Cognitive Computing

Running on Accessibility

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Erich Manser trains IBM designers and developers about the importance of not cutting corners when it comes to accessibility and inclusion in the creation of new solutions.

Erich Manser poses with his running guide from Team with a Vision.

Erich Manser (right) poses with his Team with a Vision guide, Peter Sagal.

He takes the same approach when training for one of his favorite passions… marathons. In this case, Manser has literally learned the importance of staying in, or on, the lines.

When he was young, Manser was diagonosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition that leads to blindness. Today, he can only make out shapes and objects.

“Think about looking through a keyhole covered with wax paper,” said Manser. “When I train for races, I leverage the lines in the middle of the road – on low traffic streets – to keep me on the right track and out of ditches.”

On Monday, April 18, Manser will take to the crowded streets and suburbs of Boston where he will run his seventh Boston Marathon, and 15th overall. He’ll be running with Team with a Vision, which provides guides to blind runners to raise awareness for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Getting to this point, however, was never part of his plan.

With a substantial weight gain following his college days as a competitive swimmer, Manser realized that running was the right recipe to create a healthier lifestyle. In addition, with his declining eye sight he had to adapt his life and regimen and accept that he would have to run with a guide.

“At first, when I was running by myself I would find people that ran with a similar pace and I would just shadow them,” said Manser. “The most challenging part about racing and not having peripheral vision was that people appeared out of nowhere. It became clear that I was eventually going to lock ankles with someone and cause an accident.”

Having a sighted guide now makes all the difference.

“It’s still me racing – dealing with the mental and physical challenges of running 26 miles – but now I can eliminate a lot of the anxiety of the things sighted runners take for granted, such as referencing mile markers, keeping the right pace, avoiding potholes, and seamlessly getting in and out of the chaos of the water stations. Now I can just focus on running.”

Manser also said this has allowed him to meet many other blind athletes from around the world, such as Simon Wheatcroft (in video below), who have challenged him to start competing in triathlons. In fact, last November, Erich competed in the Florida Ironman finishing first in the “physically challenged” division (and 205th overall), and shattering the world record by 40 minutes.

When asked about the use of technology to help him with training for his runs, Manser said there is still work to be done in creating more accessible fitness applications.

“There is a tremendous opportunity to leverage cognitive computing, haptics, and text-to-speech technology that could give blind runners (and sighted runners) eyes-free fitness tracking and real-time analysis of data while running,” said Manser.

He said this is the reason why he loves working in accessibility and ensuring solutions are designed to meet the needs for people of all abilities so they can act as an additional guide in our daily lives.

“That’s one finish line I love helping people cross,” said Manser.

Follow Manser’s progress in the Boston Marathon by tracking his bib number (24,097) at this link.

Social Media Manager & Webmaster, IBM Accessibility

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