The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blindness does not stop this beekeeper, this baker and this kayaker from expanding their vision

Penny Melville-Brown, who lost her sight when she was a British navy commander, is traveling the world, cooking with blind and sighted chefs. (Courtesy of Penny Melville-Brown)

In rural Uganda, people who are blind or visually impaired often go to the city to look for work. But jobs are hard to find, and many end up as street beggars.

Instead, Ojok Simon wants them to know about a way they can earn money without leaving home: beekeeping. Simon, 36, became visually impaired after he was severely beaten by rebels who came to his village when he was a child. He has been a beekeeper for 15 years, and in 2013 he co-founded Hive Uganda, an organization that educates advocates for visually impaired people and teaches the sightless to make a living raising honeybees.

Ojok Simon, a beekeeper, co-founded Hive Uganda, an organization that teaches visually impaired people how to make a living raising honeybees. (Video: The Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired)

This year, his organization will receive a boost: Simon is one of three winners of the first Holman Prize, given by the San Francisco nonprofit Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. There were 202 applicants from 27 countries and 35 U.S. states who submitted 90-second video pitches for their projects.

“It’s like a blind Fulbright,” Will Butler, the organization’s communication director, said of the award. The honor grants up to $25,000 each to blind and visually impaired people seeking funding for ambitious personal projects.

The prize is named for James Holman, a 19th-century British navy lieutenant who lost his sight at age 25. In those days, if a military man became blind, “the usual thing was they’d go sit in a convent or church and pray for the souls of dead English soldiers and sailors,” said Bryan Bashin, the Lighthouse’s chief executive. Holman didn’t think that sounded like fun. So, “at a time when people didn’t even think that blind people could get out of the house, he began to travel, and he became the most traveled blind person of the 19th century,” even venturing across Siberia, Bashin said.

Another winner of this year’s prize, Penny Melville-Brown of Farnham, Britain, lost her sight while she was a commander in the British Royal Navy. Her project, Baking Blind, will take her around the world to cook with blind and sighted chefs — including stops in China, Australia, Malawi and Virginia Beach, where she hopes to “link up with some navy veterans, especially blind ones, to share stories.”

Penny Melville-Brown of Farnham, U.K., will travel the world cooking with other visually impaired and sighted chefs for her "Baking Blind" project. (Video: The Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired)

Along the way she will videotape her encounters and blog about her journey. Her goal, she said, is “to show that blind people and other disabled people have got lots of get-up-and-go and ability, and they are a great resource for the rest of the community, the rest of society, and particularly employers, to use better.”

Melville-Brown was thrilled to learn she had won (“My thinking is it’s a cross between the Paralympics and ‘The Apprentice,’ with a whiff of the Nobel!” she wrote to the organizers in an email). But she also said the honor comes with a great responsibility “because I am sort of representing lots of blind people, and especially those who were candidates for the prize. I’m sort of doing it on their behalf.”

A third winner, Ahmet Ustunel, a San Francisco teacher and avid kayaker, plans to develop a guidance system to kayak solo 500 miles in locations around the world, including crossing the Bosporus from Europe to Asia in his native Turkey.

Ahmet Ustunel, a San Francisco teacher and avid kayaker, will develop a guidance system to solo kayak 500 miles in different locations around the world. (Video: The Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired)

“We were staggered by the amount of interest and the quality and diversity of the proposals,” Bashin said. “One of the biggest obstacles is our own perceptions of our capabilities, and part of the Lighthouse’s mission is to change perceptions of the abilities of the blind in all fields.”

Winners will be flown to San Francisco and work with a project manager to refine their ideas. A year later, they will return to report on their efforts.

In the Gulu district of northern Uganda, Simon’s organization has already taught 38 people how to become beekeepers by using local materials to make beehives and learning about bees’ behavior.

Ugandans prize the insects for their honey, wax (used in soap and cosmetics), propolis (a resin used to close holes in their hives) and even their venom, which can be used to boost immunity. But much of the harvesting is done in the wild, which presents a challenge for the visually impaired. Hive Uganda teaches people to use frames and assess the honey harvest by feeling how heavy they are.

Winning the Holman will allow Simon to expand the number of people he can help.

“I feel that now I’m going to be addressing the larger society … to empower East Africa in general,” he told The Washington Post. “My dream is becoming reality, and that change that I wanted, I started feeling at my fingertips.”