This is Life: Living Beyond Blindness

Mike Royal is a judge and speaker for the 2019 Experience Energy GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces

Who is Mike Royal?

He holds six (totally blind) world records, among others, in water skiing.

He won a bronze medal in the downhill at the 1996 Chevy Truck Disabled Alpine Ski Championships.

He ran in the 1993 Boston marathon, where he finished third in the visually impaired category, and in the 1998 NYC marathon.

Don’t call him the Super Blind Guy. He’s just a regular guy (albeit a gifted athletic one) who happens to be blind.

Losing his sight

Blindness is part of who I am, not all of who I am,” says Mike Royal, Director of Information Technology Auditing at Anadarko, who was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder, although he was the first in his family to have it. Despite experiencing a noticeable loss of vision by the age of five, he obtained his driver’s license at 16. With his trademark dry humor, he says he eventually gave it up “for the betterment of pedestrians everywhere.”

At 18, he was declared legally blind, although the diagnosis was something he struggled to come to terms with. In college, while earning a Bachelor of Science in Accounting & Management Information Systems from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and later an MBA, he was still hiding his blindness and compensating for it.

Coming out of the “blind closet”

Because of the nature of retinitis pigmentosa, which is characterized by loss of peripheral vision, Mike still had nearly 20/20 central-sight and says, “What I could see, I saw well; it was the things I couldn’t see that got me!” Finally, he says with self-deprecating humor, he came out of the “blind closet,” so to speak. In May 1993, he got his first seeing-eye dog and says it was the best thing he ever did for himself. Unlike the folding cane he had used for years, he couldn’t hide a 65-lb. Lab in his backpack!

Leveraging technology

Mike, who has been employed in the oil and gas industry for 25 years, doesn’t read braille. Instead, he uses Job Access With Speech (JAWS) technology, which speed-reads what’s on the computer screen, an iPhone with built-in Voice Over accessibility, as well as Smart Glasses combined with a virtual assistant at Aira. His advice to those with disabilities holds true for all employees as we move into a more digital world – “Make sure you leverage technology to your greatest advantage.

However, Mike says, despite technological advances, the unemployment rate among the blind community stands at 70%, just as it has since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990. Mike has never had a blind colleague and certainly knows what it’s like to be in the minority. “I’m usually the only one in the room with a dog,” he says without irony.

Taking action on inclusion

Last year, Mike attended HERWorld2018 with nine of his female colleagues and noticed only about 10% of attendees were men. He left thinking, “Are you kidding?” and resolved to be a better advocate for women and those with different abilities in the industry. In mid-2018, he became a member of Anadarko’s Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee (DISC) in order to have a bigger platform. He says he has spent the last year or so trying to smooth out “the rough edges.”


“I’m trying to listen better and consider how my actions affect others.”


Challenging himself

Royal’s attendance at HERWorld2018 motivated him to “challenge myself” and sign on as a judge for the GRIT Awards, which he says “is not something I would have done in the past.” In all that he does, Mike is guided by the words of his stepfather, who used to run 70 – 80 miles with him to train for marathons, and whom he considers his mentor.


“He told me, ‘This is life. This is not how you need to do it because you’re blind.’”


Mike Royal is a judge and speaker for the
Experience Energy™ 2019 GRIT Awards℠  and the Best Energy Workplaces℠.
Reserve your table or become a sponsor today and learn more about Mike at


Mike Royal is a judge and speaker for the 2019 GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces

Haben Girma: Helen Keller In the Digital Age

Haben Girma keynote speaker for 2019 Experience Energy GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces

Advocate and Activist Haben Girma

Muse, incentive, influence, motivation. These are all synonyms for “inspiration” and disability advocate and activist Haben Girma asks that we (particularly the media) learn to use them instead of the trite, clichéd “inspiration.”

Certainly her myriad of accomplishments – surfing the waves in California where she was born and raised; helping build a school in Mali; graduating from Harvard Law School (‘13) – are enough to strike awe in anyone. Haben, 31, doesn’t believe being born Deafblind (her preferred spelling because “it’s a cultural identity”) should prevent her from pursuing the life she wants. There are over one billion disabled people, comprising the world’s largest minority, and our communities miss out on this immense talent pool when we don’t choose inclusion.

Haben’s mother, Saba, who fled the war in Eritrea as a 16-year old refugee, spending three weeks making the dangerous trek on foot to Sudan (and eventually finding her way to the US with the help of a Catholic aid agency), motivates Haben to “have courage and go on my own adventures.”

Conquering Barriers

Haben has discovered one of the greatest barriers facing people with disabilities is ableism, the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to the nondisabled. It’s when communities remove ableism that Haben feels most included, such as climbing an iceberg in Alaska with friends. She describes her many exciting adventures in her new book titled: Haben The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.

However, it was something as simple as trying to find out what was on the college lunch menu, which was only available in printed form and therefore not accessible to Haben or other blind students, that led her to become an advocate for others who might not be aware of what they are entitled to under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law which “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life.”

The same lessons Haben has learned as part of the world’s largest minority can be applied to women and other non-dominant members in male-dominated industries, such as energy: teach people what you need, develop self-advocacy skills, and know your rights so that your requests are not viewed as special treatment, but simply compliance with laws that are in place to ensure equality for everyone.

An Opportunity for Innovation

Haben, who communicates through an electronic keyboard which sends the writer’s comments to her via a braille keyboard, knows firsthand how access to the right tools, particularly technology, opened doors for her and eventually led to the distinction of becoming Harvard Law School’s first Deafblind graduate. As industry enters Energy 2.0 and the world as a whole becomes more digitized, this access is critically important for the disabled.

As she told President Obama in 2015 at the White House celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),

“Technology can bridge the gap for people with disabilities and, as Internet services open more opportunities for people, we’re going to see more people with disabilities employed and succeeding.”

That sends a powerful message to the energy industry – and any other sector – seeking an innovative and inclusive workforce. Haben does not see disability as something to be overcome, but rather one of the many facets of human diversity that can be used to build a better world. It is her belief that all obstacles, whether physical or psychological or technological, are created by humans and we each have a responsibility to remove those barriers that hold back others and ourselves.

Just as women have long struggled to have their voices heard in male-dominated industries, Haben wants the energy industry to include the voices of people with disabilities.

Haben believes disabilities are part of the human experience, and an opportunity to develop new solutions.

“I teach people to view disability as an opportunity for innovation.”

Haben Girma keynote speaker for 2019 Experience Energy GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces

Haben Girma is the keynote speaker for the
Experience Energy™ 2019 GRIT Awards℠  and the Best Energy Workplaces℠.
Reserve your table or become a sponsor today.