By the time Captain Benjamin Keeley began losing his vision, he’d already established his own company after amassing decades of experience. And today, although he’s semi-retired, he continues operating his successful business and runs a nonprofit. The fact that he has no vision in his right eye and limited vision in his left hasn’t slowed him down one bit.
Benjamin served in the U.S. Navy, first as a police officer in Guam and later as an internal communications specialist in the Navy’s fleet. He retired with the rank of petty officer, then worked in the private sector for Northern Telecom, AT&T, and the company now known as Deloitte, where he ran its worldwide solution center for internet commerce.
Following the call of the sea
Benjamin’s passion for the marine industry never waned, so he returned to school to earn his captain’s license – and title – and a master’s degree in Data Engineering. He proceeded to join Royal Caribbean cruise lines as director of its global database operations, which was when he recognized the need for a single software package that managed all of a company’s databases rather than piecing them together.
In 1999, he left Royal Caribbean to start his own company – VNS International – which originally stood for Vessel Net Solutions. Benjamin brought together all of his skills from the U.S. Navy, his captain’s license training, and his master’s degree to provide services for ships including integrated Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) packages, Human Resources procurement, reservations, ticketing, and everything else needed to operate a vessel. He officially changed the name to VNS International when he expanded to offer the same services to hotels and resorts.
After losing sight
Unfortunately, Benjamin’s time with the U.S. Navy didn’t just give him practical experience. While serving in Guam, he was exposed to Agent Orange, which was in the drinking water in toxic levels. Because of this exposure, Benjamin developed diabetes, kidney failure, and diabetic retinopathy, which is the cause of his vision loss.
“I’ve been working with the Blinded Veterans Association to prove that’s the cause of my issues, and we’re making good progress with my claim,” he says. “I’m also an ambassador for them.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has provided Benjamin with a great deal of assistance, including rehabilitation and medical care. Some of the technology he learned to use and has come to rely on are closed-circuit television (CCTV) and OrCam, which he calls his “bionic eye.”
“OrCam is a great tool that kind of looks like a memory stick, and it reads what it sees,” Benjamin explains. “It allows me to read spreadsheets, travel in the airport, and read the signs – it makes you independent.”
He admits it “drives him crazy” that he can no longer drive a ship or take a drive while listening to music, but his business and life have continued moving forward in every other way.
“There pretty much isn’t anything I can’t do that I did before, which is true for anyone in technology who is visually impaired,” he says. “When I’m working on a ship I take someone with me just to make sure I don’t fall or stick my hand somewhere it’s not supposed to be. But all my experience is still in my brain and I can pass it on. Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I can’t provide knowledge and wisdom to people.”
Helping others navigate vision loss
In fact, now that Benjamin is semi-retired after adopting his 10-year-old granddaughter, he established a nonprofit called Wisdom 4 The Blind. The nonprofit hosts portals that provide a variety of information about different types of blindness, services, opportunities for activities, policy updates, and more – including podcasts for each of the portals. The first portal is called Wisdom 4 Blinded Veterans, and he plans to soon launch Wisdom 4 Blind Kids. In the fourth quarter of 2022, he’ll launch a portal for adults who are blind. The podcasts are also available on podcast services.
The first episode of the podcast for kids, called Did You Know – which is hosted by his daughter – features a friend of Benjamin’s who works for NASA Mission Control in Houston and is completely blind.
“We’re trying to let kids know that if they are blind or visually impaired, life’s not over,” he says.
After all, Benjamin should know, having continued to succeed and pursue new ventures after losing most of his vision.
“I’m a firm believer employers should give vets a try,” Benjamin says. “Actually, they should never put anyone who is blind or vision impaired or has any kind of disability in a bucket as not being valuable. There are a lot of talented people out there.”
The end of July marks three related days of commemoration: Hire a Veteran Day is July 25, and both National Disability Independence Day and the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are July 26.