted people that would climb ... I don't even know what [inaudible 00:14:31] climbed [inaudible 00:14:32] cliff face and cooking around the world, a kayak across the Bosphorus by yourself. These are things that are not just adventurous for the blind but they're adventures for everyone. Somebody like James Holman is a role model because growing up, we get a lot of messaging of you can't, you can't. A little bit almost to a point in which we start imbibing almost a fear of the world around us and our abilities. How far can our abilities really go? But a prize like the Holman Prize literally is telling you, "Break down those fears. Don't [inaudible 00:15:13] go for it, and we're here to help you with that," and that just is amazing.

Mona Minkara:

Ever since I was a kid, I love riding the T in Boston. I know the red line like the back of my hand, I can announce all the stops from one end of the line to the other. It was a symbol of freedom for me, it was an access to the world for me to be able to put me on the train and I can get to all these places very easily. Then I got curious. I love hearing names of places and I kept on getting curious, and then I moved to Florida and the public transportation in Gainesville was different, and then I moved to Minnesota and it was different. That also intrigued me. Because my easy access was dependent on these systems, and I feel like a lot of people overlook what is an amazing commodity that we provide as a society, and take it for granted, and I feel like we need to honor public transportation because it's amazing.

Mona Minkara:

And it doesn't just help blind people, it helps everybody and it helps with all sorts of issues. Not just lowering traffic, but lowering emission pollution. It's just great, and we should take care of our public transportation better too. I want to see what other cities around the world do and how they deal with their public transportation, or how does it look like? Just being in London and riding the Waterloo line just tickled me to no end, and Piccadilly Circus. I rode those lines and I'm really excited to go back on them, and I don't know, it's just, I'm really intrigued to see what the world holds on that front, and I wish I can go to more cities but that's all we got time for.

Speaker 4:

[inaudible 00:17:04].

Mona Minkara:

Oh my God. Even-

Speaker 4:

[crosstalk 00:17:05].

Mona Minkara:

Even in Boston. I love that one of my friends described. She came to visit me in Boston. So there's the red line, the orange line, the green line. Those are the lines I use the most. But they're all so different, they have such different character. You get on the orange line, there's wood paddling and it feels like the only thing that's missing is shag carpeting. Okay? They have not updated these trains in years, maybe 40 years if not more, probably 50 years. They all have also different character to them, and it feels like one of them you choose and they're kind of your friend along the journey. I'm really happy to say that I got the Holman Prize, and because of it, I'm creating this project called Planes, Trains and Canes.

Mona Minkara:

This project is basically a documentary series, five episodes, each episode for each city that I'm going to, and when I'm there, I'm only allowed to use public transportation to get around, and on top of it, I have to do it independently. So I will be independently traveling five different cities around the world using public transportation. So no cheating with the Ubers, and navigating my way to a hotel, to a restaurant, to a fun activity completely independently. Of course, there's a camera woman who was following me all out. So shout out to Natalie Goosey, and that you can follow along on PlanesTrainsandCanes.com, or go to YouTube and type Planes, Trains and Canes. Hopefully you can remember it because those are tools that I'll be using, planes, trains and canes. Well, and also buses but that doesn't fit the ride.

Mona Minkara:

I hope that few people find intriguing that they start viewing blind travel differently. I hope blind people see, if they haven't tried it, that they feel comfortable trying it and I hope sighted people can see that, "Hey, we got this. We don't need somebody shepherding us every step of the way." I also hope for my own personal growth to enter an area because there is a bit of ... There's a lot of unknown and there's a lot of pushing myself forward into not knowing how things will look like, a little bit of being comfortable getting lost. So I hope to be comfortable with getting lost and learning how to do that, and I've noticed whenever I start using public transportation of different cities, I feel like that city becomes also my home a little bit.

Mona Minkara:

So I hope to feel like I can figure it out, so I belong in all those places too. So the cities that I'm going to are Johannesburg, London, Istanbul, Singapore and Tokyo, and if I had more time, I would've loved to go to a city in South America too. I wanted to hit as many continents as possible. I only hit three, but so ... I wanted to have some cities in which a primary language was English, but some cities in which that's not the case. I wanted to challenge myself, because growing up, my mom used to always say, "If you can talk, you won't get lost." Then what happens if I can't communicate with the person in front of me? So I'm really excited to see what happens then.

Will Butler:

Yuma Antwan Decaux is a French national living in Australia, and if he told me he had his head in the clouds, he'd probably consider it a compliment. Yuma also became blind later in life, and he's got some fascinating philosophies about how to adapt. His project is all about space and astronomy, and giving blind people a tool to better explore it.

Yuma Decaux:

I was about six or seven years old in the South of France and Southeast of France, towards ...We were living towards the mountains, and my parents had given me a telescope and a book on the solar system, and that night I had identified where Saturn might be thanks to the guides on the book. Ten when I first saw that little blotch of yellow with a ring around it, I was completely haunted that night by the sheer expanse of the world. I started to understand what distance really meant at that scale, and it never stopped from there. I started really mapping a lot of different objects in the skies, remembering all of the constellations, what they looked like, and that gave more imagination, and obviously during that time, there was Star Wars, there was alien, there was Star Trek, there was a flourishment of Sci-Fi movies and novels, and I was in the middle of it.

Yuma Decaux:

I think that humanity has been around for a very long time, and if anything, at the beginning as we evolved, we were still actually out there in the fields. We would sleep under the sky, and so every night we had an opportunity to look at the sky. By doing that, because of our ability to put two and two together, we started really forming the structure of what we were in the cosmos. The cosmos obviously is extremely large. The universe is something that even modern science barely can explain. But we have this initial default hunger for discovery and our curiosity is without limits, and we always want to take that curtain and open it a bit more so we can unveil more of the mysteries of the universe, and it will never stop, I think, because it's a global journey.

Yuma Decaux:

Everyone, every culture across the world actually has their own interpretation of how the sky works and the cycles and the periodicities as well as how to predict things. It only started to really pick up in the 17 and 1800s. Well, a bit earlier, but this adventure that we have undertaken has led really to many of the technological advancements of today, and that comes in with science and culture. Science and culture, so it's observation and our own feeling of how ... where are in the universe? What are we here for? What do we stand for? Those two really go hand in hand how we progressed with our relationship with the stars. Vision really focuses on a specific point in space. So our retina and the fovea actually captures only as very small amount.

Yuma Decaux:

So when we look at a graph, we're only able to perceive a very small section of that graph instead of the overall signal. Whereas with sound, we can keep overlaying over and over different layers of signals but we can better understand the overall. So this is why I am in the firm opinion and belief that having multiple senses and multiple output methods while analyzing a phenomenon is going to give us a much more clear and high resolution, high fidelity understanding of that analysis. The sciences aren't for everybody, but it doesn't mean that it should be off limits, especially for people who have visual impairments just because some of the tools or some of the content is not accessible, and I would like to make sure that this message passes through, specifically for astronomy and astrophysics because this is something that a lot of kids also like.

Yuma Decaux:

I'll give you an example. I have someone who is now entering mechatronics and physics and who is congenitally blind, that means he's never seen in his life. But through our discussion, I could see that he is such a smart kid, that it would be really a shame to actually take that off from him and to try to orient him elsewhere. So I really think it's important that kids have access to every type of career path they wish, including STEM. I was taking a jog on a treadmill at the gym, and once I was done, I got out and someone just tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Oh, excuse me. I just wanted to tell you how all inspiring you are," and inside my head I was like, "Well, I just took a jog on a treadmill and I stepped off. What is so heroic about that?"

Yuma Decaux:

Meeting those expectations with everyone can be quite difficult because at the beginning you might have a sense of pity from someone or you might just pull on their heartstrings if they've never actually had a family member or someone who had disability with whom they've interacted. So I find that my job sometimes is to really either [inaudible 00:26:32] or change the perception, the expectations of different people of how they perceive me. In some ways, that's a healthy thing to do because that allows me to reflect back on my own limits as well, as well as my capabilities, and either stretch them or just lower my expectations of what I can do. So it's a healthy and vital exchange to have with those ... how should we say? Those perceptive offsets, I guess, let's say from the sighted world into the blind world, and expressing yourself as a blind person, what you see, what you think you perceive.

Yuma Decaux:

Sometimes there's some situations where we might be in a crowded place and people are looking around and it's dark and there are just flashy lights everywhere, and then you are able to perceive, you know, where the bar is because you've actually heard the cocktail shaker and you go, "Well, let's go this way," and that's when the blind actually leads the sighted. That happens both ways, and that's what human interaction is. The more you yourself as a blind person are able to go out into those uncomfortable situations ... I pushed myself to go to different places I could, so I would go to a music festival, like the Bluesfest in Byron Bay every April, and I would be literally one or two or three perhaps visually impaired people. Whereas everyone else is sighted, and that is in the dynamic of a festival, that means all the people, all the the tents, the different people come up to you, speak to you, you might get lost somewhere.

Yuma Decaux:

All of those dynamic situations, if you're able to control them, maybe not at the beginning, but you control them better over time, then you're really reaching out to people who are sighted, and the more sighted people see blind people around doing things that they do every day, they go, "Whoa, wow. Well, they're not limited to that. Let's interact. Let's do things together," and I think that's really important instead of actually closing us into an echo chamber or into a bubble or to, again, distinguishing distinction and partition and division starts to create discrimination. We need to flip that, and really go into a mode of collaboration. It's really collaboration. My Holman project is an investigative adventure into making astronomy, astrophysics and multiple fields in topics in STEM accessible based on understanding the relationship of humanity with the stars.

Yuma Decaux:

That will be through traversing our planet and meeting multiple experts in many topics and discussing what they do, what their expertise is, and try to thread it together so that the project, which is called also Astro Hunters, available as a podcast and an interactive Q&A experiment, can develop an app and extend that app so that astronomy is accessible to blind people. My app, Astros, which the Holman journey is going to allow me to extend to an accessible universe, gives you sight, sound, touch, and an assistant called LEAH, short for Light Electronic Assistive Heuristics, to discover the cosmos with multiple senses. It's important to push a blind kids in an imagination because you have this beautiful canvas inside that you can really extend, and the mind is limitless to how much you could take in.

Yuma Decaux:

The stronger your imagination, the better you're going to perceive the world around you, and even on the negative side of things. So if something negative occurs to you, you having a large ocean of imagination within your head, if that negative thing is a pebble that went through it, well, the waves of that pebble will do nothing to you because your imagination is big and wide and deep. So it really needs something extremely negative to take you a bit off-kilter. But if your imagination is pushed to that point, then that means the vehicle, which is your body, who you are and how you interact with the world, is going to be much more efficient. Blind ambition is getting out there and challenging yourself and challenging the perception, the standard traditional perception of what a blind person is, and it could be in any form.

Yuma Decaux:

It could be a physical challenge, it could a social challenge, it could be an artistic challenge. It could be any intellectual challenge, scientific challenge, it could be any of these. But ambition really at its core is not allowing the world just crush you, and it's really you saying, "Well, I guess I'll ..." There's a Buddhist saying and it's not because of religion, but I think it's a beautiful set of ideograms, and those ideograms are heaven, earth, self, alone, live. So if translated in a different way, between the sky and the earth, I live my own experiences. So that means that we shouldn't allow others to dictate our experiences, and ambition is exactly that.

Will Butler:

Thank you to Yuma, Mona and Alieu for sharing your thoughts, and thank you to the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco for sharing this awesome interview footage from Welcome Week 2019. Any blind or low vision person, 18 or older, can upload their YouTube pitch video for the Holman Prize at HolmanPrize.org. The deadline is March 15th. Give it a shot, and maybe you'll be able to see the world the way you want in 2020. The Be My Eyes Podcast will be back in two weeks. Email us, mystory@bemyeyes,com. We want to hear from you.