I could see during the day pretty well but, I’ve always dealt with night blindness and not being able to see well in poorly-lit spaces. IN fact, at three-years-old my parents noticed that I was bumping into things at night so they took me to Duke University where I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, or “RP” for short.
I was remarkably accident-prone as a child because I was learning the limitations of my eyesight. For example, during the middle of the day I rarely had problems, but towards the end of the day at dusk was another story. We became regular visitors to the emergency room at St. Mary’s hospital in Knoxville. We were there so often, one time they took me and my parents to separate rooms and questioned us both about what happened. They were investigating whether or not our stories matched.
Of course, my parents were not abusing me. I was simply learning what I could and couldn’t see—the hard way. Physically, it was painful but not nearly as painful as the emotional challenges I encountered.
IN school, children would pick on me because of my eyesight. This led to several fights and confrontations. It felt shockingly unfair that I was forced to grapple with these circumstances and the stigma of being disabled, but there was nothing I could do. There was no cure for my sight problem and no known treatments. It became clear that this would be part of my life for the foreseeable future. I was constantly reminded—physically and emotionally—that I had a rougher path than my friends.
Sports had always been a large part of my life, and in high school, I welcomed the chance to play basketball, football, soccer, wrestling, as well as riding bikes, motorcycles, jet skis, and driving my car. IN each of these activities, I always felt like the underdog. I always had to overcome more than everyone else. I had more eyesight challenges. I had more challenges due to the stigma of being blind. Did I have a chip on my shoulder? Something to prove? You bet I did.
I channeled my frustration into building an intense workout schedule. Training for sports and in the weight room was cathartic, but they also instilled a level of discipline that augmented my burgeoning sense of mental toughness. I worked out religiously. During my freshman year of high school, I weighed only about 105 pounds. In My sophomore year I weighed 135 pounds, and by my senior year, I clocked in at 175 pounds with barely any fat. I had to eat an unusual number of calories combined with weight gainer shakes in order to gain any weight. My metabolism was naturally high, but my routine of basketball, football, soccer, wrestling, running, and lifting weights burned up every calorie I consumed.
Sports and working out began to reinforce what my condition had taught me. If we want to get anywhere in life, we have to learn how to bounce back from setbacks. Working out is fun at first, but there are days when it’s not fun. There are days when it’s the last thing in the world you want to do. The difference between those who don’t work out on those days and those who do is somebody wants it just a little bit more. I was the somebody who wanted it just a little more. This hardened my resolve.
This tenacity proved critical in college. It was there during my freshman year when my eyesight began to fade away. While studying for my premedical major at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, I was in an Anatomy class when I couldn’t see to identify the parts of the cadaver. My hopes and dreams for my future self were just as cold and lifeless as the corpses that laid on the table in front of me.
I had to accept that I could no longer see—not even in perfect conditions. I had to confront the grave reality of being blind. No longer could I hide my disability behind my day vision. I couldn’t pretend to be “normal” any longer. I also had to figure out what I was going to do next.
I changed my major from premedical to business. I reasoned that, once I found out what I could do, a Business Administration degree could likely help me get there. It was flexible enough to allow me to pivot in any number of directions. It seemed sensible and came with only one major problem: I would have to forego over 85 credit hours that I had accumulated towards my premedical major. They were not applicable to business school. That felt like a big punch in the gut, but despite the two-plus years I’d lost by switching majors, that problem seemed manageable compared to the fact that I was no longer able to read the printed word.
Here I was, at university, without being able to see and read the printed word. Because the very point of college is to ingest information, and all of my books were in print, with no options for electronic or audio-books, I had a real dilemma. My mother enters the story at this point and performs the heroic chore of reading each and every single one of my books to audio cassette. Night after night, she’d return home from work and sit down at our kitchen table and begin reading my textbooks to tape. Thousands of pages. Night after night. She read until her voice was worn and barely audible. She had no experience with this than any other loving mother who’d once read to their children, now, here she was reading my entire business curriculum to cassette.
Even though I now had access to the information through these audiotapes, I had always been a strong visual learner. I could even picture in my mind’s eye where the text was on the page in my notes or textbook. This gifted visual memory was of little use in my darkened reality. I literally had to relearn how to learn.
I ended up recording the lectures with a microcassette machine and listening to the lectures live, and at least two more times before an exam. I’d also read each chapter twice before the exam. I managed to create a learning system that produced better results than I thought. It turns out that I was a better blind student than a sighted student. I made straight-As in the business classes, got on the Dean’s List for the first time, and lined up a few jobs offers from world-class companies.
The experience of the job fair put me on notice though, at just how everyone else would view me as a disabled person. The stigma was palpable. Many employers reacted immediately—instinctively—without forethought or training. “Oh, wait, you have a dog?” “You mean you cannot see?” “Sorry, this job requires travel.”
At this point, I was getting used to rejection. However, two amazing companies made me offers—Accenture and CapitalOne. I accepted the offer from Accenture, which was still called Andersen Consulting at that time. We set a start date in their Atlanta offices where I agreed to relocate to.
I quickly began contemplating the fact that I was getting ready to move away to a foreign city, living by myself where I’d have to take care of groceries, laundry and dry cleaning, logistics to and from everywhere, and work—all in total darkness without a car or the ability to see. In Knoxville, I had family and friends who could help, but in Atlanta, I’d be totally on my own. And the job I accepted was not the path of least resistance. While the CapitalOne job was a regular corporate job with negligible travel, the consulting work at Accenture would require at least 75% travel where I’d constantly be in new places, new hotels, all over the world.
These thoughts terrified me. But the fear of not reaching my full potential scared me even more. The fear of letting my parents down was also greater than my fear of failing. If we’re not failing from time to time, we’re not aiming high enough.
Taking the path of least resistance was never my style. I knew even then at the age of 25, that the right thing to do is seldom the right thing to do. So, I strapped in and taught Miles, my guide dog at the time how to get us to the bus stop, to the train, through the gates at the station, through the next train station, through the maze of underground escalators and sidewalks, and up to street level. We learned the downtown Atlanta area, and eventually the airports, hotels, and every other building we visited.
After 9/11 the entire nation went into shock. The tragedy that unfolded that day counted five Accenture among those who were lost in the towers. The economy went into freefall and consulting was among the first spending areas to be cut. There were several rounds of layoffs and I knew it was inevitable that my time there would come to an end.
I’d done good work for them, but I’d always faced the stigma of hiring project managers. Even though they never came out and explicitly said it, I could sense the hesitation, as they wondered, “Can this guy really do the work?” Getting billable on a project was a lot like picking a team for a game of pickup basketball, and it was a hard sale convincing these project managers to give me a shot. My billable rate—the amount of my time that was charged to a client account—suffered from these preconceived notions. When the news came that I was being laid off I was in shock.
It was a devastating blow that leveled my confidence, pride, and dignity. Although I could understand and even justify why my billable rate suffered, it did not matter. I learned first-hand in this experience that “EXCUSES ARE FOR LOSERS.” I could sit around and list the excuses—or legitimate reasons that I failed—but none of them would change my reality. In this situation, I was still a loser. This is a lesson that I’ll never forget and it fuels me to this day.
It fueled me to teach myself how to engineer the screen reading software I use to use a computer, and it powered me to claw my way back into the workforce. I accepted a job with the Georgia Department of Labor as a disability adjudicator to get back on my feet. Ironic I know—a totally blind guy was determining whether or not people were too disabled to work. My passion was in the tech space so I left that job after several months to move to the Washington DC area where I started working for a technology services company. While there, I strengthened my technical and software coding skills, but I knew that I belonged in business.
I then moved into a role where I was conducting market intelligence for large commercial outsourcing deals. After two years, I realized that I had a passion for the financials of these megadeals. I convinced the VP in charge of the New Business Finance team that I deserved a chance to fail. I offered to take a “test,” and he took me up on it. Evidently I was able to analyze and summarize my findings of the financial models to his satisfaction. I landed the job and gained my one shot.
I didn’t let this chance pass me by. I wrote over 13,000 lines of code between my screen reading tool, JAWS for Windows, and Microsoft Excel. I wanted to make sure I could use the most advanced features of Excel effectively and efficiently.
I ended up learning all about the internal workings of Excel—how the metadata of a spreadsheet works. The Document Object Model is used to contain this information, and I learned how to direct JAWS and Excel to work together. So, I could write a few lines of code. Have Excel and JAWS talk to one another, and I’d go off and get a cup of coffee while the computer did a lot of my work for me. In fact, I became so proficient that I started building tools for our entire organization that automated many of the tasks people were doing manually. My dependency and perceived weakness of needing to use this screen reading tool became my strength, where I use that expertise to help our teams save several hours each week—injecting time into their days for higher-value analysis, influencing, and negotiations.
I later went on to work at Unisys and SRA where I picked up the craft of pricing federal IT deals. I was able to bring my understanding of commercial outsourcing deals to the federal IT space. Not only did I bring commercial best practices to the federal market, I also learned the tactics and strategies that allowed me to direct the financial guidance, strategies, and execution plans that resulted in countless jobs, billions of dollars in revenue, industry-leading growth, and best-in-class margins in tightening market conditions.
Due to my business contributions, SRA wanted to know what they could do for me. They’d already given me multiple successive promotions and were taking care of me financially, but they wanted to do more. And, for some strange reason, I said, “Send me to Harvard.” And for some stranger reason, they said, “Okay.”
I went on to become the first blind graduate of the Harvard leadership program, built software that tech giants thought impossible, and wrote software that created job opportunities for millions of blind people. None of us can control our circumstances, but we can all control our effort. The difference between success and failure is picking yourself up off the floor, just one more time. We all get knocked down. We all feel hopeless from time to time. The difference is how we choose to respond.
Life is going to knock you down. It floors everyone from time to time. The next time it does it, will you lay there, or will you choose to get up again? Remember, you just need to get up, one more time.
By Chad E. Foster
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