Shawn Henning ’96: Empowering tech access for all

In the summer of 2013, as Shawn Henning ’96 set out for a meeting with a client, his vision suddenly blurred. “I don’t think I can take notes,” he told a colleague.

Four months later, at the age of 40, he was blind.

Shawn Henning '96 is seated on a bench outdoors with his golden Labrador guide dog seated on the ground next to him.
Shawn Henning ’96 and his guide dog.

Henning’s vision had been damaged in infancy by a rare disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Doctors thought that this condition, combined with certain medications, had caused pressure in his eyes to flare up and leave him sightless. Surgeries and other treatments were useless.

At the time, Henning was a computer engineer for a major consulting firm in Seattle, an expert in programming and software with 14 years’ experience at Microsoft. Now on medical leave, he began teaching himself to use the assistive technologies built into computers, such as turning text into speech. It was harder than he thought it should be, but he mastered it. 

“The real problem,” he said, “was leaving the house.”

He sought training in orientation and mobility: basic living skills, use of a cane, beginning Braille. He took lessons in echo-location, learning how to judge the size of a room by clapping his hands, how to detect obstacles by clicking his tongue.

“I was able to get to most places on my own or with help from sighted passersby,” he said. “But many streets were still scary to cross.”

Within months he was back at work, focused on improving assistive technologies and website accessibility. He devoted four years to the effort, during which he married Seth Mahoney, who provides data reporting for healthcare companies. Then Henning landed a job with Apple as an engineering project manager, moved to San Francisco with his husband, and acquired a guide dog, a yellow lab named Delancey. 

How does Henning explain the urgency with which he addressed his blindness?

“I want to work, to be out in the world, use my skills, give value. There are many examples of blind people leading productive lives. People are presented with new challenges all the time. You don’t start out with the idea you can’t do it.”

Computers have fascinated Henning since he took a programming course in high school at Hebron, Nebraska. “I was intrigued by the power of what could be accomplished with keystrokes.” The kid who had nearly flunked his personal typing class became the fastest typist in the school.

At Cornell, he majored in computer science, physics, and mathematics. “Cornell was excellent preparation for working in software development,” he said. “Projects are typically broken into segments with specific deadlines, often a month long, much like Cornell’s block plan.”

Henning also helped create Cornell’s first website, taught others how to make personal web pages, and figured out how to enlarge fonts on a UNIX system, making it easier to use by students with poor vision.

One day, he visited the home of a retired professor, Walter Stromer, who was blind, and helped him set up a bulky scanner that would “read” books aloud. “Just think,” Henning said. “What it took that pile of equipment to do back in 1996 I can do today with my phone.” 

After a public relations career spanning nearly 50 years in New York City, Dan Kellams ’58 wrote two books set in his hometown of Marion, Iowa.