Michael Hingson: From Escaping the World Trade Towers Collapse on 9/11 with His Guide Dog, to Now
by Deborah Kendrick
American Federation for the Blind
Chances are you have heard the story of Roselle, the amazing Labrador retriever guide dog, who on September 11, 2001, patiently guided her blind handler down 78 flights of stairs to life and safety, away from the crumbling World Trade Center. That handler, Michael Hingson, has told the story many times—at conventions and conferences, churches and Kiwanis clubs, and all audiences have found the story compelling. The story was also told in the book, Thunder Dog, written by Susy Flory.
The story is, as Hingson says, evergreen. Again and again, it inspires audiences with the example of partnership and faith that it represents. But the story can be celebrated for yet another reason by those of us who read or write for AccessWorld. The man, Michael Hingson, who descended those 78 flights to life and safety with his beloved guide dog, Roselle, was totally blind and fully employed. In his role at the time as regional sales manager, he was among the 30 percent of all blind people who are gainfully employed.
That Tuesday morning was a routine work morning for Michael Hingson, who was preparing for a sales presentation in his office at the World Trade Center. As regional sales manager and head of operations for the New York office of Quantum/ATL, the Fortune 500 company that had relocated him from the west coast to New York City, Hingson was about to print the list of expected guests for that morning's sales seminar when the North Tower abruptly tilted southwest. The rest of that spellbinding story can be read elsewhere. (The book Thunder Dog is available on NLS BARD and Bookshare in accessible formats.) The subject of this article is Michael Hingson’s history of employment and the expertise he can share with other people who have visual impairments who wish to become or remain employed.
When Michael Hingson was four months old, his parents learned that he was completely blind. The cause was retrolental fibroplasia (today known as retinopathy of prematurity), resulting from excess oxygen administered to babies born prematurely. His blindness was irreversible, and in 1950 Chicago, a doctor's advice was that the Hingsons find an institution to house their son. His parents dismissed that advice and, he says, never exposed him to the brand of negativity it represented. The attitudes they conveyed were always ones of positive assumptions that he could do anything he put his energy and intellect into doing.
In Chicago, he went to kindergarten where there was a resource classroom for blind children and began to learn braille. When his father's job relocated the family from Chicago to Palmdale, California, however, Michael was required to repeat kindergarten, this time as the only blind child in his class. His learning was completely aural until, at age nine, he was again introduced to braille and learned to read and write.
As the kid who was blind and needed teachers and other students to read texts or tests to him, Hingson says he knew his blindness made him somewhat different, but never felt that it made him in any way inferior. His parents expected him to do the same things his older brother did — albeit with sometimes different techniques.
Michael and his brother were rewarded for A's in school, and when either one of them could recite the multiplication tables from 1 times 1 to 12 times 12 without error, their dad would give them 50 cents. You might say that demonstrating that math and memory ability and being paid for it was his very first job!
Imagining a Career
Hingson reflects today that, if he thought about his future as a teenager, he probably expected that he would teach. He loved science, so teaching it seemed an obvious enough path for him. In his freshman year of high school, a teacher noticed that he was bored and had him placed in a physics class for seniors, where he thrived. Although he did not have traditional training with a white cane as a child, he could get around his neighborhood well enough on foot and on his bike, and at age 14, he was accepted for training at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. He has traveled with guide dogs from GDB ever since, including Roselle, the one who guided him down all those stairs in 2011, and Alimo, his current guide who he received one year ago.
While earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from the University of California at Irvine, he discovered the National Federation of the Blind and became involved with advocacy for blind people. Through that connection, he was hired for his first official job — training others to use the then brand-new Kurzweil Reading Machine.
When Ray Kurzweil introduced that first reading machine—similar in size to a dishwasher or small washing machine of today and selling for over $50,000—a partnership was immediately formed to promote this groundbreaking technology. Michael Hingson was one of many individuals hired to train others on using the product. When it became clear that too many people had been hired, several were let go. In Hingson's case, the choice was either lose the job altogether or move over into Kurzweil sales. He chose the latter and, as he puts it, he has been selling ever since. He took the Dale Carnegie 10-week course and picked up some valuable life skills for becoming more persuasive, and then just followed the career path that felt natural to him.
Teaching, Selling, and Philosophy
Hingson worked in Kurzweil sales for six years. After that, he had jobs selling computer-related products — in some instances, products that he personally could never use due to accessibility issues, yet he was successful in selling them to sighted customers, and teaching those customers to use them.
"Selling is actually a form of teaching," he believes, adding that a salesperson good at his or her job will never advise a customer to buy a product that does not fit their needs. As blind people, he believes, we have to sell ourselves constantly in order to survive.
To illustrate the point, he cites an example of a cover letter that landed him a job in 1989. In those days, his wife often read job listings to him from the newspaper, and together they had identified one that seemed a perfect fit. As he worked to craft the best possible cover letter to accompany his resume, the ever-present dilemma of whether or not to disclose his blindness loomed.
Advice from his wife pointed him in a direction that he has maintained ever since. He had learned in the Carnegie course the value of turning one’s liabilities into assets. Blindness is perceived by many as a serious liability. Michael Hinson decided to take another approach. In the last two paragraphs of his job-seeking letter, he wrote that he happened to be blind. He went on to say, however, that his blindness had, by necessity, fostered sales skills all his life. “I told them that, as a blind person, I had to sell every day to go into a store, buy a house, get on an airplane," he recounts. He got the job.
“I strongly believe that that same approach could work for any blind person getting a job today,” he says.
After September 11
Not long after his harrowing escape from the World Trade Center along with his heroic dog, Hingson moved back to California and went to work for Guide Dogs for the Blind, speaking and fundraising all over the country as the school’s director of public affairs. In 2008, he launched the Michael Hingson Group, his own company, through which he arranged speaking engagements, presentations, and co-authored the book Thunder Dog with Susy Flory.
In 2015, when a new service called AIRA was just getting off the ground, Hingson was invited to join the company’s advisory board. One test of the AIRA glasses with an agent directing him through an airport, and he was hooked. Before long, he was working for the company, selling and demonstrating the power of this new technology to blind people throughout the US and beyond. Recently he shifted into a new role, as CEO for AIRA’s newly formed Do More Foundation.
The focus of the foundation is to raise funds that will lead to free availability of AIRA in cities. Hingson’s own hope is that through the efforts of Do More, the power of AIRA will eventually be available to blind students everywhere.
Paying It Forward: Essential Tools for Blind People
For nearly five decades, Michael Hingson, totally blind since birth, has worked full-time in a variety of professional capacities. At its core, his work has always centered on sales, but he has sold computer parts, computer services, access technology, the value of various specific nonprofits and, most importantly, the belief that blindness need not stand in the way of achieving one’s dreams.
Asked to offer three essential tools blind people should acquire in order to be successful, he responded without hesitation.
“First,” he said, “it is important to learn to read and write braille. If you lose sight as an older person, you may not ever become fluent, but braille can make such a huge difference in efficiency and confidence, even if it is only used for labeling items or making brief notes.”
His second essential tool would be the use of the white cane. “You can learn it in five minutes,” he says, but the confidence required to use it and travel with ease is going to take a bit longer.”
Believing in Blind People
The third essential tool he lists is more complex. It might be summed up as believing in blindness and blind people.
“You need to meet other blind people who are successful,” he says, “and read as much literature written by blind people as you can.” He recommends going to conferences and conventions of blind people, and visiting the offices of consumer organizations.
“If you are blind,” Hingson says, “you need always to know that you have a choice. You have a choice to live a full and independent life, but you have to make that choice for yourself.” He cites as examples Chris Downey, the California architect who lost his sight as an adult, and recognized almost immediately that he could choose to continue to live a full life, continue to be an architect, or not. Another example he cites is Christine Ha, who became blind at 17 and went on to earn national recognition as the first blind contestant and subsequent winner of MasterChef in its 2012 season.
“Both of these people lost their sight as adults, and they both realized quickly that blindness does not make us inferior,” he says. “We need to believe in ourselves in order to persuade others that we are competent, equal, and can do the job.”
As he said in that powerfully successful cover letter in 1989, we have to sell ourselves as blind people. The formula has worked well for Hingson, and he passionately believes it can work for you, too.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.