Reprinted Articles

An Excerpt from the Blog of Christine Ha: 2012 MasterChef Winner

MasterChef has been the craziest, most stressful, most intense, yet most amazing experience of my life thus far. Even though we had long sixteen-hour days of being on set, even though we had dozens of sleepless fitful nights, even though we all developed some sort of addiction or anxiety due to the stress of not knowing what would happen each day, even though we all had trouble adjusting back to our “normal” lives once the show was over; this has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

To the family I made at MasterChef. I know I speak for many of us contestants not only from this season but from previous seasons as well when I say the kinship I’ve formed from being on the show means more to me than any prize. I’ve said it countless times before, and I’ll say it again: having met all these folks from such different walks of life than mine; with different ideals than mine; from different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures than mine; and to have us all bond over such a simple yet universal thing such as food are the most wonderful gifts I can take away from this experience. It continually proves my strong belief that food brings all people together. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Libya or the U.S., gay or heterosexual, Catholic or Muslim, Republican or Democrat, eighty or eight years of age, man or woman–you can sit together and share in a meal and be consumed with love and respect for one another. Everyone in this world needs food for sustenance, and when it tastes divine and reflects a person’s heritage or region, it’s even more beautiful. That is why, above all else, I love food so much–food has the supernatural ability to bring two unlikely human beings together. And MasterChef is utter proof of that phenomenon. These people I’ve met on the show have become my foodie family for life. It is impossible not to love and bond with those who went through the same physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding experiences as me; those whom I ate, drank, cooked, used the bathroom, conversed, napped, played games, changed clothes, did laundry, cried and laughed with day in and day out; those whom I spent twenty hours a day with less the four hours spent isolated in my own hotel room at night; those who were there by my side through the thick and thin of it while my ties from the routines, comforts, and friends and family from home were severed for the whole of sixty-plus days. It was culinary boot camp, and I am grateful for the relationships I’ve formed with the other contestants. Believe me when I say that these mean more to me than the monetary prize, the cookbook deal, the title. I share this title of MasterChef with all those who cooked alongside me in that kitchen.

To the people I’ve reached all over the world. Over the past few months as “MasterChef” unfolded on small screens across America, I’ve received a plethora of mail from people wanting to share their stories with me. There is the teenager who found the courage to try out for her high school soccer team. There are the parents of a child with vision or hearing impairment or paraplegia who now believe their child can achieve something great in life in spite of hard circumstances. There is the newly widowed, the recovering alcoholic or addict, the cancer patient, the unemployed, and the prison inmate who feel inspired to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and demand higher standards for themselves and their future. There is the starving artist who decided not to compromise his passion for theater, film, literature, art. There is the young man who was shunned by his community because of his recent admission of his sexual orientation who found hope and saw light at the end of the dark, dark tunnel. There is the twelve-year-old who wants to pursue culinary school despite others telling her there is no way she can do it because she is autistic or blind. All these people have reached out to tell me that my story has given them some sort of hope. Yes, I hear “you’re such an inspiration” all the time, and sometimes I worry about being patronized or becoming jaded. But when I sit back and think about the impact I’ve had on each individual who took the time out to write or tweet me, and then I think about all the hundreds or thousands more whom I’ve touched but who have not communicated with me to tell me so, and then I’m overwhelmed with such inexplicable joy and humility. There is greater purpose to all this, and I have faith that my story and ability to affect others stretch beyond MasterChef. MasterChef is just a stepping stone to what I can and hope to do for this world in my lifetime. I used to pray that if I could just influence one or two people with the story of my struggles, then I would feel fulfilled and acknowledge that my pain and suffering happened for a reason. But the fact that I now know I’ve touched so many more than just one or two…well, I can only say the blessings are seven hundred-fold. I am beginning to understand why my life unfolded in the way it did, and for that, I would not change a thing.

Excerpt published with permission. The full blog post can be found here: http://www.theblindcook.com/thoughts-on-winning-masterchef-usa-2012/

The Biggest Fan

Ziegler reader Eric Calhoun sent me the following article that was recently written about him.  It was originally written by Matt Stevens and published by The Daily Bruin on May 25, 2010.  It is being reprinted with permission from both Mr. Stevens and The Daily Bruin.

The Biggest Fan, by Matt Stevens

I forgot to ask him this, but I wonder if Eric Calhoun knows what a baseball looks like.

When he feels the smooth, slippery leather or hears it pop against his hand, what does he visualize in his head?

I wonder if he knows that those little notches on either side of the ball are red.

Calhoun is UCLA’s biggest baseball fan. USC’s too. He’s been coming to Jackie Robinson Stadium every spring since 1997 – but it’s never been easy for him.

To go to a UCLA baseball game, Calhoun has to walk with his thin metal folding stick to the bus stop, take the bus to Westwood, negotiate another ride from the bus stop to Jackie Robinson Stadium, make his way down an awkward grass hill, up three flights of stairs, and then back down the bleachers to an open seat. Then he does the whole thing over again after 11 p.m. to go home to Crenshaw.

If the team goes south to San Diego, Calhoun heads south too. A two-hour ride on the Greyhound, then a few minutes on the trolley, and he’s there in no time.

But these synopses of his game-day routines fail to mention impatient bus drivers who yell at him, arrogant pedestrians who think he needs help when he’s really doing just fine, and the fact that the bus and baseball game cost money – money the unemployed and unemployable Calhoun does not have.

But don’t offer him a ride home if you plan on leaving early. Calhoun will never sacrifice a few pitches for the sake of beating traffic. He once stayed at a Cal State Fullerton game until it ended at 1:30 a.m. He didn’t get home until after 3 a.m.

Calhoun loves baseball so much that he attends minor league and inexpensive pro ball when college baseball isn’t in season.

And yet he can’t see any of it. This 36-year-old man has been blind since the day he was born.

So how is it possible for him to love something without any ocular proof that it exists?

It took eight hours of driving, eating and watching a UCLA versus USC baseball game with Calhoun to start to understand what motivates him to come to Westwood over and over again.

If anything became clear by the end of the night, it was this: Even though he’s never felt the satisfaction of bat hitting ball, Calhoun loves the game of baseball and wants to get as close to it as he can, whenever he can.

5:17 p.m.

Calhoun and I talk baseball on the ride to the game in Westwood, and one would assume he was the sports writer from San Diego, not me. He lectures me about how the Padres’ triple-A farm team in Portland, Ore., might be planning to move to Arizona, and he tells me to read Voice of San Diego – an online newspaper in my hometown that I didn’t know existed.

My skepticism eventually prevails, and I ask him how he knows whom to trust when asking for a ride after he gets off the bus in San Diego.

“I always ask questions,” he says.

“Don’t you have someone who can come with you?” I wonder aloud.

“No, I come on my own.”

6:22 p.m.

I hold my breath as Calhoun holds my arm, and we make our way up the stairs. It’s a packed house. Before I can stop him, Calhoun yells, “Where the Trojans at?” which raises a cheer as we are indeed in the USC fan area. He veers away from the security of my arm, feels a rail and proclaims, “I know where I’m at.” Then he hops down each stair one at a time.

A man in the top row looks at Calhoun and urges me to “tell him there’s no seats here.” This man presumably wants Calhoun to avoid the embarrassment of unknowingly sitting on someone’s lap.

“Come on, man,” he says, his eyes stern. “Tell him.”

My eyes search for Calhoun, and there he is, already in an aisle seat that someone must have moved out of to make room for him.

6:41 p.m.

“Strike inside corner – infielders shifting right.”

Alfred Oropesa, the father of a USC slugger, is accustomed to giving Calhoun his best play-by-play while sitting a row behind him.

So everyone at USC knows Calhoun too?

“He’s the No. 1 fan,” Oropesa says authoritatively. “If I had a choice, I’d put a jersey on him and put him in the dugout to pump (USC) up.”

“Come on, Beanie,” Calhoun yells, proving Oropesa’s point. “You’re laboring, you’re laboring!”

Then a few pitches later: “Come on! Quit love tappin’ the ball! Love tap your girlfriend!”

“He can’t see,” Oropesa says. “But at the same time he knows.”

8:30 p.m.

It’s the bottom of the fifth and time for food. The $6 cash I have won’t be enough for everything Calhoun wanted: a cheeseburger, peanuts and a Sprite.

But as I walk up the stairs to report the bad news, a woman is holding out a $5 bill.

I utter a thank you, pay for the food and then return to thank the kind donor, Canace Smith, another baseball parent.

“He can’t work,” she says. “We know the reality of his situation. If he’s going to come out here, we’re going to take care of him.”

Smith explains to me that at USC, Calhoun often doesn’t show up until after the seventh inning – the point after which admission is free. She finds this to be an injustice considering Calhoun “has to do stuff we don’t even think about to get to games.”

“He really should be able to get in free,” Smith says. “Of all things, we should be petitioning to get Calhoun a season pass.”

8:48 p.m.

When I return to my seat, the enthusiastic Calhoun is subdued, eating. For the next 15 minutes he barely says a word, focusing on the art of breaking peanut shells and then pushing the peanut up toward his mouth so as not to lose the precious nut inside.

There’s Calhoun – a grown man who lives with his mother, curled up in two thick black jackets with raggedy old sweatpants and dusty black shoes – struggling to eat. His eyes, shadowed by his hood, are open but in the corner of his sockets. At this particular moment, Calhoun looks intimidating and secluded.

11:11 p.m.

I discover more things about Calhoun on the drive home: He’s an alumnus of North Torrance High School – a place he revisits for football games. He first became a fan of baseball by following a friend of a friend who played pro ball and hasn’t stopped loving the game since – he even tried to throw the ball around in high school.

“I liked it,” he says. “But I didn’t stay with it.”

Those words were the first I really heard all night. They struck me because they underscore a critical point about the nature of sports.

It doesn’t take much to make a young sports fan stop playing the game he loves. If, like me, you have a minor disability or a hand-eye coordination problem, your athletic career is really over by age 8.

But unlike the rest of us who at least get the chance to try, Calhoun never really did.

Even the last person picked for the team got a game-winning hit once. And even the benchwarmers like me got to be part of a team – a group of guys who would be there to lift you into the air that one time in a million that you got that hit.

Calhoun never got to experience any of that.

“(But) I never bad-mouthed my own blindness,” Calhoun says as if on cue. “I was always on the patient side. I find that sometimes people say they hate being blind. I don’t like that. That tells me they’re not paying attention to what they have.”

11:48 p.m.

We pull up to the Calhoun house, walk through a chipped white wooden door and enter a front room that is essentially a standing room only thanks to an infinite amount of clutter. Calhoun disappears into a back room and emerges with his mother Lorine Calhoun, who he woke from her slumber so she could talk to us.

After he steps out to visit a neighbor, I stay to talk with Lorine Calhoun about her son’s past.

Lorine Calhoun once went to the trouble of filing a class action suit on her son’s behalf to try to get Supplemental Security Income in the Virgin Islands where they lived. She wanted the challenge to make it to the Supreme Court.

“But it never got through,” she admits.

I ask her what the hardest part about raising her son was, and she responds before I finish the question.

“Finding out he was blind,” she says, her voice trembling. “Each nurse that gave him to me said he had been humming. So I said, ‘Give me Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles.’”

Calhoun’s mother knew her son was blind from the moment she saw him. Babies only hum, she rationalizes, if they have to keep themselves company. And normal babies would smile and laugh – but not her son.

“He had a slight smile, because he could see a little bit when he was born, and that went away,” Calhoun’s mother says.

“That’s why, after birth, he has never really laughed, never really smiled whole-heartedly.”

“But he sure seems to love baseball,” I offer with encouragement.

“Because he was blind, he went to school all his life,” Lorine Calhoun says. “We’re talking elementary school all the way through and every summer school. He didn’t have a chance to enjoy sports. … He couldn’t even go to the games or anything because he had so much work to make up. He was deprived and robbed of sports in high school.”

I remember that last line punching me in the gut especially hard.

That was the late moment at which I began to truly understand at least one facet of Eric Calhoun’s love for baseball. At some fundamental level, he and I were both kids with disabilities that robbed us of our love. And here we both were, Calhoun satiating his passion by going to college baseball games, and me doing exactly the same, getting close to sports through my ability to write about them.

But that wasn’t the only reason Calhoun loves baseball. Baseball gives Calhoun camaraderie, a second family, a comfortable home. Just as a third baseman feels most comfortable on the infield dirt, six feet off the bag, Calhoun loves sitting in his aisle seat a foot away from the handrail.

At Jackie Robinson Stadium, no bus driver yells at him; no pedestrian angrily pushes him across the street. Here they cheer for him and with him. Here he never goes hungry.

That’s why he never complains about being blind. He lives out his own mantra and realizes what he has. For all the effort Calhoun gives to baseball, baseball pays him back every time.

So it really doesn’t matter if Calhoun knows what a baseball looks like.

He loves the game just the same.

To access the original article on The Daily Bruin website, please go to http://www.dailybruin.com/articles/2010/5/25/biggest-fan/

The Blind Driver Challenge

This article was brought to my attention by its writer, Donna Hill, who is also a Ziegler reader.  It was originally published by Suite 101.

The Blind Driver Challenge: How Will Virginia Tech’s Car for Blind People Affect Society

Written by: Donna W. Hill

First published Feb. 18, 2010 by Suite 101

In January, England’s Daily Mail reported the Portsmouth City Council decision to provide taxi applications in Braille. This caused quite a chuckle worldwide, making it to NPR’s humorous weekly news retrospective Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. But, will blind people have the last laugh? Virginia Tech and the NFB are developing a car that blind drivers can operate.

Virginia Tech Accepts Blind Driver Challenge

In 2004, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB): http://www.nfb.org, challenged America’s universities to design a car that blind people could drive. They didn’t want a car that did everything for its occupants; but one with which the driver would have to interact. Virginia Tech accepted the challenge.

The NFB is working with the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) on a “buggy” which relays information non-visually. Last summer, Mark Riccobono, Executive Director of the NFB’s Jernigan Institute (Baltimore), was the first blind person to drive the car. Then, twenty blind kids drove it around a University of Maryland parking lot during Youth Slam:

http://www.blindscience.org/ncbys/Youth_Slam.asp?SnID=1059802266

NFB’s two-week summer camp for blind teens.

Why are Blind People Pursuing a Drivable Car?

Initially, the idea that the NFB would be interested in developing such a car seems contradictory. The nonprofit organization stresses that blindness, with proper training and tools, can be reduced to a nuisance. The fact that blind people travel independently without driving is often used to illustrate the human capacity for finding alternative ways to accomplish goals. The Blind Drivers Challenge (BDC) is not looking for a quick fix for basic mobility.

The primary motivation is the belief in the inestimable value of scientific research. Office workers using scanners are already benefiting from technology developed to enable blind people to access print. Nonetheless, there is a gap between non-visual access technology and general technology.

In an interview with Suite 101, Riccobono said that in an effort to be sleek and visually appealing, technology is moving in a direction which reduces accessibility for everyone. Modern engineering is more strongly biased toward visual access than ever. This makes things harder for sighted people as well as the blind.

“On the one hand,” says Riccobono, “We are passing laws to encourage drivers to keep their eyes on the road, and on the other, manufacturers are using new systems that force the driver to look away.”

Riccobono points to radio, heat and air conditioning controls on newer cars. It is not necessary for them to be visual.

“You used to be able to reach down without looking and turn a knob or use a slider switch,” he states, “but now these controls are on flat-panel screens.”

Blind Imagination: Changing Minds to Help Everyone

The technological trend toward visual access creates the need for adaptations and separate devices to make products accessible to blind people. Since the market is small, costs are high. Designing products that work for everyone lowers costs. In addition, sighted consumers benefit from non-visual access.

Sighted people already want technology developed for the blind. Talking calculators are easier on the eyes than confirming every entry visually. The KNFB Mobile Reader, a Nokia-phone-based application developed by Kurzweil and the NFB, can take a picture of a French menu and read it in English.

“When sighted people realize what it does,” Riccobono says, “they want it.”

The NFB-BDC wants to make non-visual access part of every engineer’s imagination. Projects like the Virginia Tech car excite scientists. Through their interactions with blind people, they become open to new approaches.

Blind Drivers: Breaking the Bonds of Low Expectations

The NFB-BDC seeks to reframe the general public’s perceptions of blindness. The need is overwhelming. Despite the successes of blind people working as engineers, chemists, lawyers, mechanics and professionals in many fields, unemployment among blind Americans is seventy percent. With many schools refusing to teach Braille, blind children, of whom little is expected, are forced to settle for a substandard education. The NFB hopes that putting blind people behind the wheel will open doors for talented people to contribute to society, regardless of their visual acuity.

The automobile has powerful symbolic meaning. Driving and the independence it suggests are so fundamental, that many can’t imagine life without it. This perspective creates more barriers for the blind than lack of sight.

In his Braille Monitor article  “Driving Independence and Innovation through Imagination,” (December, 2009) Mark Riccobono writes that Through the Blind Driver Challenge, the NFB, is “creating opportunities for the public to view the blind as individuals with capacity, ambition, and a drive for greater independence.”

Driving Blind: the Future

Riccobono states that the NFB plans to have a safe, road-worthy, American-made blind-driven automobile, by its July, 2011 convention in Orlando. Of his driving experience he says, “It was a Glimpse into the future. The possibilities are endless! It gave me the tangible sense that we could build the technology that does put us in the driver’s seat and allows us to use our capacity to think.   The only things stopping us are our imagination and determination.”

The Starting Point: One Woman’s Journey to Independence

Reprinted with permission from the May/June 2009 issue of Lifeglow magazine.

The Starting Point: One Woman’s Journey to Independence

Nichole Kraft

“It all started with my dreams,” she says. When 30-year-old Adrijana Prokopenko dreams, she dreams with a depth and breadth that might intimidate others. But Adrijana isn’t one to be intimidated-not when her dreams are a reflection of her passion for personal independence. On February 2, 1979, Adrijana greeted the world three months earlier than her parents had expected. Her early arrival meant that Adrijana would be required to spend two and a half months in the hospital in. The state-sponsored hospital in Skopje, the capital city of the Republic of Macedonia and Adrijana’s hometown, wasn’t the most ideal setting for an infant born three months premature. Adrijana lived in an incubator, which she says was “pretty old and made some time after the Second World War.” Also, there was only one nurse for every 15 babies. In her out-of-date incubator and with less care than she required, Adrijana was exposed to high levels of oxygen. The result was oxygen toxicity. Two and a half months later Adrijana emerged from the hospital healthy, but with no vision. Adrijana’s parents, although saddened for their daughter, were proactive. “I am sure they went through the grieving period,” she says, “but at the same time, they did all they could to learn more about blindness and get some professional help.” Professional help came in the form of Dimitar Vlahov, a school for blind and visually impaired children. Adrijana remembers that her mother and father got to know one of the school’s teachers. The teacher showed them how to care for, teach, and interact with Adrijana. Though they were grateful for the help, they knew their daughter would need more. “Unfortunately,” recounts Adrijana, “they didn’t get much support. The state didn’t have any other programs to help parents of blind children. Therefore, I never had the chance to go to a regular kindergarten or attend any kind of preschool program.” The world Adrijana and her parents had found themselves thrust into was a challenging one. “If one is blind and lives in this country, he or she mainly relies on family and friends for almost everything-from getting around, to getting help with schoolwork, to shopping. We don’t have any blind professionals who are knowledgeable in the fields of orientation and mobility and there are not any guide dog training schools,” Adrijana says. Adrijana’s chances of an independent life didn’t look good. But, she was a bright and inquisitive student, and she didn’t care. Throughout most of her elementary and secondary education, there were no materials in Braille. This meant extra effort on Adrijana’s part. “I had to transcribe my own textbooks into Braille with the help of my parents,” Adrijana remembers. Adrijana had begun to carve out personal independence, despite the obstacles. It was during this time of hard work that Adrijana’s dreaming became more focused. By age 15, she had fallen in love with the English language and aspired to become an English teacher. A year after graduating from high school, Adrijana was awarded a scholarship from Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. Always eager to experience life fully, Adrijana was attracted to Overbrook’s International Program. “I could imagine myself in all kinds of situations,” she says, “doing all kinds of things I desired to do.” But besides being thrilled about traveling overseas and learning a new culture, Adrijana realized the practical side of studying at Overbrook. “I also knew it was very necessary for me to acquire all the skills they taught, because I knew [learning them] would help me throughout university and in the future.” Adrijana attended Overbrook for nine months. She studied leadership, English, computer skills, and orientation and mobility. But that wasn’t all. Adrijana was also exposed to American culture. She and her fellow Overbrook students participated in choirs, went skiing, and toured historical American sights such as the Liberty Bell and Capitol Hill. “There was never a dull moment in my life while at Overbrook,” Adrijana says. Adrijana was granted another scholarship-this time to the Eastern Mediterranean University of North Cyprus. Starting in 1999 as an English language teaching major, Adrijana recounts that she was a new experience for the university. “I was the first blind student they had there, and although they lacked most of the resources [I needed], such as materials in alternative formats, readers, and orientation and mobility professionals, they accepted me as no different from the rest of the students.” Adrijana was back to brailing most of her academic materials, but this was the least of her challenges. While most people were friendly and welcoming, life in the dormitory “was not the best.” Most of Adrijana’s fellow dorm residents only spoke Turkish “and their attitudes towards blind people were not [as accepting as] the ones most university students would have….I constantly faced problems and often had to keep some amount of food, water and other basic necessities in well hidden places, in case all else that was in the fridge or kitchen was mysteriously gone.” Adrijana’s determination and desire for independence had gotten her this far, and she was focused on making her time at the university worth it. “Despite all odds,” she says, “I tried to enjoy my life there, with a few of my good friends.” Adrijana graduated with her degree in 2003, and found herself drawn homeward to Macedonia. “I was sure that many blind people could achieve much more, if they were given the proper training and support. I just had a strong desire to help people and make their life a bit easier.” And so Adrijana returned to where her dreams for independence began-the city of Skopje. “Very difficult” are the words Adrijana uses when describing her job search in Macedonia. Despite being a competent woman holding an English teaching degree, Adrijana’s blindness kept her on the fringes of the job market, even though in Macedonia the demand for English teachers is high. “I was able to find hundreds of jobs,” she remembers, “but as soon as I had to make that call or submit that application and tell them I was blind, that was the end of it.” Most traditional schools in Macedonia “could never imagine a blind person working as a teacher and were not eager to listen and learn how that can be possible.” About three years passed. Adrijana’s dream of teaching and helping students like herself seemed far off, at best. In 2006, however, Adrijana stumbled upon an ad placed in a newspaper by her old school, Dimitar Vlahov. The ad described the ideal job applicant to be an English teacher skilled in Braille. The position fit Adrijana perfectly. Her dream had finally materialized. Another three years have passed, and Adrijana now teaches children aged five to 17 in 19 different grade levels. Adrijana is now realizing her dream by doing what she loves-teaching children who are blind and visually impaired. “I am glad that some of my dreams became reality,” she says. “[I’m] doing what I have always wanted.” But Adrijana is quick to admit that her dream of independence wasn’t easy to attain and isn’t easy to maintain. But having a clear picture of the goal helped. “I knew what I wanted to be and do,” she says. Adrijana insists that being interdependent is actually helpful for one’s independence. “When I feel I need help, I usually turn to family, friends, colleagues, and even blindness magazines and online groups. I am a people person and when things become difficult, I try to talk to, write to, read and listen to people I admire a lot,” Adrijana says. Her personal independence is strengthened through others’ advice, support, and outlook, which is something she can give back to people around her who may be facing similar challenges. When someone seeks her counsel, Adrijana says, “I try to spend long periods of time talking to them and helping them learn things. I also do not forget to tell them to follow their dreams and desires and stay brave.” It’s a way for her to give back, a manifestation of her gratefulness to “all the people who have helped me get where I am today.” When 30-year-old Adrijana Prokopenko dreams, she dreams with a depth and breadth that might intimidate others. Or inspire them. “I face all kinds of obstacles, challenges, and drawbacks at times,” she admits. However, that doesn’t mean one should stop dreaming or stop aspiring to personal independence. After all, she says, “It all started with my dreams.”