Birkir Gunnarsson - Part 1

Birkir Gunnarsson swimming in competition at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic games Birkir Gunnarsson was born and raised in Iceland. His given name, Birkir, means 'birch tree'. I met him at a DAISY Meeting in Washington in June 2012 and we have corresponded a number of times since.

This is Part 1 of Birkir's story.

Don't just push the envelope …

… break through the walls of the post office

The reason I accepted Lynn Leith's gracious offer to write a story for the DAISY Planet is not so much to rant and rave about the successes and failures of my life over the past 35 years, as it is to perhaps motivate you, good readers, to get out there, try your best, and never be afraid of failure. I also want to explain why access to technology and electronic information has become my job, my hobby and my passion.

Access to technology has, in many ways, defined who I am today, both personally as well as professionally.

On one hand accessible technology and access to electronic information has enabled me to experience absolutely incredible moments such as meeting my wife, having dinner with Bill Gates at his house, and graduating from Yale University with two B.S. degrees; but on the other hand it has also held me back and limited my career options.

I am a lucky man. My job is also my hobby, and I have had the pleasure of working with some incredibly talented and dedicated people along the way, many of them in the DAISY Consortium.

By making technology and information accessible we are empowering people to overcome limitations posed by disabilities through the power of their minds, and enabling those people to pursue their dreams – and how can one not be excited about that?

From the Beginning

Haukadalur Geysir, Iceland I hail from the rainy, windy but not particularly snowy country of Iceland. I was born with Retinoblastoma and lost my sight at age 5. Back than (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) disability support was a somewhat foreign concept to Icelanders. My parents had to travel with me to London no less than 12 times in 4 years at their own expense in order for me to receive radiation treatments. My father financed our trips by purchasing the latest and greatest LPs in London and making copies for purchase in Iceland. (Yes, breaching copyright is never a good thing, nor do we condone it, but in my family we've always done what we have had to do). Fortunately the situation in Iceland has drastically changed since then, support for parents of sick kids has improved, and copyrighted material freely floods the Internet. By the fall of 1982, when I was 5 years old, it had become clear that radiation would not stop the tumour and surgery was performed to remove my eyes.

My Tripod of Success

Birkir at a young age playing the guitar I had a tough time adjusting to blindness, but with the help of some absolutely fantastic teachers for the visually impaired in Iceland I managed to slowly catch up and learn to live without sight. Two things in particular managed to save my social life as a blind individual.

Cookie Cans & Paint Tins

My initial dabbling in music consisted of destroying my parents' cookie cans and paint containers to build my own drum sets – until they bought me a real one. Since those very early experiences I have expanded into playing the piano and the guitar. Music helped me make friends amongst my sighted classmates and form what was certainly the worst Metallica cover band in the history of music.

Getting my feet (and the rest of my body) wet also did miracles. I started training with a swim team in Iceland when I was 7 years old. I learnt discipline, made a group of lifelong friends, gained self-confidence and also learnt the value of perseverance.

Music and swimming in fact formed the two pillars of my tripod of success, such as it is.

But the true revelation of the vast world of possibilities was revealed to me at age 12, when I attended a weeklong summer course on using a computer with a braille display. I discovered the 'nerd' in me that had been trying to break out for years, and immediately started badgering people at the Library for the Blind in Iceland (now The Icelandic Talking Book Library to record an audiobook on programming for the DOS operating system – they promptly obliged.

The Safe Road isn't Always the Best Road

Birkir and a friend at Legoland in Reykjavík Iceland The next big step came after the 10th grade, which is the last grade of elementary school in Iceland. I was going to take the safe road and go to the high school that had established an excellent support system for students with disabilities, but my support teacher (or TVI as they are called in the U.S.) knew I secretly wanted to shoot for the only semi-private high school in Iceland. She convinced me to give it a shot, not be shy, and pursue my dreams. I applied and got in.


The Teenage Years

The first semester I stayed home, studied hard, and led the true life of a sci-fi reading, swimming, computer dabbling, nerd, whilst my classmates were enjoying the social life, romance, booze and partying. This dedication paid off for me and I managed to somehow sneak my way into the top of my class of 130 students after the first year.

A young Birkir Gunnarsson wearing bright yellow sunglasses Over the following 3 years my social life improved somewhat whilst my grades took a little bit of a hit, though I still graduated in the top 3. I did manage to win two Paralympic bronze medals for swimming in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, and generally had very happy teenage years. The one lesson I learnt over and over was not to be afraid to try things, and not to be scared of failure.

The key to both my academic success and my social life was my computer. Teachers started realizing that they could send me documents directly via email, and likewise that I could submit my homework to them directly, or print it without the need for transcription.

I still would not have succeeded if it wasn't for the dedication of my teachers and the Icelandic Library for the Blind, whose employees spent countless hours making sure I got the necessary textbooks and handouts at the same time as my classmates, even if a lot of that work had to be done manually. They even had to invent an Icelandic math braille system to make sure I could get through the more advanced sections of the algebra curriculum.

Birkir and teammates After graduating high school in the spring of 1997 I was not entirely sure what to do, but decided to pursue a B.S. degree in Computer Science at the University of Iceland. Little did I know that in less than a year, a combination of swimming, passion for music, and my passion for technology would drastically change my life.

Part 2 of Birkir's story begins with "Going global!". In Part 2 which will be published with the November DAISY Planet, he recalls his acceptance to Yale in the US, the years that followed and some of his successes and the challenges he has faced.

Photo Credits

The photograph of Haukadalur Geysir, Iceland, The erupting Great Geysir in Haukadalur is from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.