Matt King believes that obstacles are opportunities in disguise. Born with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable eye disease that gradually destroys the retina and optic nerve, he lost his sight during his freshman year at Notre Dame. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude with a double major in electrical engineering and music. Today, he’s a tandem cycling Paralympian and enjoys a career at IBM, where he specializes in developing Internet Technology (IT) for people with disabilities.
“I made the transition into IT,” he says, “because of my desire to help solve access problems.” He’s contributing to the progress in that arena by creating accessible technologies that are built-in rather than designed as an afterthought, which is often what has been done in the past.
King knows first-hand about barriers to access.
As a new college student, he not only had to master his freshman coursework, but also learn Braille. At the same time, he gave up his beloved bike—a passion from childhood—to learn to walk with white-tipped cane.
Finding his path unpaved, he coordinated a community of support that helped keep him on track throughout his academic career. He organized a paid team to make sure he had all the scholastic materials he needed to succeed. He even designed a makeshift recording studio for Team King to record his reading assignments for him—a personal library of “books on tape.” Sounds like double the work, but when you ask King about his Notre Dame experience, he exclaims: “It was awesome, it was great!”
Also contributing to a great college experience was the fact that his instructors didn’t expect any less from him: “I never encountered a professor who had any notion of lowering the bar. In high school I spent more time fighting those who wanted it lowered,” said King.
During one fateful day at Notre Dame in 1995, King picked up a newsletter published by the American Council of the Blind. In the newsletter he learned of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes and signed up for their camp because it sounded like fun. He discovered he had a natural talent, shocking the competition by emerging as a front runner in the tandem-cycling scene, eventually proving himself to be one of the best in the sport in the world. He competed in the Paralympics in Atlanta, GA, in 1996, in Sydney, Australia, in 2000 and in Athens, Greece, in 2004, leaving in his wake a collection of world records, medals and titles: His success confirmed his realization that the biggest mistake you can make is to stay away from something because of a disability. King first discovered his love for biking at only five years old. A constant companion during his youth, his bike provided transportation as well as a means to do his first job, a paper route. He says he always tried to keep to the speed limit, but still remembers the day when he was 17 and rearended a car carrying one of the most popular girls from high school.
Today, King is passionate about motivational speaking. He talks to students, service organizations and corporations around the country. He is also actively involved in mentoring children at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind and through IBM’s MentorPlace program. He believes that if children grow up with an attitude that a disability is a challenge instead of a roadblock, they will be happier and more successful adults.
During one of King’s mentoring experiences, a nineyear-old girl asked him if it was hard being blind. He responded:
This is a good question, and I hope I can answer it in a way that will make sense to you. Even though it’s not easy to explain being blind, I think it is very important that I do try and help people understand. If more people understood what I am about to explain to you, life for blind people would be much easier.
In everyday life, I do not think about being blind very much at all. It is sort of like how most people don’t think very often about the color of their skin or hair. They just are who they are and that is that. But, once in a while, it is difficult. Once in a while, a new obstacle pops up because I am blind. When that happens, though, I don’t get mad about being blind. I just treat the obstacles like any other challenge in my life. It is like when you have a problem reaching something because you are not as tall as adults. You probably don’t get mad about being short, right? You start looking around for a way to reach what you want.
King currently lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Kim, and his two children, Lavyn, five, and Spencer, two. As a child, growing up in Centralia, Washington— about an hour and a half south of Seattle— he recalls that his parents treated him no differently than his other five siblings.
“My parents did a great favor for me by not protecting me. They let me fail and work through problems,” King said, adding, “I didn’t focus on what I couldn’t do.”
But as a teenager, King found blindness very difficult to handle. He couldn’t walk by himself at night or in dim lighting, he couldn’t read normal print without bright lights and magnification. He also faced the ridicule of schoolmates who used names like “blindo” and “klutz,” which didn’t help. But he was lucky to have the constant support and help of his younger brother, Steve, whom he relied on for back-up eyesight. “We were constant companions. He’d pick up where my eyes left off in all kinds of circumstances whether it was something mundane like reading product packaging in a store or more exciting like helping me figure out how to navigate our dirt bike through a particularly dark section of woods. In the winter, when daylight was short, he took over the responsibility of delivering the papers on our shared newspaper route.”
Throughout his life when blindness has presented a new obstacle, he’s been determined to clear the hurdle. From staying on a bike to learning Braille to creating equal access as an IBM accessibility, end-user advocate, he’s held the course. His IBM job is physically located in New York, but meeting another challenge to train for the 2000 Paralympic Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the company allowed him to live and work in Colorado where he’s been since.
At home, King says that being blind isn’t a huge factor in his role as a father, either. “I don’t think my challenges as a parent are very different from the typical parent. Like any couple, my wife and I divide responsibilities along many different lines, depending on our various strengths. For example,” he jokes, “I don’t drive.”
by Lisa Wells