As he himself puts it, Mike Hess used to be “the token blind guy” at the Fortune 500 companies where he first built a successful engineering career—and learned what kinds of people, processes, and tools are required for the sight-impaired to make it in the corporate world.
Five years ago, Mike followed a longstanding urge to create a lasting legacy for the blind and visually impaired (BVI) community. He left corporate America after an 18-year engineering career to found the Blind Institute of Technology™ (BIT), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that strives to reduce excessively high BVI unemployment rates: in 2015, only 42 percent of working age adults with significant vision loss were employed.
Under Mike’s leadership, BIT helps to educate employers about the advantages of working with talented and skilled BVI individuals, and works to increase employment numbers through professional certification and training, inclusive technology, and other programs.
“We break down barriers to employment for both the BVI community and the employers who hire them,” Mike says. “Our programs for BVI candidates are focused on technology-related education, training, and other essential skills needed to succeed in today’s job-market. Our employer programs provide tools and resources that empower their BVI employees and help companies build best-in-class accessibility ratings for their digital landscape.”
You might think this record of accomplishment would satisfy anyone’s urge to leave a legacy of support for a community in need. But Mike Hess also wanted to go for a run.
Take a lap, Mike
As an April Fools baby, Mike was a natural class clown and wanted to sit in the back of the class cracking jokes as early as first grade. He quickly moved to the front of the class after realizing he was not able to see the chalkboard—and soon thereafter learned that he’d be completely blind by the age of 18.
He soon began plotting his course along what he calls his “thousand-mile journey,” engaging people with his sense of humor (or by being tough if the situation demanded). He has spent a lifetime learning the skills needed to live as a totally blind person (cane training and Braille classes) and the low-vision technologies that continue to assist him today.
In short, Mike Hess is someone who’s always pushed the envelope. So why not test the limits of his abilities by learning how to run without human assistance?
In partnership with students at the University of Denver (DU), several technology providers, and sponsorship from LGS Innovations and others, Mike was recently able to go for his first run in decades on an oval track equipped with sensor-driven transceivers, and wearing a sensor-driven vest that directed his footsteps via buzzing sounds and vibrations.
“It’s hard to describe the many emotions I felt to be running again, independently, after so long,” Mike says. “The freedom—the autonomy—the huge boost to the quality of my life—to be able to go for a run, safely—all of these, and many other feelings, came rushing forward during my jog. My son joined me on the track as well—just an incredible joy for my whole family.
“I’m very grateful for the support and mentoring that LGS has provided in this effort,” Mike adds. “Technology is the true enabler of this and countless other advances for the millions of blind and visually impaired people that can add so much to our workforce, our nation, and each other’s lives.”
Clearly, Mike’s goal wasn’t simply to get some exercise, but also to build awareness of the many ways that technology can build inclusivity for the BVI community. In addition to increasing navigation, mobility, obstacle avoidance, and safety features (on land or in the water, for BVI swimmers, say), sensor-driven networks can open entirely new worlds for the visually impaired—with apps such as automated guides to museums, GPS-like geolocation services, banknote and currency recognition, and countless others—driven by portable and wearable devices.
“We were honored to help sponsor this demonstration,” says Robert Baggiani, program management director for the LGS Wireless Solutions team. “The opportunity to work with Mike and the DU team was a natural extension of our STEM support programs, as well as our mission as a technology innovation company.”