How One Blind Penn Stater Is Changing Lives By Changing Minds
Life presents countless challenges, yet one Penn State alumnus is constantly seeking out his own.
For Dan Berlin, changing the world is as simple as changing your running shoes. We recently sat down with Berlin, a Penn State alumnus tackling a wide variety of epic pursuits with extreme athleticism and nonexistent fear. From climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in two and a half days to running the Grand Canyon “rim to rim” and back, Berlin is achieving unbelievable feats that challenge the perception of limitation and create a boundless world for every person brave enough to pursue the impossible.
From even a Zoom call with Berlin, you would never guess that the man currently tackling these epic challenges in every corner of the world was once a bashful Penn State freshman, apprehensive of life’s changes as he lost his eyesight from cone-rod dystrophy.
“And definitely, I hid it for a long time,” he said.
In the earliest days on campus, Berlin began forging his fortitude against disability as a student here at University Park. He knew overcoming the perception of limitation would be an uphill battle. While at Penn State, Berlin encountered the normal obstacles of college life while simultaneously battling his own personal challenges.
“My whole time at Penn State, I was progressively losing my eyesight, less and less able to do a lot of things in school, less able to read textbooks,” he said. “And I hid it for so long.”
Diagnosed at a young age, Berlin experienced a life far different than his Penn State peers. With the knowledge of his diagnosis and an increasingly daunting reality, Berlin could have easily withdrawn from the university and given up, succumbing to the perception of limitation associated with irreversible blindness.
Yet that is not the story he wrote, and that was not the life he chose.
While high achievement would become the norm for Mr. Berlin only a few decades later, he first found the inspiration to overcome while at Penn State. Reflecting on his college years, Dan Berlin has nothing but positive memories, as it was here that he first found happiness in the Valley and began a lifelong commitment to perseverance.
“It was always the school I wanted to go to,” he said. “I was always a fan, and always saw myself going to Penn State from the time I was in high school.”
Originally from Hershey, Pennsylvania, Berlin imagined attending the university as a chance to explore the world and remarked on his feelings as a high school senior.
“It seemed like such a huge place,” he said. “It was just really exciting to be there.”
Taking every chance to cultivate the fullest experience, Berlin enjoyed the social atmosphere of campus. From majoring in food science to fulfilling leadership roles in student life, he reached as high as the State College sky, all while dealing with unimaginable loss privately.
“There’s so many opportunities to bump into, discover, and explore what we really may love to do in the future,” he reflected.
Fully immersed in blue and white culture, Berlin forged friendships and gained values that would last a lifetime.
“Decades later and looking back, I think it was the human connection that I made at Penn State that made the experience so great: people from all around the world that maybe I would not have met going to a smaller college or staying in my hometown,” he said.
While life has taken him to exotic locations far beyond central Pennsylvania, it was here at University Park where Berlin mastered the concept of teamwork for the common good. Living on campus during this tumultuous period of his life, Berlin balanced studying classwork and learning the almighty art of overcoming life’s obstacles. This was a skill he would later rely upon and even perfect both atop Mount Kilimanjaro and in the depths of the Grand Canyon.
“It triggered in me a sense of exploration, both challenging myself and challenging my own beliefs and abilities,” Berlin stated.
By igniting the drive of pursuing the impossible, Penn State pride played a crucial role in shaping Dan Berlin into the champion of athletic achievement and physical equality he is today.
“It really pushed me into exploring, living a life of curiosity…even though I probably wouldn’t have described it that way as a 22-year-old graduate,” he reflected with gratitude.
Growing within the diverse community of Penn State brings an intense learning curve for all college students, and facing unimaginable loss added a different layer of struggle to the college experience for Berlin. But with an enduring spirit and unceasing drive, Berlin formulated the inner strength to create a phenomenal life born out of personal challenge. With a reflective conclusion, he summarized his time on campus as the foundation for becoming an example of limitless possibility years later.
“But what it really did,” he paused briefly in thought, “was [be] the spark that drove me. It really opened my eyes to exploring the world and looking towards different possibilities.”
Sparked by his Penn State experience, Berlin moved forward to start an incredible career as a corporate professional. Life was looking different for this Nittany Lion, and major changes were on the horizon. Relocating to Colorado and beginning a new life with his young family, Berlin took a huge leap of faith and started his own company — all while on the edge of complete vision loss.
“It was this huge risk, a ton of weight on my shoulders. With progressively losing my sight, it was almost too much pressure and change,” Berlin recalled.
His new life beginning amid intense physical challenge, Berlin was pushed to the breaking point. With his world spinning faster than ever, he drew upon his depth of character to advance his corporate career. He achieved great professional success and also discovered a new passion for fitness. However, Berlin could have never imagined how this personal stride forward would ultimately trigger an avalanche of possibility for the disabled community far beyond his own pursuits.
“I would say it wasn’t until I started running about 12 years ago that I started to change my perception of my own ability,” he recalled.
Taking off in the race of reality, Berlin began with one small step. While training for his first marathon, Berlin mastered the process of focused athletic preparation. It was this process that would eventually blossom into the creation and completion of epic challenges for the greater good. From climbing Machu Picchu in one day to running his most recent Boston Marathon, Berlin redefined the concept of limitation by first adjusting his own perspective.
“I’m a strong believer in setting huge goals and taking tiny steps,” he said.
In following his own advice and moving the needle forward in small increments, Berlin has flown high over boundaries that would have previously limited the disabled community, opening the door for an entire world behind him.
Most recently, heeding his own advice brought him back to the Boston Marathon, an epic physical challenge Berlin had already completed six times before this year. Joining Team With A Vision through the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Berlin ran again as an example of limitless possibility. In addition to competing in the race, Berlin was also the recipient of the 2021 Kara MacDonald Aspire Award, an incredible honor that remains especially close to heart.
Presented to individuals that boldly represent the late MacDonald’s commitment to athletes with disabilities, this award created a particularly poignant moment for Berlin, who worked with Kara years earlier when he first began his athletic career.
“To receive an award that is dedicated in her name is really impactful…and that spirit of helping others is what I try to undertake in what I’m doing now,” Berlin explained with pride.
Inspired by MacDonald’s kindness, Berlin models her legacy of giving to the visually impaired community, both on and off the marathon course. As an endurance athlete for change, Berlin is now the co-founder and president of Team See Possibilities, a non-profit working to redefine the current perception of the disabled community. A combination of extreme sports endeavors, a mentorship program, and a peer support group, Team See Possibilities serves as a bold example of defying perceptions within a limiting world.
“Team See Possibilities is about creating role models of success,” Berlin said. “We’re here to help our students be successful in all these diverse careers. We are also here to promote them out to the broader public at large, to show what can be done.”
By helping his team’s scholars grow beyond perceived boundaries, Berlin is changing the game for a world of visually impaired youth. From working closely with Team See Possibilities scholars to completing his own epic challenges, Berlin shatters societal expectations for the entire generation.
“So many parents of young children who are blind or disabled really think their options are so limited,” Berlin said. “The idea is to share through example, these role models and these people who are out there…doing it. They’re going to top schools, they’re taking on majors that are just really interesting. They’re doing it and they’re blind.”
With 18 scholars currently in the program, Team See Possibilities diminishes the perception of limitation as evidence of a changing world. Through his work with visually impaired youth, Berlin continues to exemplify his own advice of moving forward outside of epic, physical endeavors. In both his commitment to helping the next generation and his own physical pursuits of excellence, Berlin expands his ideology for complex change with simple brilliance.
“A good friend of mine told me years ago that the trick to climbing a really steep climb or a long climb on the bike is to ‘Just keep pressure on the pedals,’” he explained.
In sharing this advice, Berlin demonstrated that not only was he a master cyclist, but he also possessed the true wisdom to excel as a master optimist.
“It’s not about having to be great at everything all the time or even any of the time,” he continued. “It’s just about always doing things that move the needle a little bit forward, keeping pressure on the pedals. And before you know it, you’re on top of the hill.”
With the concept of giant goals completed by the smallest of steps, Berlin reached for the stars and brought them back to earth for the next generation. In the creation of the mentorship program within Team See Possibilities, Berlin reflected on his experience as a young man facing disability, and his own lack of guidance at the time.
“I think because I was losing my eyesight, I was too bashful at the time…too afraid of what people would think of me and being pigeonholed into not advancing. Because of that, I never really had any close mentorship,” he said.
Despite never having a mentor during his own challenging times, Berlin has created an environment fulfilled by support and guidance for the next generation. Through Team See Possibilities, visually impaired students learn to live beyond boundaries and are empowered as examples of limitless ability within a disabling world.
With ultimate grit and courage unmatched, Berlin first proved what could be done. And now, he’s helping others do the same with the Team See Possibilities organization. To redefine the world’s perception of vision loss, Berlin drew from his own life to consider others once again. He found new meaning within his changing world, discovering inspiration close to home in his role as a father.
“I thought, ‘What type of role model do I want to be, for my kids? What do I want them to take away from the way I live my life?’” he said.
Berlin strives to give back in every walk of life. As both an advocate of ability and a champion of challenge, Berlin keeps the spirit of giving close to heart and mind in both epic pursuits and everyday life. With others once again at the forefront of his mind, Berlin shared a few simple truths that drive his unbelievable missions.
“Try to help others, do the best you can, set ambitious goals,” he listed quickly with confidence.
Expressing unbelievable integrity with the ease of an individual listing their grocery items for the week, Berlin continued to share life’s lessons joyfully.
“Don’t worry about failure. It’s hard to fail when you take a whole lot of small steps,” he said. “That’s the thing. You just keep slowly moving forward.”
Looking back at his impressive resume of athletic achievements that includes more than a dozen marathons, Berlin was quick to point out the one race that remains permanently etched into his own mind, and the minds of the entire world.
That indelible memory occurred on April 15, 2013, when two explosive devices detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. About 10 minutes before 3 p.m. near Boylston Street, the bombs exploded with devastating consequences for an entire nation. At that moment, Berlin found himself less than a single block away.
Accompanied by his young daughter, Talia, only 12 years old at the time, Berlin faced an unthinkable day not only as a visually impaired marathon runner but as a father as well.
“It was just her and I. She was there by herself at the finish,” he recalled. “I met up with her five minutes before the blasts went off.”
With his young daughter at his side during the terrorist attack, Berlin experienced a national tragedy with unprecedented danger. In explaining this almost indescribable moment, Berlin provided details of his daughter’s reaction that spoke to her incredible character from such a young age.
“She was just so calm and cool,” he revealed. Later on, Berlin also explained his daughter Talia’s thoughts after the tragic day.
“‘I wanted to freak out’ is what she had said later,” Berlin revealed and continued his daughter’s explanation. “’But I had to keep it inside…cause my job right now is, ‘Hey I have to get my dad out of here.’”
With courageous actions like these, it’s clear that bravery runs in the Berlin family. At just 12 years old, daughter Talia faced unimaginable challenges in the face of true tragedy and overcame it just like her dad.
“That was traumatic, and in a way, it brought us close together,” Berlin concluded.
With a relationship as solid as the grounds of Machu Picchu itself, Berlin was joined by his daughter at his most recent Boston Marathon as well. Training for a marathon is no easy feat, and Talia worked extra hard to prepare for the intense demands of the 2021 Boston Marathon.
“She had to start from zero. She was the one who approached me about running it together, so it was super special,” Berlin stated with a smile.
Having volunteered with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired since she was 11 years old, Talia decided to run along with her father in the race this year, creating an unforgettable moment with her dad eight years after the tragedy.
“She chose to turn 21 with her dad in Boston, running a marathon the next day, versus going out and celebrating with her friends,” he said. “Her and my son Ky…they are my motivation.”
Undoubtedly, undeniable character and goodwill are ever-present for both father and daughter. As a role model for so many, Berlin doesn’t have to look much further than his own inner circle for inspiration in all of his endeavors.
Supported by his wife, Sheila, and their children, Berlin makes it his mission to defy boundaries and give structure to the next generation of visually impaired youth. Empowered by his family and inspired to continue his epic pursuits, Berlin unmasks limitation as a falsehood with an even grander attitude.
“If we don’t push ourselves to the limit of where we want to give up, we’re not setting our expectations high enough on ourselves,” he said. “This can be in anything, it can be in music, it can be in art, it can be sports, it can be in research. If we are not trying things that push ourselves to our limits, then we are not going to recognize our true full human potential.”
In analyzing Berlin’s take on changing the perception of limitation, one can find inspiration for all types of life goals. But in the pursuit of excellence, there is bound to be failure along the way. During our conversation, Berlin candidly provided an honest take on getting back up after falling down.
“There are times when you push up against the limits of what we have at that moment,” he said. Yet, with the brilliance of a man redefining ability, Berlin shared the incredible perspective of a champion.
“Our limits are almost never static,” Berlin said. “It’s not ‘This is the best I’m going to be,’ but ‘What can I do over the next weeks or months or years that might make me better?’”
In considering limitations on any single day, Berlin draws a conclusion for an entire lifetime. For him, there’s only one way to go: forward, towards a vibrant future and a goal that he finds exciting.
With inextinguishable positivity and complete commitment to changing the world by changing perspectives, Berlin revealed another goal for inclusion which is his current mission: decreasing the unemployment rate for visually impaired people.
“I spent decades in corporate America before leaving to start my own company…and I never remember being in a boardroom or a conference room with another person who was blind. And I can’t even remember being in a room with someone in a wheelchair or other physical disabilities,” he revealed with disappointment.
With the rate of blindness having increased dramatically in America, this truth might seem hard to fathom. Yet, the facts show that the current rate of unemployment among disabled people is still astronomically high in the United States. In attempting to bring this unbelievable statistic into the spotlight, Dan Berlin teamed up with fellow blind athlete Jack Chen to undertake another epic challenge with an even more impressive message.
“It’s all about coming together, changing perceptions in society, and being successful,” he said.
Together, they tackled the Race Across America cycling challenge in 2018, a demanding task for any athlete. As the first-ever blind tandem cycling team, Berlin and Chen redefined ability within disability and worked to exemplify the new role of perception of limitations for the entire visually impaired community. Through this monumental accomplishment, they defied societal expectations for visually impaired individuals, and their hope is that this achievement has proven that the people’s perception of limitation is the only true barrier for the disabled community.
With this new ideology and incredible example, Berlin and Chen are now looking to bring this lesson to Corporate America. Their hope is to redefine the perception of disabled individuals in the workplace, revealing their inherent value as individuals and creating a new perspective for employers everywhere.
“We want to change that dynamic where people are thinking, ‘Well, how am I going to have to change my team to allow somebody who’s blind to fit?’ into this idea of, ‘If I hire someone who is blind or [who has] any other disability or challenge, what type of perspective and background are they going to bring in here that’s going to make us stronger, that we don’t have right now?'” Berlin said.
With a full-length documentary covering the 2018 Sea to See Race Across America Team coming out this year, Berlin and Chen plan to share their accomplishment and message with the world. Through this tale of incredible achievement, they are looking to create a more inclusive workforce and shift the emphasis to ability instead of disability. Three years in the making, the film explores the paths taken to achieve this monumental feat and the overwhelming challenges that it presented.
In a final reflection, Berlin shared what was perhaps the most brilliant example of how societal limitation imposed on individuals with disabilities exists in today’s world.
“It’s about acceptance. One of the greatest examples I heard was for somebody in a wheelchair. They’re not disabled because they can’t get into a building with a flight of steps in front of the building. They’re disabled because there’s no ramp into the building. Once you put a ramp there, they’re not disabled,” he explained. “It’s the building that’s disabling, not the fact that somebody can’t walk.”
With the undeniable wisdom bestowed upon only the bravest and boldest of thinkers, Berlin is changing lives by changing minds. Through his numerous examples of athletic achievement, Berlin not only conquers epic challenges but challenges an entire generation to recognize false boundaries and find the inner strength to overcome them.
In redefining the perception of limitation and drawing power from this changed perspective, Dan Berlin encourages us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. His life’s work is living proof that one can achieve the impossible if only they have the courage to live limitlessly, making great strides towards the future — one step at a time.
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About the Author
“I hope that in my four-year tenure, I am able to elevate the community, energize people…and help the people in this community to recognize their own unique and valuable contributions.”
“I hope that in my four-year tenure, I am able to elevate the community, energize people…and help the people in this community to recognize their own unique and valuable contributions.”
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