Big Data

How Technology Levels the Playing Field for the Blind

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Ever since Thomas Panek learned at age 20 that he would lose his eyesight due to a condition called retinal degeneration, he vowed that his disability would not prevent him from living a full life. “I wanted to do everything that sighted people do,” he says.

He has not let himself down: In addition to serving as president of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the most respected breeders and trainers of guide dogs, he has completed one dozen marathons since he lost his sight.

Thomas, who is now 45, credits information technology—along with wonderful guide dogs–for helping him get two university degrees; work in government, private industry and the not-for-profit sector; and travel the world on his own.

As a result, he’s an early adopter of the latest technologies—not just for his personal use but for the organizations where he has worked. At Guiding Eyes, which he joined as president two years ago, he traded outdated servers and software for cloud computing–from IBM Cloud. Data and documents that used to be stored at a back-up facility are now available from any computer at any time of day or night. In addition, his organization is working with IBM to use Watson cognitive technology to help breed puppies that will grow up to be excellent guide dogs.

Because of the aging of populations around the globe, it has been estimated that twice as many guide dogs will be needed over the next 25 years. Today, Guiding Eyes breeds about 500 puppies per year, but only about 150 of them prove suitable as guides. So the organization must become much more efficient—partly by analyzing genetic and behavioral data. “This is the big challenge we face,” he says. “We need to increase our capacity.”

Thomas began having vision problems when he was just five years old, and, when he was in college, a doctor told him he’d become completely blind by the time he was 40. While studying at DePaul University in Chicago, he landed an internship at the Chicago Board of Trade, where traders used the open outcry method. He found that he couldn’t see the numbers that were posted on the trading boards, so he had to quit. He got back on a career track after he participated in IBM’s Project Able program for people with disabilities—learning to program a mainframe computer using assistive technologies.

He has always been a runner, and technologies helped him continue as his eyesight was deteriorating. He used GPS technology to find his way around. Later, when he was no longer able to run by himself, he worked out on a talking treadmill and got volunteer humans to run marathons with him. Now, his dog, Gus, a four-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, guides him when he goes on practice runs of up to 10K.

Gus, who Thomas went through training with when he joined Guiding Eyes, is one of two dogs that the organization has trained to run with their owners. Thomas dreams of the day when Gus will be able to run the second half of a marathon with him. He’s collaborating with scientists at MIT to develop harness technology that will help him spot low-hanging objects or curbs—which Gus can’t warn him about.

The marathons are a great way to raise funds for Guiding Eyes, but Thomas also competes because he wants to spread the word among blind people that their disabilities shouldn’t hold them back. “I’m emphasizing by running that there are no limits to physical fitness,” he says. “You can be as physically fit as a marathon runner with the help of a guide dog.”

When asked during a telephone interview how many marathons he has completed, Thomas said he wasn’t sure of the exact count—but he had plaques from each mounted on his office wall. So he stood up and touched each one to get an accurate count. It was 12.

With Gus’s help—and assist from information technology—more plaques will be joining them.

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