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Kevin Meyers was skimming across the choppy water of the Fox River at more than 60 mph, gunning for the hydroplane in front of him. He was in second place on that muggy July day in 1987 and was headed into the second turn when the accident happened.
As he entered the turn, Meyers’ sleek racer slammed into a huge wake from a pleasure boat pulling a water skier. Meyers went flying from his craft and into the river. Before he could react, another hydroplane hit him. He probably should have died right then and there. “Right from that point, I lost my sight,” Meyers said. “The left eye was — basically, they had to remove it all because it was hanging out of my eye socket. The right eye had enough damage to it that it could not be repaired. ”Meyers survived, but his spirit was as damaged as his body. He was angry that the accident had taken his sight and his livelihood — he was a home appliance repairman and had to drive to do the job. “I had a lot of fears because I really didn’t know what I was going to do. How I was going to survive, how I was going to take care of myself and earn a living, how I was going to communicate with people with sight and how people were going to look at me,” Meyers said. “I had a tremendous fear of failing.”
But with the help of the non-profit Volunteer Services for the Visually Handicapped, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and the Center for Creative Learning, Meyers began to realize that he could have a future. Now 41, Meyers is a systems analyst for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. He does computer programming that helps process insurance information. A voice synthesizer helps him navigate the computer.
After the accident, Meyers went into rehab, learned how to use a cane, read Braille and learned how to type. He took classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College and decided in September 1990 to get a bachelor’s degree in computers science from MSOE. That’s where Volunteer Services for the Visually Handicapped stepped in. “There are not a lot of books out there for people with visual impairments,” Meyers said. The textbooks were being updated so quickly that they were not available in Braille. So the agency, at 803 W. Wells St., Milwaukee, working with MSOE, took his textbooks and converted them into audiotapes so he could learn the work. “Volunteers at (Volunteer Services) taped his books every quarter for the five years he attended MSOE,” said Elizabeth Waterfall of MSOE. “This alternative format of classroom materials was integral to his success at the college.”
Meyers, who lives in Greenfield, graduated with honors in 1995.
Along his journey, Meyers also got a hand from the Center for Creative Learning in Glendale, a for-profit organization that, among other things, helps people overcome traumas. The center has a non-profit arm that provides scholarships to those in need. “We helped Kevin, mostly by helping him see that he had a gift to offer," said Patricia Clason, the center’s director. “He should have died, by all means, from the impact of the boat. It truly is a miracle that he is alive. That is the gift.”
Now Meyers serves on the board of Volunteer Services for the Visually Handicapped, helps out at the Center for Creative Learning, is an award-winning Toastmasters speaker and gives motivational speeches to children and adults. Twice he has been to Aspen, CO, to help visually impaired children develop goals to be successful in life.
“I always refer to the fact that just because they don’t have sight doesn’t mean they won’t amount to anything,” Meyers said.
In July 1987, he was hit in the head by a hydroplane boat going 60mph while racing on the Fox River in DePere. The accident left Meyers physically and mentally scarred. The broken nose would heal but his eyes were critically injured and his sense of smell was gone. He was angry; angry about being blind, about having to relearn everyday tasks, about being “disabled." “I saw a lot of doctors after the accident. I thought for sure that someone would tell me there was something they could do,” he said.
“But when they told me there was nothing they could do, it frustrated me to no end.” Time, however, has more than healed those wounds.Meyers has come to look at his accident as a “wakeup all,” he said. “It's up to me to get what I want out of life,” he said. “It all begins right here. I can't wait for someone to give it to me – I've got to make the effort. “I look at it as a gift. There are more things that I see now, about myself, others and life, than when I had sight.” Meyers learned to cope with his blindness, found a career while learning Braille and now, at 40, is on the verge of becoming a full-time motivational speaker. “I feel like the Lord has a reason for why I'm still here,” Meyers said. “That's where the motivational speaking comes in. There is a reason to love myself and accept myself as a man without sight, and I should be helping others do the same.”
Finding a new life
Meyers' outlook was not always so bright. Patricia Clason, his speaking coach and director of the Creative Learning Institute, said Meyers was angry and depressed when he started working with the institute. “We started doing work on letting go of his anger,” she said. “He was angry at God… and we had to start finding love and peace in his life again.” Immediately after his accident, Meyers spent six months in a rehabilitation program, where he learned to use his cane, read braille and use computers. “I had never really used computers before,” he said. “Once I got into the classes, I wanted to get a four-year degree. Meyers earned his bachelor's of science degree in business management systems, specializing in computer systems, and landed jobs at M&I Data and about 14 months ago, at Northwestern Mutual Life.
Meyers lives by himself, but has help. Although he is able to get to work via public transportation and carpooling, tasks such as shopping and going through the mail requires outside assistance. Meyers said he tries to dispel incorrect perceptions about people with disabilities, such as they need constant supervision and assistance. “I feel that if I go out and do the best I can and help others do the same, people will see that if someone has a disability, it doesn't mean that they can't function in today's society,” Meyers said Clason said Meyers' ability to let go of his anger has allowed him to blossom as “someone who had a message to deliver and someone who wanted to deliver it.”
A Message of Change
Meyers said his involvement with community organizations helped steer him toward a career as a professional speaker. “In 1999, I was involved in the Greenfield Jaycees, and they have a number of programs that offer presentations to help folks learn about stuff,” Meyers said. “Those programs were very easy for me to do. I usually did them about what I did to survive without sight.” He also took part in a program with the Wisconsin Eye Institute in 1999, working with people who had recently lost their sight or were about to lose it. “It was something I wanted to do more of, to help each person know that they have the ability to get more out of life,” he said. Meyers said his message to people with and without disabilities is universal – change is inevitable in life and must be embraced. “Change is part of life, but a lot of times we resist that change,” he said. “We're afraid that it will upset our lives in so many ways, and it's not going to give us that feeling of being secure. “But we can't stop it. If we look at taking on change as something we can learn from and grow from – taking on change brings so many more things into one's life.”
Weighing the risks
That does not mean, however, that Meyers will make a career change to full-time motivational speaker without considering the risks. “I've always had a big fear that I could never do it as a full-time job,” he said. “But some of the professionals I've spoken to say it's no problem. I still have some hesitation now. “If I could speak full time and make a decent living and not have to worry, I'd jump right into it. But maybe it's a lesson that God's trying to teach me. If I let him guide me, he'll make sure that I survive.”
Greenfield resident Kevin Meyers and Bob Springer celebrate their national championship in tandem bicycle racing in California earlier this month. This is the second national title for Meyers. Years ago, Kevin Meyers was denied a chance at a national championship in boat racing after being blinded in an accident. The Greenfield resident worked hard to overcome that setback and compete in skiing and later in tandem bicycle racing, and in November 2012, he and his pilot, Bob Springer, captured a national championship.
Now he has done it again!
Meyers and Springer claimed their second national paralympics bicycle crown on Nov. 2 on the velodrome in Carson, California, the site of their first triumph. They won the one-kilometer event, which included four laps on a 250-meter indoor track. "To win a second one is just awesome," said Meyers, 52. "About 25 years ago, I was racing boats, and I wanted to win a national championship. Because of the accident, I could not do that. "The first (bicycle championship) was unique, but to come back and do it again is absolutely amazing. I was totally thrilled." Meyers and Springer finished the kilo race in 1 minute, 10.1 seconds, their lifetime best. One day earlier, they had placed third in a four- kilometer pursuit race, which covers 16 laps on that same 250-meter track. "The kilo race, because it is so short, takes a lot more effort," Meyers explained. "You have to go as hard as you possibly can for those four laps. "We won by 2.12 seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but in a short distance, it is actually a lot of time. We just put out more effort than the other four teams." Meyers added that he and Springer, 42, are older than the other racers but said they have the advantage of living close to each other (Springer lives in Sturtevant) and thus being able to train together frequently. "We become more in sync with each other," he said. "We both put in a lot of effort. When we can't train together for weather reasons, we each work on individual bikes."
Imagine losing a key functional ability – your ability to walk, hear or see. Any of these would dramatically impact your life and job, but with the right assistance you could be successful. Kevin Meyers, application development senior specialist, and Kerry Wiegel, application development manager, use adaptive technology to overcome the challenges of working on computers while being blind. July 26 marked the 25th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act – a significant step toward diversity and inclusion in America that empowers the civil rights of individuals with disabilities.
Both Kevin and Kerry use a software called JAWS that reads aloud what’s displayed on their monitors. Kerry often works with his monitor turned off, using the audio cues and keyboard commands to direct his cursor. “JAWS is like a personal assistant reading to me all day,” Kerry says. “I couldn’t work without it.” The software works well with many programs, but some are not optimized for screen-readers, so they ask teammates to help navigate images that JAWS cannot interpret. Kevin and Kerry also appreciate guidance from teammates when they need to find unfamiliar conference rooms. “Some people are afraid to ask for help at work, thinking it will make them look bad,” Kevin says. “But it’s okay to ask so you can get your job done.”
Kerry encourages people with disabilities to not be overwhelmed by challenges and roadblocks. “This company believes in helping employees reach their potential,” he says. Kevin recently collaborated with Kerry, who is part of a team of employees working with the diversity & inclusion department to develop a disAbility Alliance ERG. They also provided input for an enhancement to Vision Forward’s technology lab that offers training for local vision-impaired individuals of all ages. The organization was one of the employee-nominated Days of Sharing winners.
MSOE alumnus Kevin Meyers ’95 loves going fast. He is an active tandem bike racer, has dabbled in downhill skiing, car racing and even parachuting to achieve his love for speed. Unlike other speed demons however, Meyers is blind, having completely lost his sight in a hydroplane boat accident in 1987. Since his accident he has obtained a degree in business management systems from MSOE, became an Advance Communicator Silver in Toastmasters, works as an application analyst for Northwestern Mutual and, most recently, won several medals and became part of the U.S. Paralympic cycling team talent pool in tandem road and track bike racing.
“Racing tandems is close to racing boats only not as fast–there is still that feeling of power, speed and being competitive. I also love to work on my racing bikes just as I loved to tinker with my boat,” said Meyers. Meyers worked as an appliance service technician but found his job difficult to do after losing his vision. “After attending a rehab program where I learned to type, read Braille and eventually use computers, I found that I really enjoyed working with computers. I felt I could earn a four- year degree in computers and then obtain a full-time job working in the computer industry,” said Meyers. He chose MSOE because he liked the small campus and class sizes, and he appreciated the help from Betty Albrecht, coordinator and counselor with Student Support Services. “My degree has been a tremendous help in my career. I believe that businesses large and small know that MSOE graduates have developed into very knowledgeable individuals through the academics offered at the university.”
There are three things that Meyers is most proud of. One is his degree from MSOE. The second is his ability to ask questions and for support when he needs help. The third is his ability to help other people. “When I give a motivational speech,” said Meyers, “I’m excited if I help one person in the audience realize they have the ability to overcome any challenge in their life. Every speech I’ve given, there was always at least one person who told me that I touched their life.”
Through his speaking engagements, his athletic accomplishments and his indomitable spirit, Meyers serves as a strong inspiration for all who meet him. Yet his message for success in life is simple: “When faced with a challenge in life, the only person who can begin the process of overcoming the challenge is you. There isn’t anyone else to get the ball rolling for you. It is only you!”