Some people are larger than life. Mark Pollock is one such person. Unbroken by blindness at 22, it didn’t stop him from competing in ultra-endurance races across deserts, mountains, and the polar ice caps, including an epic 2- month expedition race to the South Pole.
Then, in July 2010, the challenge chose Mark.
A tragic fall from a second story window left him paralysed, and Mark is now exploring the frontiers of spinal cord injury recovery, combining the most innovative technology, cutting-edge research, and otherworldly commitment.
“Sometimes we have the luxury of choosing our challenges, and sometimes challenges choose us. It’s what we do about it that counts.”
Described in the Daily Telegraph as “a story of courage, determination and hope”, Mark has used his hard-earned expertise to help people all around the world achieve more than they thought possible. Currently on a mission to find and connect people to fast-track a cure for paralysis, there’s not a force on earth that can stop him.
We had the privilege to meet with Mark during our recent Future of Accessibility event in Brussels and chat about his very impressive journey, life philosophy, technology and unconditional love for Irish rugby.
When someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?
It’s a difficult one (laughs). If you’re an Accountant, Lawyer, or Software Developer, you have an easy answer to that. I am an “Explorer and Collaboration Catalyst”. It took a long time to work that one out. I used to be an Adventure Athlete and a Speaker, but now what I’m doing feels much more like exploring the unknown. Today, I’m exploring new frontiers and I’m doing it through collaboration. But my new title is not easy to put down on a form.
“Exploring the unknown…”, is that the most challenging part of your job?
No, that’s the most exciting part! And the goal is very clear, we’re focused on discovering a cure for paralysis, it’s just a question of how you put all the pieces together in order to get there. But I suppose the area that I really focus on is the ‘doing’. I offer myself up to test new technologies, walk in the robotic legs, wear the electrodes and take the drugs. I like to do things where I can involve myself completely.
You started using digital tools very early on. How did it all come about?
The internet came to Ireland around 1996. I remember being in my final year of Business Studies and Economics in my university at Trinity College Dublin, and we were having classes in typing an address in search lines, and using search engines like AltaVista. At the time, when I went blind, I remember thinking that if I could write a letter on a computer and print it out, I could apply for a job. I knew that getting a computer with a screen reader and Microsoft Office on it would open up the world for me. When I started working, the world had just switched from written memos to emails. It was fortunate to become blind at that time. I started using Word, Excel and Access in 1998 in conjunction with a screen reader called JAWS from Freedom Scientific, and from that point became a heavy user of tech. It enabled me to rebuild my identity.
How’s your relationship with tech today?
Totally co-dependent. There are three things that really mattered to me in the aftermath of acquiring two disabilities: mobility, information and financial independence. As mentioned, technology opened up everything for me. It allowed me to work, study and research. In my daily life, I’m constantly switching between technology, such as my laptop, smart phone, analogue watch and cloud services, and the more ‘futuristic’ technology we’re experimenting with, such as Ekso Bionics robotic legs and cutting-edge electrical stimulators from Neuro Recovery Technologies. What I’m starting to get really interested in is the fusion of different technologies and fields to provide better results. Bringing together brilliant minds from completely different areas of research can accelerate solutions in a way that individuals cannot.
How does an “explorer and collaboration catalyst” get things done?
I travel a lot, collaborate with a lot of different people and need things to work brilliantly. I want to connect scientists to solve paralysis, and I can’t let technology slow me down. With my team, we used to mix all kinds of services and platforms and things weren’t working optimally. We moved our collaboration to Office 365 and started using Microsoft Exchange a little over a year ago. Since then, things are running a lot more smoothly. I also love my Surface, and can’t wait to get my hands on a Surface Book!
Would you say that things are moving fast enough for you?
Not that long ago, technology got me to a stage where I could race to the South pole and feel “normal” again. Today, I imagine I will only feel that again when I’m able to stand up and walk. The goal is to get technology to make that happen, fast. With the paralysis work and our attempt to cure it, I’ve come to realize that I have a real ability to contribute to the scientists, to the collaboration, and ultimately to the field. I’m in a very unusual position with the access to scientists and support that I get, and knowing that our research might one day benefit the field, motivates me.
On a completely different level, I would also like to see all the technology out there become completely accessible by design. It would be really great to see the accessibility aspect built in the devices right from the beginning.
You’re the co-founder of the global running series called “Run in the Dark”, what’s that about?
Run in the Dark is a 5k and 10k charity fun run event in five official locations – Dublin, Cork, Belfast, London and Manchester – and over 40 pop-up locations worldwide. The concept is simple, as night falls around the globe on November 16th, thousands will pull on their running shoes and red flashing armbands and head for the door. The idea is to fast-track a cure for paralysis by creating a global fundraising community through sport. Microsoft is actually part of the effort and supporting our plans through providing tech support and volunteers.
What accessibility barrier would you like technology to solve?
That’s an interesting question. I guess I’d love to be able to see everything around me, immediately, through a real time text-to-speech app combined with environmental and facial recognition. Get all the information around me, whenever I want. That would be great.
What advice would you give someone going through similar challenges?
There are two things that I think are important: first, you have got to accept where you are. Understand that life is worth living with the constraints and opportunities that arise. Second, you need to understand that there’s hope, that there’s a future and that things can be different. Once you can hold those two things in tandem, you get a chance of moving forward.
The French newspaper Nouvel Obs described you as “becoming bionic”. How does that sound?
I’d like it a lot more if I didn’t need to be bionic (laughs). To be honest, I’m completely comfortable with that. If that means that paralysis is in the news flow, and if that helps the spotlight to be put on the scientists, and that helps get interventions that are ready to move into the healthcare system, I’m happy to be bionic.
What does the future look like to you?
I have a sense of what the future is because I’m like a very old person with an intact mind but a failed body. In many ways, spinal injury research and aging research cross over. You can easily imagine a time where the diseases of the mind are fixed, and the bodies are broken. Some of the things that we experiment with today, such as moving the body using exoskeletons, igniting the nervous system through electrical stimulation or a whole new wave of research into optogenetics, lead me to believe that we’ll be demanding much more from the human body in the future, and in some ways, we’ll be “augmenting the human form”!
What does Mark Pollock do outside of work?
Well, I’ll tell you what I was doing last weekend. I went to a pub, and watched Ireland v South Africa in Rugby, Northern Ireland and Ireland in the football, Ireland under-20s in the Rugby World Cup Final , and Ireland Women’s Sevens in an Olympic qualification tournament. And all of them lost. Five different teams, and they all lost…(sigh)