Despite being legally blind, this Google employee commutes to work each day from New Jersey to his office in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.
“Traveling to work is kind of like running 10 miles before you even get to the start of the marathon. There’s always a lot of dynamic objects moving, people moving throughout Penn station rushing to get where they’re going — their noses are in their phone. They’re not looking at where they’re going so I have to compensate for that.”
Chen, who has degrees in computer science from both Harvard and Berkeley, is Google’s product counsel and oversees legal matters related to Chrome. As a child, he had limited eyesight, but was able to see light and make out colors and vague shapes.
“I generally couldn’t see cars and had to pretty much rely on my sense of sound to alert me if there was one coming. Thankfully electric cars weren’t popular back then.”
When he was 16, Chen underwent his eighth or ninth surgery in hopes of improving his sight. He lost his vision completely as a result of complications during the operation.
“My optic nerve was damaged in earlier operations in one eye. In the remaining eye, during a critical part of the operation, my head involuntarily moved, and there was some hemorrhaging. My retina broke apart.”
Though he lost his sense of sight, Chen didn’t let that stop him from achieving academic and professional success. He interned at AT&T and went on to be a systems engineer at Xanboo Inc., a New York-based startup involving internet home security systems. After earning his J.D. degree at Fordham Law School, Chen worked for two years as a patent and trademark attorney in New York law firms.
In 2010, he came on board as Google’s associate patent counsel. For six years, Chen has been making his daily commute using the four-foot radius of information he receives with his cane.
According to Chen, his biggest obstacles are poles and columns that he encounters in Penn Station. He navigates his route to work using the mental map he’s memorized as well as other cues.
“I also use smells to tell me where I am. I pass by a coffee place and the Subway sandwich place, and those are smell landmarks to let me know that I have properly made that left turn and am heading to the subway.”
For most of his life, Chen has had to problem solve without depending on his vision. He relies on his auditory senses to get his work done by using a screen reader and the VoiceOver function on his iPhone to read text out loud.
However, Chen admits that as a lawyer having every word read out loud to you can be quite time consuming. To speed things up, he sets the technology to read at 620 words per minute, a pace that sounds like gibberish to untrained ears.
Outside of work, Chen maintains a very active and adventurous lifestyle. In 2012, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Tanzania, Africa.
“I wanted to test myself, but I didn’t have a lot of time to work on learning climbing techniques. I figured if I liked it, I could get into the gear later and try other peaks.”
Chen has also competed in five triathlons and two Ironman triathlons that include a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. He attaches himself via a rope to another athlete in the swimming and running portions and rides a tandem bike in the cycling portion. In preparation for his races, Chen wakes up at 3:00 a.m. to train before making his commute to the office.