ASHA News: The No-Barriers Mindset This year's recipient of ASHA's Annie Glenn Award, Erik Weihenmayer, is no stranger to overcoming challenges and seeking new heights. by Kellie Rowden-Racette To say Erik Weihenmayer is a world-class outdoor adventurer barely scratches the surface. In 2001, this former middle school teacher and wrestling ... ASHA News
ASHA News  |   October 01, 2013
ASHA News: The No-Barriers Mindset
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ASHA News & Member Stories / ASHA News
ASHA News   |   October 01, 2013
ASHA News: The No-Barriers Mindset
The ASHA Leader, October 2013, Vol. 18, 56. doi:10.1044/leader.AN1.18102013.56
The ASHA Leader, October 2013, Vol. 18, 56. doi:10.1044/leader.AN1.18102013.56
This year's recipient of ASHA's Annie Glenn Award, Erik Weihenmayer, is no stranger to overcoming challenges and seeking new heights.
by Kellie Rowden-Racette
To say Erik Weihenmayer is a world-class outdoor adventurer barely scratches the surface. In 2001, this former middle school teacher and wrestling coach reached the summit of Mount Everest, and then finished climbing to the summits of the highest mountains on each continent in 2008 when he reached the top of Carstenz Pyramid, the tallest peak in Australia. In addition to mountain climbing, he also paraglides, skis, mountain bikes, and now, at age 45, is learning to solo white-water kayak.
Did we mention that he is blind?
"In 1997, I kind of made a bold decision to make a life in the mountains as an adventurer," explains Weihenmayer. "It's not something a private equity firm probably would have invested in, but it all worked out and it set me on an exciting journey with some amazing teams."
Weihenmayer will receive the Annie Glenn Award at the 2013 ASHA Convention. ASHA's highest honor is named for the wife of Sen. John Glenn, who overcame a severe stutter and is widely known for her advocacy for people with communication disorders. The "Annie" recognizes individuals who demonstrate her spirit.
Weihenmayer grew up in Connecticut, the youngest of four siblings in a very active family. As a child he was always looking for adventure. In elementary school, he was diagnosed with the rare condition juvenile retinoschisis, which ultimately took his sight when he was 13 years old. Although the loss was gradual, he remembers the day when he realized he truly couldn't see.
"I was losing it by bits and pieces for years, but my brain was protecting itself, and I could make excuses why I couldn't see," he said. "Then one day right before my freshman year I went to take a step and couldn't see where I was going."
To say that he immediately adapted to being blind and began pushing boundaries would be wrong. Weihenmayer recalls several years of being angry and unable to connect with his new reality. Although his family was very supportive and urged him toward pushing through the anger, ultimately the change, he said, had to come from him. He says there was no one transformative "aha" moment, but rather a series of several incidents that changed his outlook. One such moment that he remembers clearly took place when he was on a dock with his family at age 15. He wanted to walk down the dock but didn't want to use his cane.
"My parents kept telling me to use my cane and that I would be safer, but I didn't want to. I didn't want to need it, and I didn't want to be blind," he recalls. Moments later he fell off the dock and landed on his back on the deck of a boat. Although he wasn't seriously hurt, the message to him was loud and clear: He was blind and needed to use his cane and had better get used to it.
"I was just frustrated and felt shoved to the sidelines. I could hear the happiness and joy of my friends and family around me, but I wasn't a part of it," says Weihenmayer. "I realized it didn't really matter what I wished my situation was because unless I started confronting reality and getting back in the thick of things, I wasn't going to be around much longer."
And so he did. Weihenmayer began to push his boundaries by joining the wrestling team in high school. Soon he began to realize that he was more capable than he realized. He credits these early experiences to his family's support. Sadly, his mother was killed in a car crash when he was 16, but he remembers that she always was his biggest cheerleader and always found ways for him to try things and be included. After her death, his father took on a bigger supporting role and helped him navigate his next adventures. 
Weihenmayer recalls, for example, being in college and telling his father he wanted to skydive. Instead of following his first reaction of saying no and that it was too dangerous, his father discussed with him the reasons he wanted to skydive, what it meant, what the consequences were, and if he had a plan on how to execute it. After hearing out young Erik, his father told him to go for it.
"He wanted to make sure I had thought it through and wasn't being crazy," he says. "Once he realized I was being very methodical, he said, ‘I can be anti-everything Erik wants to do or I can be your partner. I want to be your partner.' It was pretty miraculous for him to do that and he is still doing that."
Today, Weihenmayer's father still supports his son, as do Weihenmayer's wife and two children. Weihenmayer has devoted himself to helping others reach their full potential. He is the author of the memoir "Touch the Top of the World" and co-author of "The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness."
Weihenmayer also appears in "Farther Than the Eye Can See," a documentary of his Everest climb, and three other films. He has won numerous awards and has carried the torches in both summer and winter Olympic Games. His books and motivational talks are aspects of that desire to help others. But Weihenmayer also "walks the walk" by working with programs that foster leadership.
His outreach includes helping start a nonprofit organization, No Barriers, which brings people together into a community that shares ideas to achieve challenging goals. Through Global Explorers, Weihenmayer has worked with students to become responsible citizens who strive to make the world a more equitable, sustainable place now and for generations to come. Under the same umbrella, the unique Soldiers to Summits program uses mountaineering as a metaphor to help disabled veterans reintegrate into society. And Blind Skiers Edge is a program that enhances the skiing experience for people who are blind.
Weihenmayer's goal is to make the No Barriers program and mindset a household word. "It's not to say that there is a lack of barriers—there are lots of barriers—but what are the tools we can find to break them down?" he says. "If I could choose my legacy, I want to be the person who not only taught this mindset but also lived it and passed it on to future generations."
To learn more about Erik Weihenmayer's story and programs visit his website. Read more about ASHA's Annie Award at the ASHA website.
Kellie Rowden-Racette is the print and online editor for the ASHA Leader.
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October 2013
Volume 18, Issue 10