Combine the best things social media has to offer with caring people who are willing to help others, add a good cause and a lot of travel, and what do you get?
You get Mike Walsh’s Flight for Sight campaign, bringing people together to support the visually impaired and raise awareness of diseases that take people’s sight away.
Mike, a member of the Social Media Breakfast Board of Directors, entertained us in June with stories about his travels to virtually all parts of the world, using social media to direct his travels and introduce him to amazing people who quickly became friends.
Mike has Usher Syndrome Type 2, a disease that has left him with moderate hearing loss combined with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). His hearing has been stable his entire life, and with the help of hearing aids he is able to hear pretty well.
His vision, however, is slowly worsening. “In 2011, my night vision became so bad, driving at night became dangerous,” he writes on his blog. “In 2012, I stopped being able to drive all together. This past year, I began to use a cane. Today, I bump into things all day and everyday. Crossing streets is a challenge. Everything is darker and all forms of light bother me.
“My vision is going. The world will not wait for me to see it.”
Mike’s super adventure began in January when he launched a Flight for Sight Facebook page detailing his plans to see the world while he still can, “and it just kind of took off,” he said. Friends shared with friends, and the comments, shares and likes grew quickly.
Mike asked his Facebook fans to suggest places to visit on his trip around the world, and they responded enthusiastically. Mike took their advice, bouncing from place to place like a pin ball controlled by his social media friends.
On February 1 he began his 54-day trip (24 flights) to places that included New Zealand (the most suggested destination), Thailand, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Dubai, Chile, New York, Boston and of course because he is pretty much a techy and a social media enthusiast, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, (for the South by Southwest meetup).
Friends have helped Mike along the way. One friend who works for an airline provided him with a flight pass, another helped design his logo and website, others provided him with housing.
NBC15 did a report on Mike’s venture, which helped generate added interest locally.
Throughout his travels – which by the way are continuing – Mike asked his social media followers to suggest locations and activities and he did his best to follow the advice. For example, in New Zealand, he posted 10 potential activities and asked people to vote on which ones he should do. The Shotover Canyon Swing won out, so he did it and posted his adventure online for all to see and comment on. The operators of the game gave him a second swing and a video for free.
“If this trip has taught me anything it’s how amazing humanity is,” he said.
When he was in Austin for the South by Southwest conference, he posted a comment on Instagram about his travels and an anonymous donor responded by providing him with two platinum passes to SXSW, worth $3,000, including a driver.
An old college friend, Dave Morin, who is well connected in the San Francisco tech community, shared Mike’s story on his Facebook page, which increased Mikes’ following 50% overnight. That connected Mike with new San Francisco friends who provided him with housing and even tickets to conferences and museums.
“Everyone hooked me up,” he said.
Wherever he went, Mike said, “I was always trying to get the audience involved. I even crowdsourced which pants I should buy.” Yes, at one visit, he took a picture of pants at store and got the results a day later. “I couldn’t find my way back to get those particular pants but I got some similar ones,” he said. He did the same when trying to decide which University of Wisconsin hat to buy.
Mike used Airbnb and Hotel Tonight to help find housing. Hotel Tonight, he said, is a great app for finding a good price at the last minute, and Mike had a lot of those last minute purchases since his itinerary was constantly changing.
“I was always negotiating for lowest price possible,” he said.
In many locations, he met with people who have vision impairments. In Ethiopia, which Mike describes as the best experience of his world travels, Mike visited the Ethiopian National Association of the Deafblind. Mike later wrote, “I met with a group of people, including its director, Roman Mesfin. I discussed my mission. They were eager to tell me about what they are accomplishing. They were excited to learn the US Embassy directed me to them. We talked about their focus which is to identify deaf/blind people, bring awareness to the Ethiopian community, and to help children with deaf/blind issues develop life skills.”
Ethiopia has one of the world highest rates of blindness and low vision. Mike visited a school for the blind and was troubled by the lack of resources, such as tape recorders, braille stylus tools, usable computers and software. “One of the most surprising things to me,” he wrote, “was the lack of canes. The few that did have what they called a cane, had sticks that were usually too short.”
It is experiences like that that inspire Mike to continue his campaign.
He visited the Museum for the Blind in Spain, where visitors can tour museum artifacts with their hands.
In Michigan, he met with Sile O’Modhrain, an Associate Professor of Performing Arts Technology at the University of Michigan. O’Modhrain, who is blind, designs and builds new digital musical instruments.
Mike also became involved in Facebook Groups where, he said, he is able to have conversations about his disease with people who understand, “making a rare disease feel not so rare.”
Mike said he opened an Instagram account but wasn’t sure at first what to do with it. Then, he decided to focus on his cane and create unique poses with it at sites throughout the world. For example, touching the top of famous buildings and posing in front of landmarks with the cane forming a Wisconsin W.
He also used FourSquare to check into locations. There was no big FourSquare following, he said, but it was useful for recording his itinerary.
Other social tools he made use of included:
- Magisto, which takes your photos and videos and turns them into movies.
- Facebook Graph Search, which helped him locate friends in various destinations. For example, he could search for “My friends that live in (city) or friends of my friends that live in (city). In that way, he was able to hook up with people who were following him on Facebook that he had never before met.
- Tinder, which connects you with others based on geography, mutual friends and common interests. It was Tinder, which Mike was using at the Detroit airport, that helped connect him with Sile O’Modhrain, the Associate Professor of Performing Arts Technology at the University of Michigan. Mike has written a blog about that visit.
- Twitter, of course.
In addition to all his social media connections, Mike said postcards – “the sort of anti-social media” – were extremely popular. He sent more than 60 postcards to people in 17 states.
Although Mike’s 54-day travel extravaganza is over, Mike continues to travel and work to raise awareness of vision disease. He recently attended the Visions2014 conference in Colorado – where his brother Johnny, a stand-up comedian who also has Usher Syndrome 2, performed – and is speaking in July at the International Symposium on Usher Syndrome at the Harvard Medical School.
Determined to continue to puruse his passion, Mike plans to start an online fundsourceing campaign, probably on Indiegogo, to keep traveling and raising money for others to travel as part of the Flight for Sight campaign. Watch for that.
So, after using social media to help drive travels around the world, meeting people, networking, blogging, learning and spreading the word about sight issues, what is Mike’s main conclusion?
“Humans are beautiful,” he said.
Be sure to read Mike’s blog about his travels at flightforsight.co (yes, that is correct, it is co, not
Also, follow Mike on these social media platforms:
Below is the video of his entire presentation, thanks to Jeffrey Powers at Geekazine.com.
Thanks to Bob Wydra for this photo gallery from our June event.