Higher with Red Szell – 2018 Holman Prize Winner

This episode concludes our look at the 2018 Holman Prize recipients. In order to do so we travel across the Atlantic to London. Well virtually via Skype.

Red Szell sitting on steps
We meet Red Szell, the host of RNIB’s Read ON. Red is an Extreme Sport athlete and Holman Prize winner. We hear about his ambition, his journey through vision loss and more.

Subscribe to the podcast and make sure you don’t miss our upcoming three part series featuring the 2017 Holman Prize winners. The podcast!




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Audio: Vocal crescendo from opening of “White Lines” Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five


Greetings and welcome back to another episode of Reid My Mind Radio! Let’s go!

Audio: Stevie Wonder Higher Ground
If you’re here for the first time, allow me to get you up to speed.

My name is T.Reid and thanks for stopping by. This podcast is my space to share stories and profiles around blindness & disability. Occasionally I produce stories around my own vision loss experience as an adult.

You joined the podcast in time to catch the third and final episode featuring all three 2018 Holman Prize winners.

I strongly encourage you to not only go back and listen to the other two episodes from 2018, but you should really go back and listen to the 2017 winners as well.

If you’re not familiar with the Holman Prize, no problem! Get comfortable and allow me to introduce you. But first we have one rule here. I don’t start without my intro music!

Audio: Reid My Mind Intro Music


The San Francisco Lighthouse for the second year in a row, awarded a $25,000 Holman Prize to each of three individuals who in their own way demonstrate the adventurous spirit of James Holman.

All applicants had to create a 90 second video describing their ambition and how they would use the money.
A team of judges all of whom are blind reviewed each video and eventually selected three winners.

Born in 1786 James Holman a veteran of the British Royal Navy became blind at 25 years old after an illness.

After studying medicine and literature he became an adventurer, author and social observer who circumnavigated the globe.

Undertaking a series of solo journeys that were unprecedented visiting all inhabited continents.

our final 2018 Holman prize winner is Red Szell.

I work for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, in the UK. I present a radio show called “Read On” which is all about books and reading.

Careful now. If you’re imagining the stereotypical book worm, try again.


I’d become a really keen rock climber in my teens. And I was good at it. Rode a bicycle around everywhere, did a lot of sports, cross country running, a bit of Cricket. I was a keen outdoorsy kind of person.


Red, a published author, is an accomplished extreme sports athlete.

If you’re not sure as to what makes one an extreme sport athlete well, you’re not the only one. There’s some question about what makes a sport considered extreme.

Wikipedia defines extreme sports as;
“a competitive (comparison or self-evaluative) activity within which the participant is subjected to natural or unusual physical and mental challenges such as speed, height, depth or natural forces and where fast and accurate cognitive perceptual processing may be required for a successful outcome”

Since 19 years old, “fast and accurate cognitive perceptual processing presents a challenge for Red.


I was told, “You’ll be blind by the age of 30.” Just like that.

I’ve got Retinitis Pigmentosa which is a degenerative disease of the retinas.

I basically went into a sulk to be honest I was at University so the beer was cheap (laughs) I just went into a bit of a sulk. It was shock. And it took quite a long time to get over it.

About 20 years according to Red.

But it wasn’t as though he was sitting around.

I was working as a journalist for a bit. I gave up work to look after my two daughters as soon as the elder one was born, so I was a house husband for 16 years.

I wrote a couple of books. A detective book and I always kept fit but it was kind of like solitary activities like swimming up and down the disabled lane in British swimming pools or going to the gym or doing Pilates or Yoga

I really missed the kind of camaraderie that you get from either being part of a team or doing an activity where you’re working closely with a partner like climbing.



That sense of isolation can be quite common among people who are blind.


but then my elder daughter had her 9th birthday party at a local indoor climbing wall and whilst all the other parents were ogling the buff bodied instructors I was just checking out the bumps and curves on these beautiful molded climbing walls going I want to get my hands on that and I want to start climbing again. And that itch that I’d been wanting to scratch for two decades just suddenly seemed possible again. I thought well I can get back out and climb again safely.


When Red was first diagnosed with RP climbing walls weren’t an option. You had to do it the old fashion way, find a big rock and start climbing.

Early indoor rock climbing facilities weren’t of interest to Red as they weren’t very challenging.


The climbing wall that I went to for my daughter’s 9th birthday party had these 18 meter high walls and they were over hanging and challenging. It was just like being back outdoors again and I just… it just immediately hit my adrenaline button.


When that adrenaline gets going, you don’t want to keep it bottled up.

For a long time I was very good in being the happy blind person … well doesn’t Red take this well. Concealing inside that I was really pissed off. I don’t know if I can say that on your show…

[TR in conversation with RS]
You can say anything man!

Laughs… ok!

And actually like anything that you bottle up, it tends to go off. It tends to go sour. Actually what I learned though getting active in group activities again is a lot of it because you have to externalize it, you actually let off a lot of steam as well. It’s part of the process.


With the combination of adrenaline and access all Red required was action.


After my daughter’s 9th birthday at the local rock climbing center I turned up a little bit sheepishly with my white cane in my hand and said look I used to be a pretty decent rock climber. I know I’m blind but would you give me lessons and my instructor Trevor said yeh, why wouldn’t I. And I went what really and … I’m not going to discriminate against you just because your blind you said that you used to love climbing so do I.


Right there! that’s where Red and his climbing instructor Trevor found common ground. As we’ll see that’s an important message Red hopes to share with others. Proving inclusion and access is of benefit to all.


It was great. He gave me a great accolade after the third lesson that we had. Actually instructing me made him a better teacher because he had to think outside the sighted box. And that was great.

As soon as I got my strength back , my climbing strength back, I was actually making pretty good progress and it felt really good to improve doing something physical rather than having a degenerative physical disability and feeling that things were getting worse day by day. I was getting stronger and better at something day by day and it felt like taking one back for the good guys to be honest.

Feeling robbed by vision loss can lead to self-doubt.

I’d given up originally because if I couldn’t trust my eye sight how could I expect other people to trust my judgement, but actually through indoor climbing I re-discovered that passion but also that ability to control risk, be in charge of my own destiny and communicate. And I think that’s the thing that I get from rock climbing. And also from tandem bike riding and swimming. If you’re doing one of those activities with a buddy then it’s about communication. If your buddy is willing to help you then it’s actually down to you to give them the correct type of communication so that the two of you can achieve as well as you can. And I think that was something. It took me a lot of time. it took me two decades to realize that.

Armed with this new perspective, Red unknowingly or maybe subconsciously, began the process of ascending towards his goals.
Following a climbing workout with his trainer, Red mentioned one of his pre vision loss climbing goals.

And then one fateful day, whilst Trevor, my instructor was waxing lyrical about his favorite mountain side, I laid gasping on the ground having just overcome a tricky hanging problem, I let slip this dream that I had since I was about 12 years old of climbing something called the Old Man of Hoy.


The Old Man of Hoy is a sea stack off the coast of Scotland.

Sea Stacks also referred to as just a stack is a geological landform consisting of a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sea near a coast, formed over time from erosion due to wind and water.

The Old Man of Hoy is considered one of the 10 most amazing stacks. it’s about 449 feet tall and only several hundred years old. Experts believe it may collapse soon.

Red became interested in climbing the stack after watching a documentary about Chris Bonington a mountaineer who climbed Everest.

He climbed everything . He is a Rock God.
that was the rock pinnacle that I kind of had emblazoned on my heart that I always wanted to climb. I said that to Trevor and Trevor went ok, I’ve climbed that. Well you know, with a bit of work you could probably do it. You know, you’re a good climber, you could probably do it. And that was it, it started itching … I started to go I got to do this. By then I got a climbing partner and I mentioned it to him and this dream kind of became a target because my climbing partner is quite pushy and so is Trevor.


Audio: From 2012 Olympics Opening
“Welcome to London”

Encouraged by the athletes competing in the 2012 London Paralympics taking, Red began taking steps to accomplish his long time goal.


That summer of London 2012 was the time that I started thinking this is possible. Then at a slightly drunken Christmas party at the end of 2012 my climbing partner was just ribbing me going ” When are you going to do this , when are you going to do this?” I just said Let’s do it next summer.

[TR in conversation with RS]
Who says alcohol isn’t good for something, huh?

Laughs with RS

Alcohol makes the plans.

Maybe, but executing them can be sobering.

Red dropped a bit of extra weight and in 2013 became the first blind man to climb the old man of hoy.

They made a film of it which was broadcast on the BBC over here.

and talk about taking one back for the good guys. That was one in the eye for Retinitis Pigmentosa, screw you, I can still do this.

After successfully climbing the Old Man of Hoy, in 2014 Red reached the pinnacle of another, the Old man of Storr.

His latest quest or in this case his Holman Ambition once again includes a sea stack.

Am Buachaille  , the rock that I’m going to go and climb is the third of the big Scottish sea stacks.

This is the most extreme. It’s miles away from anywhere. You have to cross Bog land. You have to abseil down cliffs you have to swim out to the base of it and then you got 90 minutes to climb it before the sea cuts you off and strands you over night. Not many sighted people take it on.

Yet Red along with his climbing partner Mathew will take it on. In a nutshell, here’s what they have to do.

Audio: Let There Be Rock, ACDC


Everything is against the clock.

Audio: Clock ticking…>

We have to setoff at the right time. Building in the fact that the land we are crossing is boggy. We will probably fall off a few times.

Audio: Bike fall and wheel spin

We’ll probably have to pull this heavyweight Cannondale tandem out of the bog, clean it up and move on. We’ll get punches, it’s a tough climb.

Then we’ve got to abseil down.

That’s a descent down the face of the cliff to reach their entry point into the water.


wait for the tide to get slack to go out to minimize the amount of swimming that we have to do and to be able to get on the platform at the bottom. Not a manmade platform but the bit that you can actually stand on to start the climb at the bottom of the sea stack.

We’ve got to get dressed again, get our equipment out. We’ve got to climb it and do that and get back down within 90 minutes otherwise the tide will cut us off.


You would think that when their finished climbing the sea stack that’s it, right? Wrong! They have to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

You got to swim it , bring your equipment there and back and then you got to be up the cliff and then cycling back before it gets dark. Not too much of a problem for me but it might be for my sighted climbing partner.


If you’re a sighted listener, feel free to join the blind and low vision listeners who are giggling at that last comment.

He may sound calm and make light of the situation but he takes it all quite seriously.

I don’t like to have a challenge that I can’t work out how to do but I came up with this plan about two years ago having sort of scoped it out beforehand. I just thought that’s impossible. A, that needs a lot of resources. B, it needs a lot of planning and C I’m not getting any younger. It’s a tough challenge.


Indeed. Just think about all of the variables at play. Communication, equipment

***Start Here***
We are talking about the United Kingdom that has a habit of pissing down rain just when you don’t need it to. Or high winds, We can’t climb in that. There’s a lot of planning.

There is a lot of stuff to go wrong and one of the things that you learn as a climber is that you minimize all the potential for things going wrong. So you draw up lists of what can go wrong and how you can stop it from going wrong. What you might break, equipment wise. What you can afford to bring with you as a spare.

We’ll do it. It’s a scary challenge even here 9months out it’s probably the toughest climbing challenge I’ll have ever done.


At first, I thought Red’s motivation was vengeance. as in revenging vision loss itself. Specifically, Retinitis Pigmentosa.

Includes audio reverb effect as in flashback…

it felt like taking one back for the good guys to be honest.
talk about taking one back for the good guys. That was one in the eye for Retinitis Pigmentosa


And so we’re clear, I’m not judging.

Maybe that is a motivator for some. Whatever gets you moving, right?
And you need momentum to reach your peak.

And along the way, motivations can change from personal to those that have a broader impact.


I think my diagnosis of blindness made me a little scared to go out of the door at times. It made me need to have a reason to go outdoors.
Other people’s
perception of blindness is that we are mobility impaired and maybe there’s a lot of activities that we shouldn’t do . My view of the world is that you go and kick the ass out of it and if you can find a way of doing that that gives you pleasure and has you playing with other people playing along with other people and doing stuff that you can they enjoy, blindness should be no barrier to that. Go out and find the thing that makes you tick and kick the ass out of it. Life is too short to sit there looking at what you lost rather than what you can still achieve.

I kind of wish that I’ve done a bit more in those years before I rediscovered climbing.

I don’t like what if’s and I don’t want other people to have what if’s. I want to spread the word that whether it’s Yoga, Pilates, climbing kayaking or just walking to your corner store and back every day, getting out and doing some physical activity makes you feel much better.

That’s what it’s all about for me.


Writing his own account of his 2013 climb of the Old man of Hoy in his book, The Blind Man of Hoy has given Red the chance to spread his message.

The Holman Prize will give him a chance to increase his visibility and reach a wider audience. Yes, he hopes to inspire other blind people, but it’s what he hopes the sighted family and friends can learn that I find intriguing.


I got a blind friend , maybe I should ask him if he wants to go swimming. Maybe I should see if we could rent a tandem and we could get outdoors
if just one person’s life is changed by showing what we still have as blind people in potential then my job is done. I’ know that I’ve made some difference already. I want to build on that success .


Changing perceptions isn’t easy. Red knows. Based on his own estimate it took him about 20 years to re-focus how he views his vision loss.


when I got to the full summit of the Old Man of Hoy and there’s this huge crack in the top of the sea stack as if a giant has taken a cleaver to it and split it down about 50 meters. I could feel the wind coming off the Atlantic and could sense the sun all over my face and I thought I’ve got there this is brilliant and then my climbing partner just went not yet mate , I went but this is still pretty cool, I’m just going to bask in this .

I thought my blindness has got me here. Without my blindness I would never have been climbing that rock. I would have been sitting in front of some computer somewhere doing some boring ass job earning money for the man and thinking I wish I carried on climbing. My blindness got me there. Without it I wouldn’t have achieved those pages in my story.

when I got this job working for the radio station my Dad actually turned around to me and he went you always wanted to be a radio journalist didn’t you . And I went yeh that’s what I wanted to do when I was in my teens. And he went and you’re doing it. You’re doing it about books. People are paying you to listen to audio books and interview authors. What’s not to like about that.

And I thought it’s a really funny round about world where it took 30 years and going blind for me to actually achieve two of my most dearly held dreams.

Whilst I’ll never feel truly grateful to Retinitis Pigmentosa I guess I’ve got to thank it for some of the opportunities it’s given me.

In fact, Red says it was his boss Yvonne at RNIB, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, who suggested he pursue the Holman Prize.

Royal National Institute for Blind people is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It supports people with sight loss. It gives help, advice and equipment to people with sight loss to help us lead as constructive a life as possible.

We have the most amazing talking books library which also has Braille and giant print copies of hundreds of thousands of books.

If you want to stay in touch with his progress, send congratulations or listen to his show…


You can find me at my website RedSzell.com where you’ll find all of my latest news. You can drop me an email if you want to and you can find Read On by looking up RNIBConnectRadio/ReadOn.

So there’s no confusion, he spells that R E A D. I know weird, right?


Red and I have a lot in common.

We’re both around the same age, actually I’m one year older than the young man.

Both losing our sight later in life.
Dad’s to two daughters.
We’re both interested in audio journalism.

But I guess there could only be one …

Audio: King of Rock, RunDMC.

Salute to Red Szell, Stacy Cervenka & Conchita Hernandez the 2018 Holman Prize winners. I’m sure the Reid My Mind Radio family joins me in congratulating you all and agree that we’re looking forward to hearing more about your journey and success.

Shot out to the San Francisco Lighthouse for their leadership and sponsorship of the Holman Prize.

I think it’s worth recognizing the amount of time and thought put into this project.

It’s something that could easily be done wrong.

The diversity of the winners and their ambitions indicates to me at least that it’s really about encouragement, visibility and the promotion of positive examples of what is possible for people who are blind and low vision and in general people with disabilities.

Three things that I hope are also associated with this podcast.

Next time, we’re going back to catch up with 2017 Holman Prize winners and Reid My Mind Radio Alumni…

Penny Melville Brown of Baking Blind

Ahmet Ustenel AKA The Blind Captain

Ojok Simon, The Bee Keeper & Honey Farmer!

We’ll hear about what worked with their plans and what sort of adjustments were required. And of course lessons learned.

If there’s one lesson I want Reid My Mind Radio listeners to learn; that would be , how to subscribe to this podcast.

Apple Podcast, Google Play, Sound Cloud, Stitcher or Tune In Radio. Of course, whatever podcast app you use, you can find it there by searching for Reid My Mind Radio. Just remember, that’s R to the E I D!

Each episode lives on the blog, ReidMyMind.com where I include links to any resources and a transcript.

You know, I may not have been crowned King of Rock, but you know what they say…

He’s a Rock God!


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