When Jeff Thompson lost his vision to angioid streaks in 1997, he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do next. He’d been working at a print shop and paused to receive rehabilitation services at Vision Loss Resource, a training center in Minnesota. He proceeded to take care of his dad for two years and then decided to get more involved in the blindness world. He gained more blindness skills at another training center and ultimately was hired as a woodworking teacher, which he did for five years.
“When I left, I had this natural knack for teaching,” Jeff says.
But as he was no longer working at a training center, he wondered just how he’d reach students – especially those getting ready to transition to college or work. After talking to a few connections, he decided he wanted to reach students across Minnesota and beyond.
And that’s when he discovered podcasting, a medium with unlimited potential to reach and teach not only people who are blind or low vision, but also those who are sighted, so they understand everything it’s possible to do with limited or no vision.
Building a multi-media platform
Jeff was briefly part of a now-defunct podcast platform based in England but decided to start his own platform: Blind Abilities. A friend and colleague, Pete Lane, who shared his interest in teaching, joined him. Together they built the website, which includes blogs and a wide range of helpful information geared toward transition-age students. But it’s helpful for people at any age and includes information on everything from iPhone basics to new technology to independent living.
But the centerpiece of Blind Abilities is the podcast, which has produced nearly 850 episodes and counting since Jeff founded it in 2015. Podcast episodes can be played on the website or on the app Jeff and Pete created. So far, there have been 1.4 million downloads on the Blind Abilities platform.
“I was always interested in audio – I do play guitar a little bit – and before I lost my eyesight I had some recording equipment,” Jeff says. “When I started creating podcasts I had to go buy a little mixer and replace some equipment. And I fell in love with it; I was using a platform I love to record audio, edit audio, and make it sound good.”
Sharing life experiences
Jeff hosts most of the podcasts, but he makes sure the guests are the center of attention. Success stories are a focal point of the podcast, with guests ranging from transitioning high school students to people who have earned doctorate degrees to people who are working in fulfilling careers.
“In our success stories, we try to show the roadmap they took and the tech tools they were using at the time, because they change all the time,” Jeff says. “But instead of it just being, ‘You climbed the mountain and you’re at the top,’ we show them all the grip holds, all the little steps they took – their successes and what was hard.”
They’ve had a number of notable guests, including leaders in the blindness field and even celebrities like John Kay, the lead singer from the band Steppenwolf, who Jeff had never realized was low vision.
In addition to topics covered in the success stories such as self-advocacy and test-taking, the podcast also provides tech demos of newly released technology. And Pete hosts an iPhone 101 podcast because new students are listening in all the time.
“We really want to meet people where they are,” Jeff says. “The doors are open for the newly blind who may not know the technology or have the confidence yet.”
Something for everyone, everywhere
The Blind Abilities podcast now has listeners worldwide. Jeff appreciates the fact that he can teach more than just one classroom of students. He can reach anyone, anywhere, on their own time.
“Whether someone is famous or climbed a mountain or whatever they’ve done, I think they all have a story that transition age students from 14 to 21 can relate to and think, ‘I can do that,’” Jeff says. He adds that the podcast isn’t just for students, but for people of all ages as well as people who help teach or advocate for students who are blind or low vision.
John’s grateful for the transition he made in his own career, going from working in a print shop with toxic fumes to becoming a teacher who can reach countless listeners at once. And he hasn’t stopped looking for innovative ways to use his platform.
“The last couple of years I’ve been trying to bridge the gap between the blindness community and the sighted community,” Jeff says. “I want to reset the expectations of sighted people so they expect more from us.”