Climbing Blind: Jesse’s Inspiring Journey

“Blind people have challenges every day – this was just another one,” says Jesse Dufton, the first blind person to lead climb the iconic Old Man of Hoy.

Imagine yourself at the base of a 449-ft freestanding tower of rock in the middle of the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. The roaring sea surrounds you, and the relentless wind buffets you. This is the moment you’ve trained and prepared for – the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy.

You’re leading the way, searching for hand and footholds, solving complex problems, and securing safety equipment into the rock to prevent any mishap if you fall.

Now, imagine doing all of this without sight. Jesse’s achievement is nothing short of incredible.

Jesse’s journey into climbing began at the age of two with his father. By 11, he was lead climbing. Born with only 20% vision and a degenerative eye condition called rod-cone dystrophy, none of this seemed unusual to Jesse. “It was just something I did.” He attended a local state school with some additional support, including a notetaker and enlarged photocopies of classroom materials.

After finishing his secondary education, Jesse studied for a degree in Chemistry and later a PhD in Computational Chemistry. Despite his academic achievements, he felt that he didn’t receive enough educational support due to his disability, a common issue even today.

Securing employment after leaving full-time education can be tough, especially with a disability. However, Jesse had a clear career goal – Intellectual Property. After seeking guidance from a Patent Attorney, he mapped out a plan.

Jesse’s story emphasises the importance of education and training in the employment journey. To pursue his desired career, he worked hard to gain additional qualifications in his chosen field. This effort, he believes, opened doors and proved to his employers that his disability wasn’t a barrier.

“I had the CV to back me up. My skills and qualifications more than compensated for any limitations my lack of sight might bring.”

Jesse now works as a Patent Engineer for Intelligent Energy, a position he secured through its graduate scheme in 2013. His supportive employer has implemented assistive technologies and practices to enable Jesse to carry out his role. For example, before meetings, Jesse receives documents and materials in advance.

Assistive technology plays a crucial role in enabling blind or partially sighted individuals to excel at work. For Jesse, tools like Narrator (a free screen reader), Zoomtext (screen magnification software), and TalkBack (a built-in screen reader on his Android tablet) are game changers.

You might wonder how Jesse, with almost no sight now, scales climbing walls and massive rock faces. It’s like the workplace – it requires adjustments. Jesse climbs with the guidance of his wife and climbing partner, Molly. She directs him, calling out hand and footholds and movement sequences.

Jesse’s talent, mental and physical strength, agility, and years of climbing experience create a winning combination, much like his use of assistive technology alongside his education, training, and skills in the workplace.

Jesse gained recognition in the documentary film ‘Climbing Blind,’ showcasing his epic Old Man of Hoy ascent. The film, directed and produced by Alastair Lee, premiered at the Brit Rock Film Festival in late 2019, winning the prestigious Grand Prize at the Kendal Mountain Festival.

So, as we return to that imposing sea stack in the Orkneys, how did Jesse do it? Just like his journey through education and employment, it’s about preparation, training, overcoming challenges, and maintaining a positive attitude.

Jesse sums it up:

“We all face challenges, but it’s how you approach them that truly matters.”

When asked for advice for blind and partially sighted individuals seeking to advance their careers, he said, “Have a clear career goal and get qualified in that field. My PhD directly applied to my job, which put me ahead of other candidates. Also, seek guidance and career advice from experienced individuals.”

Jesse’s story proves that with the right mindset, determination, a willingness for learning and skill development, and adequate support, blind and partially sighted individuals can achieve remarkable feats.

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We caught up with Jesse Dufton, the first blind climber to lead climb the 449ft pinnacle of rock ‘Old Man of Hoy' on 16 July.

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