Escaping a World Trade Center tower on Sept. 11, 2001, certainly wasn’t easy, but sometimes it seems to pale in comparison to influencing the way many view those of us who are blind. I say this because my Ground Zero ordeal — which I’ve shared in my book, Thunder Dog, and will cover in my session at the Foundation’s VISIONS 2013 conference in June — took place in just one day. Whereas changing attitudes has been a lifelong vocation.
The full title of the book is Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog & the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero. The guide dog was Roselle, who was with me on the 78th floor of the north tower when the first plane hit 20 floors above. Roselle, who has since passed, did more than her job that day, by creating a ripple effect with her complete composure as I and hundreds of others descended 1,463 stairs. She then navigated me to safety on New York’s streets as both towers came tumbling down.
This makes for a compelling story on paper and in the talks I give at universities, corporations and nonprofits worldwide. But I have another story to tell, one I believe can benefit both blind and sighted people. It’s the story of how I came to be in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
I was born two months early in 1950, when premature babies were fed pure oxygen in an incubator to help develop their lungs. That process, however, also damaged the eyes’ blood vessels, rendering many, like myself and Stevie Wonder, blind. My parents were advised to send me off to a boarding school, but they refused, insisting I live a normal life — by attending public schools and preparing for a career.
That wasn’t easy back then. My family and I met with lots of resistance during my formative years. But I was able to earn a master’s degree in physics, then build a career in sales that culminated in heading the New York operations of a Fortune 500 company. The thing is, I got there—and was able, with Roselle’s help, to assist many people out of that tower—because I embrace being blind.
Now, I want to make clear that I wholeheartedly support the Foundation. No one chooses blindness, and because of FFB’s efforts, several clinical trials testing potential treatments are now underway. But life’s not a waiting room, and not everyone, myself included, will benefit from such treatments. So I’m all about helping people live fulfilling lives even with a lack of eyesight.
I should emphasize that I choose “lack of eyesight” instead of “lack of vision” because, although I do not have eyesight, I have lots of vision. In Thunder Dog, I remind people, “Don’t let your sight get in the way of your vision.”
I have a friend, Don, who, decades ago, was a top sales guy at a big company. Due to diabetic retinopathy, he lost his vision in mid-life, which is understandably difficult. But Don was able to train at the Iowa Department for the Blind, which equips people with the tools they need to either continue or start working.
More than 70 percent of those who are blind and employable are unemployed. And a recent poll shows that going blind is among people’s top five fears. It doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone losing eyesight needs to associate with blind people who serve as role models. Loss of eyesight means being presented with the challenge of having to learn new things. You’re literally exploring a new world.
Once he was done with his training, and discovered that his employer wasn’t amenable to advancing the career of a blind person, Don started his own business. It flourished to the point where, years later, ready to sell the business, he told me, “Mike, I paid more in taxes last year than what I earned in my best year at my old company.”
What I share in my book, and will share at VISIONS 2013 in Baltimore, is that, no matter what your vocation or circumstance, blindness is not the end of something. It can kick off a personal crusade to help FFB raise funds for research and serve as a new lease on life. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t have been in a position to be in the World Trade Center that fateful day or make it out alive with Roselle and so many others.
Picture, above: Michael Hingson, author of Thunder Dog, with his current guide dog, Africa.