When Gretchen and Charles Hill adopted their son, the orphanage director “told us that Henry is a game changer – influential, inspirational, game changer,” his mother said.

“I think Henry is all of the above.”

Getting a teen to connect with the literary classics and works of theology can often be a struggle, but not with 17-year-old Henry Hill, of Irvine. He developed that passion on his own. What he needed help with was the access.

Born blind, Hill has lobbied publishing houses and literary sources to get versions of the great works in braille or as audiobooks, and he hopes his efforts will make it easier for his peers to find the passion in reading he has.

“I tell people around me the difficulty it can be in just finding a good translation of Livy’s histories, or Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ or Verdi’s ‘La Traviata,’” Hill said. “I constantly battle people and certain publishing groups just to get a book about King Arthur, and people have the audacity to say to me that it’s great how I know about old books when it’s sort of their fault for not making it accessible in the first place.”

“I don’t know how to make it more plain, or self-evident, that being blind does not allow a lucid entrance into education,” he said.

Hill has committed himself, he said, to the promise that “everyone deserves equal access to knowledge.”

He said he has learned a lot from “the greatest poet,” John Milton.

“Milton was a man who suffered blindness like me, and despite it wrote the greatest epic in English history,” said Hill. “Milton in many ways represents a version of me. Like me he went blind, he persevered and, as an adult, he went on to write ‘Paradise Lost,’ which someday I hope to articulate the wonder of to the world.”

Another inspiration for Hill is simply the “entire realm of old books.”

“The fact that they exist for us to read is an inspiration,” he said. “I find it a wonder that I am able to read about the ‘Life of Dr. Johnson’ by Boswell, or walk with tears through the lives of Esther Summerson, Pip and Elizabeth Bennet, or on the classical side to fall in love with Achilles, to find a friend in Odysseus, and to find such good teachers in the ancients.”

Hill, a University High junior, became proficient in Braille when he was little, and from then on, you could find him engrossed in a wide array of reading materials.

At age 9, Gretchen Hill said her son requested a Bible in Braille for his Christmas gift.

From beginning to end, the book measured about 15 feet of shelf space because each book of the Bible is an individual installment.

“From then on he has become of student of it,” she said. “He reads and rereads it and knows it so well.”

Hill credits his motivation first and foremost to God, who has been his “consolation and strength.” Without God’s guidance, Hill said he would “not have made it in school or in reading.”

The BrailleSense-6 that Hill now uses allows him to search the internet and also send emails, complete school assignments and delve into the expansive realm of written works … if they are available.

“It was because of my blindness that I was able to not only discover the need for education for disabled students, but also the desire to make the scriptures and the exposition laid out by the great theologians of the past like (Thomas) Aquinas, (Martin) Luther, (John) Calvin, (Jonathan) Edwards accessible,” he said.

Hill has taken his passion for advocacy and spoken at schools around Orange County, inviting students who are younger than him to not see people who have disabilities differently, and to recognize that “other people may need accommodations in different areas, but we are all ‘abled.’”

Because of his advocacy and desire to make more literature accessible, Hill was honored this year with the Elphie Award by the producers of the musical “Wicked,” given to “individuals who, in spite of hardship or societal expectation, enact change for good” – people who are “defying gravity” as its title character sings.

The Hill family flew to New York in October for the teen to accept the award at the Gershwin Theatre where the popular Broadway musical is performed.

For the award’s organizers to “see his daily efforts, and for him to be acknowledged and rewarded by the people at ‘Wicked,’ ultimately made us really proud,” Gretchen Hill said.


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“From teachers to coaches to friends and family – I believe all walk away from Henry feeling differently about the capacity of someone with a perceived disability,” she said. “He not only pushes back on societal expectations, but looks for barriers to chip away at.”

The theater arranged a backstage “touch tour” for Hill and his family, inviting him to physically experience the entire production. During the performance, Hill received audio descriptions through headphones.

“It was extra special to be there on the 20th anniversary of ‘Wicked’ on Broadway,” said Gretchen Hill. “But the best part was watching him sitting in the audience enjoying the bigness of it all; it really is a great show.”

Hill said after high school he would like to attend the University of Oxford in England and study the classics, literature and philosophy, and eventually earn his doctorate in theology.

Then, after becoming an author of a great novel like John R. R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, he would like to teach at Oxford, he said, and to sit as the chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge.

But ultimately, Hill’s dream is to be able to translate works of literature into braille so others like himself have the opportunity to enrich themselves in the great classics without challenge.

“Why ought only sighted people,” he asks, “have the ability to translate ancient and medieval texts?”