Mike Robertson, Cross-Country Cyclist Who Is Visually Impaired, Challenges Blindness and Disability Employment Stereotypes

Mike Robertson and his riding partner standing in front of a lighthouse on the coast with their bikes on the ground in front of them

On June 26, 2017, Mike Robertson and Hans Breaux, team Shared Vision Quest, left Cape Flattery, WA, on the northwest corner of the country to ride their bicycles 4,000 miles, coast-to-coast, to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine. Forty-nine days later, the pair arrived at their destination on August 8, 2017. Their adventure was different from many other treks across the country because Mike Robertson is legally blind. Mike rode independently on a lightweight Carver bicycle, following Hans Breaux, using a two-way radio for support with obstacles and road conditions. During the trip, Mike surmounted dehydration, being run off the road by a truck, and tumbling over a road barricade!

In an interview before their adventure, Mike reported that one of his goals for the ride was to bring awareness to the abilities of individuals with vision loss and challenge some of the stereotypes about blindness.

Since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Mike’s ride is finished, I wanted to ask him a few questions about these challenges and stereotypes, how to overcome them, and what was next on his bucket list.

Overcoming Employment Challenges Related to Vision Loss

Steve Kelley: The unemployment rates for individuals who are blind or visually impaired are not good. If you could, suspend your notions of what might be at the root of this problem—employers’ beliefs, stereotypes, institutions—and focus instead on the individual looking for a job, what could that person be doing to achieve greater success in the job hunt?

Mike Robertson: That’s difficult to answer because, just like every visual impairment, it is very personal. In general, you have to do your homework. You need to learn about the company and people you’re interviewing with and your potential boss. You have to take those steps to make yourself more appealing to them. You have to do that whether you have a disability or not. You have to want it, be willing to step out of your comfort zone, and put in the work to get a job.

Mike Robertson from Shared Vision Quest riding his bike down the street

Steve Kelley: This mindset is similar to what you did with your trip across the country.

Mike Robertson: Yes. That was a year’s work, a lot of work, and research on equipment, bikes, gear for the bikes, the mapping of the route, camping gear, transportation, 14-18 hour days just getting to the starting line for a 49-day ride! A year’s worth of work for six and a half weeks! Anytime you want to do anything, go on a trip, get a job, even a trip to the local post office, you have to create a plan in your mind. You have to use this same mindset to figure out how you are going to get that job you want.

Addressing Workplace Accommodations

SK: As you pointed out, this process is no different for someone without a disability. But with a disability, you have an added dimension that you have to be prepared for in both the interview and on the job.

MR: The question may come up. "How are you going to accomplish that task?" Well, I’m going to get a CCTV so that I can read print; I’m going to get an OCR (optical character recognition software) so that I can do X,Y, or Z. If you sound competent and confident, like you know what you’re doing, the employer will recognize that you are capable. I know it can be embarrassing and tough to be in those situations. I liken it to a single mom who goes in for an interview and gets asked, "What are you going to do for daycare?" Those questions are not supposed to be asked, but they come up.

SK: Did these sort of questions come up with you and Hans before your trip?

Two bike riders from Shared Vision Quest riding on a paved road

MR: We just winged it. We’ve ridden on the Trek (Trek Across Maine) for a couple of years, so we discussed different possibilities. We had the radios in place; we used the "Push to Talk" radios to be hands-free. We put all those tools in place so while we were on the road, we didn’t have to have that conversation.

That’s what people have to do to find employment—they have to have that conversation with themselves. I would say that people with a visual disability have to plan ahead, to the nth degree, every move we make, every day, whereas people with no disability are able to go on autopilot because they don’t always have to have that conscious thought of "how am I going to get to work?" They just get in the car and go. They don’t ask, "how am I going to read this material at the seminar?" We have the skill set to do the work; we just have to want to do the work! That statement right there is an advantage in a job interview. These are some of the things I’ve had to overcome in my life—there’s very little this organization is going to throw at me that is going to rattle me.

You have to develop these problem-solving skills. You can’t expect some social service agency to come in and do it for you. There’s no magic pill. In some situations, you can have these skills taught to you, but you have to practice those skills.

Convincing a Potential Employer to Hire You

SK: Let’s assume you’ve done your homework, and you’ve gotten your foot in the door, how do you convince a potential employer that you are capable without finding yourself on the defensive about your vision?

MR: From my previous experience, I just try to stick to the facts and sound as knowledgeable and capable as I can. I think at the end of the day, unless you’re a blind person applying for a truck driver’s job, employers just want somebody who’s going to be there, be competent, and do a good job. I think employers sometimes get wrapped up in the Americans with Disabilities Act description of "reasonable accommodation," and nobody really knows what that means, and what they might have to put out.

Planning the Next Cross Country Trip

Mike Robertson from Shared Vision Quest standing outside with this bike in front of a road sign stating blind person in area

SK: Are there any things you would incorporate into your next ride?

MR: There were no failures on the trip, just obstacles to be overcome and lessons to be learned. The only way I could have failed on that trip is if I packed it up, parked the bike, and said, "I’m done." That would be failure to me, and I would have had to be in pieces to have done that.

I’d like to do a lot more speaking. I would go to organizations like the Lions and Rotary Clubs. I would have a less direct route that was more conducive to traveling the extra miles to go to a club and talk to them because even though we got a lot of media coverage, there’s nothing like seeing the person, having them see the bikes, lift the bikes, hearing the passion in their voice, and talking to them directly. You just can’t get that with a 10-second news clip on TV or a newspaper article.

SK: Any other thoughts about the coast-to-coast ride?

MR: I can say I’m glad it’s over at this point. When we wrapped up, I just wanted to turn back around and keep riding because I did not want it to be over. I kept thinking, once I got off the bike and into a vehicle, it was going to be over. Now, that I’m acclimated back to reality, it’s time to plan the next adventure, and I’m looking at how I can bring other people together who want to do the same thing on a bigger scale.

But I think the next trip for me may be a solo trip across the country. I’m going to start sending out letters to companies like Google, MIT, Tesla, and Toyota, that have the technology to build driverless cars, and ask them to convert that technology for bicycles so that I will get audible alerts for obstacles in the road, turn-by-turn directions, indication of when the traffic light is red. Can they do it? Is somebody willing to take that on as a project? Build a bike for the blind? That’s what I’m thinking next.