He has no sight, but he has a throttle, he has steering, he has balance and he has loads of grit. That is what it took 2018 Nepean Disability Expo ambassador Ben Felten to break the World’s Fastest Blind Man record earlier this year.
Until four years ago, Ben hadn’t been on a motorcycle for many years. Ironically, it was following concussion from a motorcycle accident at 15 that he was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa. This meant that the cells in his retinas would gradually break down until his sight was completely and permanently gone. Sure enough, one morning when he was 37, Ben awoke to hear the birds chirping in the dark.
Long before that day he had learned to live with the fact that his sight was diminishing but it was in his mid-20s that he hit a real low point. He had just given up driving and riding bikes because he no longer felt it was safe.
“You know, you contemplate thoughts of suicide and all the rest of it…. I had no idea what it was like to be blind or how to live being blind. It was through sport – it gave me more hope and opportunities.” (The Blind Speed Story)
His attention first turned to rowing, picking up several world championships before moving to World Cup and Ashes Cricket with the Australian blind cricket team. On a 2010 tour to Barbados, he sat under a palm tree and contemplated his next steps. He decided to get back into motorsports.
Ambition met obstacle. First, he would need a navigator. Someone who was good on a bike and could provide the expert advice he needed to break the world blind speed record. Then he would need to approach the organisers of Speed Week and ask them to create an official event for his run at the blind speed record. Then he would need to find a training venue.
In the process, the obstacles Ben encountered inspired him to set up In Sight of Dreams for people with acquired disability.
The charity’s Back on Track program supports people who experience dramatic life change, like Ben, delivering Resilience Box (developed in consultation with psychological rehabilitation specialists Resilia) in conjunction with a mentored goal-setting program. Applications are currently open for 18-35 year olds.
Ben was successful on his second bid for the blind speed record at the Lake Gairdner salt pan during Speed Week 2018, at the age of 50 and four years after getting back on the bike. His friend and mentor, former motorcycle champion Kevin (Magoo) Magee, was just as ecstatic. He’d quite literally been a fellow traveller on the journey, riding behind Ben and advising him in real time of the multiple, minuscule adjustments he needed to make to stay on the 9 mile X 30m course, racing the clock as a team.
“To ride that fast is really difficult. You have to steer with your feet. It’s so sensitive. I’m totally focused,” Ben said after his first attempt in 2016. “I’m extremely nervous before I get on the bike … Overcoming your own fears is normal and a good thing. If I didn’t have that I would be too much of a risk-taker and that would be too dangerous.”
Dismounting the bike after his final attempt at the record, Ben took off his salt-encrusted helmet and embraced Magee. With confirmation that he had just achieved his goal – completing the course at an average speed of 266km/hour – he bent to kiss the ground.
Come and hear Ben Felten speak at the Nepean Disability Expo, Friday and Saturday, September 14 and 15, at the Penrith Panthers’ Exhibition Marquee. The expo brings together the latest products, services, technology, aids and equipment – giving people with disability, their families and carers, the opportunity to meet and compare over 100 providers, organisations and agencies at one time.
Presentations from the NDIA, and interviews with government agencies and leading disability organisations will take place on centre stage. All-ability performers, kids’ entertainment, food and drinks are also onsite.
Nepean Disability Expo Highlights:
- Friday and Saturday, September 14-15, 9am to 3pm
- Opening Ceremony: Friday, September 14, 11am
- NDIS Q&A sessions
- Stage performances by all-ability performance groups
- Kids’ entertainment
- Over 100 exhibitors