Co-founder Darwin on Making Life’s Challenges into an Advantage
When WayAround co-founder Darwin Belt was fourteen, he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. The disease affected his vision from the time he was in his mid-20s, though the initial effects of vision loss were minimal.
Early on in his architectural career, Darwin had quite a bit of success. But then the 1980s happened: First, he lost his eyesight, which was mostly corrected by a vitrectomy in one eye and extensive laser treatments in the other. Then, the local economy soured and his business tanked. As if that wasn’t enough, his kidneys failed. He had to spend three days each week on dialysis. When a doctor told Darwin that 75% of people in his condition would not live to a third year, he thought life was behind him. He was only in his early 30s.
Then a major blessing happened—Darwin received a kidney from his brother, Craig, through a successful transplant. He did live to see a third year and many after that, but life didn’t magically stop throwing Darwin curveballs. Instead, he decided to take the advice someone told him when he was 14: take your diabetes and make it an advantage.
When Darwin was young, he thought diabetes was a hindrance that only limited his abilities. He eventually adopted the attitude that having diabetes gave him a clear advantage over many people—he became extremely disciplined. If he didn’t exercise, eat correctly, or give himself insulin on a regular schedule, he suffered the consequences. Over time, Darwin learned that discipline positively impacted other areas of his life as well.
Darwin decided to apply the advice he was given as a teenager more broadly to areas beyond his health. He made it a goal to take any problem thrown his way and turn it into an advantage. Keep reading for three times Darwin did exactly that.
1. Kidney failure provided time to create revolutionary software for architects.
Even when doctors warned that he might have only a couple of years left to live, Darwin didn’t let fear stop him. He began reading books on Computer Aided Design (or CAD) and toying around on the computer to apply what he learned.
After the kidney transplant, his health improved significantly. Darwin used his new knowledge about CAD to begin working with local builders. It was a small business that he ran out of his own garage. He also set a new standard for himself: How could he first think outside of the box and then bring that vision to reality?
Darwin’s work with builders grew, and he created a new company, AmeriCAD, which focused on residential architecture and the needs of that business community. Projects must be finished quickly, while making many decisions across multiple trades. Darwin focused on a very specific area: how can architects more efficiently gather information, store it, and communicate it in different modes? AmeriCAD became the first company to bring Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology to residential architecture. In short, BIM technology:
- Catalogs every detail about a building;
- Communicates to different groups of people what they need to know, in a format that makes sense for their field; and
- Stores all the information together in one location.
The ability to store and effectively communicate information based on a user’s preferences grew Darwin’s business from garage to global. Darwin sold his business in 2007 to a Fortune 175 company, and by the time he retired a few years later, the VisionREZ software he developed was used in countries throughout North and South America, Europe, and Australia.
2. Personal vision loss became an opportunity to connect, learn, and respond to the needs of others.
Before his kidney transplant, Darwin began having hemorrhages in both eyes. He would see a black spot, which would spread across the entire eye. After dozens of laser treatments and a vitrectomy in his left eye in the 1980s, Darwin regained much of his eyesight. Now, Darwin describes his vision loss as “inconvenient.” In one eye, his vision is poor. He has blind spots at night, limited peripheral vision, and trouble adjusting from light to dark. Doctors debate whether he now has wet macular degeneration or merely a build-up of damage from years of laser treatments.
Darwin used his experience with vision loss as a way to connect with people who were also visually impaired in his church and community. Through time spent with these friends, he learned about their individual needs, struggles, and experiences.
After reconnecting with Armand, Darwin grew in his knowledge and empathy regarding vision loss-related challenges and corresponding desire to make a difference. When Armand expressed that navigating through a public restroom was one of his personal greatest challenges, Darwin saw an opportunity.
3. Developing WayAround became an opportunity to change the status quo.
WayAround was initially created to help people who are blind or visually impaired receive information about the spaces they are in. Now Darwin’s vision for WayAround has become much greater: he wants to make public spaces totally natural and welcoming for people who are blind.
There are a lot of products that help people who are blind—some are tried and true, others are much newer; some are affordable or even available for free, while others cost a pretty penny. For Darwin, any assistive technology or device that someone wants to use is terrific, and he intends for WayAround to work with any assistive measure someone relies on.
Remember that Darwin is an out-of-the-box thinker, so he wants the world to adapt better to people who are blind, rather than the other way around. WayAround isn’t just another product, but it’s a worldwide movement to make all public spaces and spaces not just accommodating but welcoming of people who are blind. He plans for it to be installed soon in buildings across the world, so it will be there when you need it, if you need it. And for people who are blind, you don’t have to pay a thing.
As a businessman and entrepreneur, Darwin is designing WayAround to positively impact businesses, too. It’s a cost-effective, tangible way to accommodate the needs of the rapidly expanding number of people with vision loss. And for customers who are sighted, WayAround signage is a reminder of a business’s commitment to accessibility and social responsibility.
Darwin has one additional vision for WayAround: involving people who are blind in every aspect of the business. He wants people who are blind or visually impaired to not just use WayAround but also work for and with the company. He plans to employee people who are blind and visually impaired at every level of business, including administration, manufacturing, installation, and sales.
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