TEDx speaker to open your eyes

Chris Venter, from Milnerton.

Chris Venter of Milnerton has travelled the world by scooter and been on adventures, which he has recorded in vivid detail in a soon-to-be-published book that will take readers on a sensory journey through lands less travelled.

So if I told you that Chris is blind, you may wonder how he has managed to accomplish these feats without vision.

Well, Chris is an avid believer that the blind have just as much vision as the sighted, and his “blind-man-can” attitude has landed him a spot as the first blind man in Africa to deliver a TEDx talk to a multitude of viewers about technology accessibility for the blind.

TEDx is an international community that organises events celebrating locally-driven ideas and elevating them to a global stage, and Chris’s idea behind accessible technology for the blind was spoken about at the event, and his praise was shared on almost every social platform after he received the biggest standing ovation of the day at the TEDx event held at Ratanga Junction on Saturday October 15.

Chris told his audience about how the blind could do just about anything able-bodied persons could do due to advances in technology. However, he also spoke of the unavailability of technology to the blind in South Africa, which hinders their advancement.

“A total of 285 million people are visually impaired and 40 million people are blind, yet less than 1 percent of them are employed. In South Africa, you’re entitled to a social welfare grant, but we’re capable of working. I type very fast and sometimes no one has an idea that I’m blind,” said Chris, pulling out his iPhone to demonstrate how he uses it to assist him with tasks.

Chris relies on screen reader software, that acts like a personal assistant and is part of his phone’s operating system, as well as phone applications to help him navigate the device.

His phone alerts him when he gets a text and he can dictate a response. Through technology, Chris can also do pretty much anything he sets his mind to. He describes himself as a writer, blogger, adventurer, vintage scooter enthusiast, chef, scuba diver, fisherman, guitar player, boxer and roamer of the globe. He has achieved all of this despite losing his sight just over two years ago while completing an event for charity.

In 2013, Chris and a few of his friends were completing a
30 000km trip on a 150cc LML Vespa scooter, which took him through 21 countries all the way from Cape Town, to Dublin, Ireland. The expedition raised awareness for a local children’s hospital, but along the way Chris fell ill.

“I got sick in Tanzania and had to fly back home for medical help. When I got home, they gave me a few antibiotics and said that I am okay and that I could go and complete my trip. So I flew to Paris, where I arranged a loan scooter and rode south to meet up with the rest o the team. But I still didn’t feel too well.

“When I got back to Cape Town after completing the trip, I got really sick. In June 2014, over the period of one week, my sight disappeared completely. I contracted a rare virus which attacked my retinas. I had to learn accessibility and how to use accessible devices and I became good enough at it to help other blind people to learn how to use it,” said Chris.

Through his blindness, Chris discovered the limited employment positions available in society for the blind to occupy due to the lack of accessibility. He said most blind people, without accessible technology, usually end up becoming switchboard operators, and many go into solitary confinement while few learn to excel.

Chris says the lack of technology and unwillingness by others to learn about the blind, including those in service delivery who do not know how to deal with them, is partly why many visually impaired people withdraw from society.

“I have previously gone to a restaurant with my wife where the waiter asked my wife, ‘What would he like to eat?” I am blind, not deaf. Staff should be trained to deal with the blind. But I am just as guilty, as I never met a blind person until I became blind.

“The service delivery industry should improve as well as online shopping so that we can enjoy these things as well. When you hover your mouse on the online shopping icon it doesn’t say basket, it simply says ‘icon’,” says Chris, explaining how technology needed to be adapted to cater to the blind.

Chris believes every blind person should be given an iPhone to assist them with accessibility.

His book, soon to be published in hard copy, e-book and eventually on audio, is testament to that and the many things that are possible without sight.

The book is about Chris’s trip from Cape Town to Dublin and his subsequent blindness. He hopes to have it released in the December holidays or before Easter next year.

Chris also already has plans for his second book, which will include a trip from Paris to Palermo.

“The road of blindness is a bumpy road,” says Chris. “You can either just stand there, or you can move forward. Losing the ability to see doesn’t mean you can’t live your dreams.”

* If you would like to know more about Chris and his adventures visit his website at www.blindscooterguy.com or follow him on twitter @blindscooterguy