User1st’s Spotlight interviews highlight individuals who have advanced the rights, opportunities and boundaries of what was thought possible for individuals with disabilities.
This interview format offers insight about the lives, experiences and contributions of those who look to advance the presence of persons with disabilities in mainstream society.
This feature is on Mark Pollock. Mark Pollock is an adventure athlete, author, and professional speaker. He is also blind and paralyzed from the waist down.
Mr. Pollock is the embodiment of perseverance. Losing vision in one eye at the age of 5, then in the other at the age of 22, Mr. Pollock has continuously pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible for the blind, including becoming the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He shares his story with individuals, businesses and organizations, inspiring others to find ways to overcome the obstacles they face.
Following a tragic accident at 34 that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Mr. Pollock continues to adapt, putting his efforts to help fast track a cure for paralysis by forming research collaborations between international organizations.
Mr. Pollock is author of the book Making it Happen.
User1st: Hi Mr. Pollock, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you give us a little background on yourself?
Mark Pollock: Holywood, Northern Ireland, family 2 parents and 1 sister.
I wanted to be a stockbroker when I grew up because I wanted travel, money and fun.
User1st: You lost vision in one of your eyes at the age of 5. What sort of impact did that have on your daily life at such an age?
Mark Pollock: I had to avoid playing contact sports like football, rugby, cricket and hockey, but I still wanted to compete and found myself directed towards rowing and sailing.
The likelihood is that I banged my eye in the playground which resulted in me going blind but I was too young to remember. I struggled to see blackboards and whiteboards in university because of only having sight in one eye which wasn’t brilliant either.
User1st: Had you been exposed to the concept of disability beforehand through friends or family?
Mark Pollock: No
User1st: Were you treated differently among your peers or teachers?
Mark Pollock: The only way I was treated differently was by teachers who were aware that I wasn’t allowed on the rugby or hockey pitch but I knew the reasons why.
User1st: How much did you think that losing vision in one eye was going to impact your life?
Mark Pollock: It happened when I was so young that I can’t remember anything but seeing with one eye. But apart from really wanting to be on rugby and hockey teams I still had options to be involved in other sports.
User1st: At the age of 22, you suddenly lost vision in your other eye, leaving you completely blind. How did this impact your sense of self?
Mark Pollock: This was different – My identity was defined by what I did at that time – a student in university – a rower and a person about to start a job in an investment bank. When I lost my sight I didn’t think blind people did any of those things. I lost my identity.
User1st: Did you consider yourself disabled before losing sight in your second eye?
Mark Pollock: No I didn’t consider myself disabled but when it happened it took time to accept that my sight wasn’t coming back.
User1st: Were you at all prepared after losing part of your vision the first time or is this completely different?
Mark Pollock: With one eye life was practically normal, however everything changed when I went blind. I got a white stick and a guide dog. I had to access information through a lap top with a screen reading software on it.
User1st: You’ve accomplished numerous incredible athletic feats since losing your vision, including ultra endurance races across deserts, mountains, the polar ice caps, as well as medals in the Commonwealth Games for Rowing. What was your drive behind these attempts?
Mark Pollock: It was simply a drive to compete. My big fear when I went blind was that I would be forced to be a spectator. By racing in these events I felt normal again.
User1st: Were you always athletic?
Mark Pollock: I don’t know if I was ever athletic but I always trained as hard as I could because I wanted to win.
User1st: Why attempt activities that are so vision-dependent (or is that a misconception)?
Mark Pollock: I learned to stop doing that after racing six marathons in a week in the Gobi desert which was filled with rocks and the Everest marathon which was equally rocky. By the time I raced to the South Pole I knew in what environments the blindness wouldn’t hold me back – the sledges, the skis and the polls all helped to give me multiple points of reference allowed to race as hard as the other guys on the team in the snow.
User1st: Are these activities things you wanted to do before you had lost your vision or did you decide afterwards?
Mark Pollock: I decided afterwards.
User1st: In 2009 you became the first blind person to race to the South Pole, covering 770 kilometers (478.5 miles) over 43 days while pulling a 200lb sled for at least 12-hours a day. How did it feel to be the first blind person to accomplish such a tremendous feat?
Mark Pollock: All I was trying to do was replicate what I had done before I lost my sight, that is push myself to my limit, that is sport, the only difference is that the environment changed from rivers and lakes when I was rowing to deserts, mountains and the poles when I was adventure racing – the drive was simply to compete.
User1st: How did you prepare/train for the event?
Mark Pollock: Training was always event specific, running with backpacks for desert races, dragging tractor tyres on beaches for South Pole with functional weight training for all of the events.
User1st: You’re the author of the book Making It Happen, which uses your accomplishments to show how anyone can accomplish their goals if they start by taking responsibility for their own lives. What was your mission in writing this book and who was it targeted towards?
Mark Pollock: The reason for writing the book was to compliment my motivational speaking business.
User1st: You frequently work with large companies and non-profit organizations, including Microsoft, Pfizer, Morgan Stanley, and Red Bull, helping them redefine what they believe to be possible and working on motivational challenges. Can you share some insights on common motivational challenges and how to overcome them?
Mark Pollock: The basis for my talks is that sometimes we choose our challenges and sometimes the challenges choose us. It’s what we do about it that counts. I focus on the decisions that we can control rather than the external factors that we can’t.
User1st: In 2010, you suffered a tragic accident which left you paralyzed. As someone who has experienced different setbacks during different stages of their life, how did you cope with this new challenge?
Mark Pollock: I wrote a blog piece about this question right after my accident that can be found here.
From my post: “For the past 10 years I have been helping companies to redefine how they approach challenges and take action to deal with them. I tell people to deal in facts, make it happen and build the right team around them for the job.
It worked when I went blind and it worked for the south pole, gobi desert and all my adventure races. But right now I am nervous about applying my own code to my current situation.
I have no feeling from my belly button to my toes. Right now I cannot even turn onto my side. I am flat on my back in the most specialised spinal unit in the world and I am surrounded by guys who are currently paralysed from either the neck, chest or waist down. I am better off than many of these guys and worse than some. But the question that I cannot answer is – am I one of these guys at all?
The first step for me in a crisis is to start dealing in facts. But I am struggling to work out what they are. are my legs temporarily asleep or am I just in denial? If I embrace and accept that my legs are not working then will I shut off the power of the mind to fix what we do not understand?
I read a book called ‘Good to Great by Jim Collins once. He spoke about the Stockdale principle in relation to long term p.o.w. Prison camps and how optimists were not the ones who survived. Realists did.
The reason was that the optimists kept thinking they would be free soon but they never faced the reality that they may never get out. As a result they were constantly disappointed and died in their cells many. But the realists dealt in facts. The reality of their current circumstances. They were the ones to survive.
I can deal in the reality of today. My legs don’t work, I am in hospital and the doctors cannot tell me if I will get any feeling back. This is the current reality.
What I do not know is should I be super positive and say I will make a full recovery or do I risk being a stockdale optimist?
Or do I start preparing myself for never walking again?
Where is the line between being realistic and giving up. I am going to fight this but I dont yet know what the fight is with. Operation, rehab, walking, wheelchair, north pole? I do know that I will eventually work it out. The only issue is time now…”
User1st: Through your own experience, how has technology helped you function more independently?
Mark Pollock: The problem with being blind and paralysed is that my independence has gone. However I am focusing my efforts on finding and connecting people around the world to fast-track a cure for paralysis.
User1st: What do you think is the ultimate end goal of assistive technology?
Mark Pollock: Ultimately I would like technology to allow me to see and walk again. Until that happens assistive devices like talking computers and phones, wheelchairs and robotic legs, can and do assist daily life.
User1st: What sort of impact do you think that the internet has had on the disabled community?
Mark Pollock: I went blind in 1998 when written memos were still being used in the workplace. From that time on information being shared by email and online has reduced the barriers to accessing information.
User1st: Is web accessibility a necessity for the disabled community or a matter of convenience?
Mark Pollock: a necessity.
User1st: You started the Mark Pollock Trust, which aims to find a cure for paralysis. Can you describe briefly how you decided to create the Trust and how it works?
Mark Pollock: The Trust was initially set up to fundraise for the capital and ongoing costs associated with my spinal injury – friends set it up when I was still in hospital but over time the mission has evolved to include our work to try and connect people around the world to fast track a cure for paralysis.
User1st: What can the average person interested in contributing to the mission of the Mark Pollock Trust do to help?
Mark Pollock: Go to https://www.markpollocktrust.org/
User1st: If you could emphasize a single message to every member of the disabled community, what would it be?
Mark Pollock: I learned very early on that I need help, sometimes from my guide dog, sometimes from a stranger to cross the road – don’t be afraid to ask for help.
User1st: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?
Mark Pollock: Creating an international research collaboration between Ekso-bionics, Neuro-technologies, UCLA and Trinity College Dublin to fast track a cure for paralysis.
User1st: What’s a professional goal you hope to accomplish in the near future?
Mark Pollock: To start a multi-person clinical trial in Trinity replicating the work that I have been doing the past five years.
To learn more about Mark Pollock and his work, visit his personal website: www.markpollock.com