Women On The Move: Joy Thomas

“I don’t understand why I didn’t get the job,”

I said to my supervising teacher, “You gave me such stellar reviews from my student teaching, and I feel like I described my teaching style and goals really well in my interview.  I have a 4.0 GPA, and the students loved me!  Did the principal say anything to you about why he didn’t hire me?”

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Photo Credit: Morry Angell, Guide Dogs for the Blind

My supervising teacher hesitated.

“Well, um, he did mention that you didn’t maintain strong eye contact throughout the entire interview.  He said your eyes didn’t always follow where he was pointing when he was explaining the school set up. He said your eyes kind of trailed off, and it made him skeptical about you.”

Her words came as a swift, unexpected punch in the gut.

That was 13 years ago, and I cringe thinking about the conversation, but not because I am embarrassed about my eyes, like I was then.  I cringe now because I remember how much time and energy I wasted trying to hide my vision loss.

The principal had no idea that I literally couldn’t see his finger when he moved it even a half inch to either side, much less follow the sweeping motion of his hands.  My supervising teacher knew about my loss of peripheral vision and even that I was legally blind, but I had asked her not to say anything because I didn’t want it to keep me from getting hired.  I didn’t use a cane in my interviews, or really much at all at that point in my life because I didn’t want to look “blind”.

Fortunately, my supervising teacher did not listen to me when I went to my next interview, choosing instead to mention my vision loss as one of my strengths, stating how hard I worked and how well I communicated with the students to compensate for my vision loss.

Joy Thomas-3
Photo Credit: Morry Angell, Guide Dogs for the Blind

That principal hired me.

I held my own as a middle school English teacher for several years, but I continued to struggle much more than I needed to because I still spent a great deal of time and energy trying to do everything the “sighted” way.  I still felt very ashamed of my vision loss, and I think that came across to my students and colleagues.  I always felt that I was just one incident away from disaster.  I had several incidents where parents thought I had purposely ignored them in passing, and one even complained to the school dean about it.  These incidents unnerved me and made me feel like people were getting closer and closer to finding out the truth about me.  The truth that, because of my eyesight, I was incompetent.

When a 7th grader with special needs fell asleep while I was reading a book to the class, and I failed to notice him sleeping outside of my line of vision, the special education teacher’s aide reported this to her, and she stormed into my classroom and demanded an explanation.  I spoke with her privately about my vision, and she was irate and said that she couldn’t trust her students with special needs in my classroom.  I became terrified that she would “tell on” me to administration, and since the principal who hired me was no longer there, I wasn’t quite sure if the new principal even knew that I was visually impaired and how he would feel about it.  Since I was still one year away from earning tenure, I knew that the school could legally lay met off at any time, without giving any reason, so I would never even have a case if anyone discriminated.

So, despite my outstanding observation reviews and the fact that I was a creative, organized teacher and had spent 2 years and a small fortune getting my master’s degree, I chose to resign from my job because of fear and shame.  I figured that if I were the one who quit, there would be no chance of me ever being fired.

Joy Thomas-7
Photo Credit: Morry Angell, Guide Dogs for the Blind

I was consumed with blending in and not appearing weak, which took away all of my strength.

Thankfully, I’ve come a long way over the past 9 years since I left my teaching job.  I now get around very well with the help of a guide dog. I have also acquired technology and housekeeping skills to make everyday life more accessible.

Ironically, now when I use my guide dog, people continue to make comments about my eye contact, except the exact opposite opinion from that first principal.  “But you don’t LOOK blind.  You’re looking right at me and making eye contact!”

That’s the tricky thing about degenerative eye conditions like Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).  Whether you’re using a mobility tool or not, people are constantly asserting that you have “not enough” or “too much” vision.  It’s like visual purgatory.

Joy Thomas-4
Photo Credit: Morry Angell, Guide Dogs for the Blind

When you linger between the worlds of sight and complete darkness long enough, a few things become apparent.

  1. There are certain tools available, such as canes and dogs and magnifiers and smartphones, that can be helpful and do not have to define you.
  2. The general public has a very black and white view of blindness, and when we’re out in the world, living our lives with whatever tools help us, we are often educating people about the wide spectrum of sight loss.
  3. Sharing stories of vision loss helps connect us and changes stigmas about blindness

I’d like to say that shame over vision loss is something that you just wake up having conquered one day, but the truth is that it’s a million little baby steps.  And on certain days, it still takes work.

I cannot pinpoint one breaking moment, or even one particular thing that helped me move forward.  It was a series of breaking moments and a series of steps forward.  Part of it was having my daughters and wanting them to grow up with a happy mommy; part of it was sharing stories with my twin on our blog; part of it was getting a guide dog.

Joy Thomas-5
Photo Credit: Morry Angell, Guide Dogs for the Blind

It was only when I began to lean into that part of myself that I always thought of as flawed that it truly began to lose power over me.

I may not be teaching in a classroom right now, but I am now confident enough that I could go back at any point in the future, For now, I am homeschooling my 2 daughters, who are growing up with a mom who doesn’t let the stigma of blindness stand in her way.

And they don’t seem to care whether I make too much eye contact, or not enough.  I hear them tell their friends their mom is “half blind”, and I suppose that is half true.  I am not concerned with correcting them or having the most accurate label to describe me and my vision.  My only concern now is living the most authentic life possible and spreading the message that we do not need to be ashamed of blindness.

Be sure to connect with Joy and her twin Jenelle on their social media accounts:

Author: Steph McCoy

Hi I'm Steph, a businesswoman, style setter, blogger, and abilities crusader who breaks the myth that “blind people can’t be fashionable.” “It’s about walking boldly with confidence, transcending barriers and changing the way we perceive blindness”

55 thoughts on “Women On The Move: Joy Thomas”

  1. Thank you for sharing so honestly and openly! And I’m relieved you are more accepting of visual aids – I had a friend who refused to use her cane. She fell from the rail platform onto the lines, scrapped the skin off her legs until they bled bumping into the old metal rubbish bins … you get the drift. Tell me do people still yell at you? I was constantly telling people that she was blind not deaf.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a terrible shame that fear of being fired led Joy to quit her job. I can certainly understand why she felt that way at the time, though. I’m happy that she now seems to be in a better, more confident and contented frame of mind. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for reading Joy’s story Bun. Yes, it’s awful the lengths people will go to in an attempt to keep a hidden disability at bay. Were it not for societal judgement and/or discrimination I would like to think that the world would look like a different place…a place of acceptance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just hope that step by step we’re getting to that place. Your blog and others like it are a part of the process of creating the greater understanding that I think is the key to solving the problem.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree with you, every little step we make in the right direction is a step forward. The exciting thing is the movement within the younger generation of advocates. Many of them are using their voices to change the old way of thinking.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for your comment. Yes, on one hand it’s a shame, but honestly, I feel like I learned so much from the experience and have grown in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I finally feel ready to go back to teaching!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hugs Steph. Beautiful post and I can relate. My mom and her sight issues, the glaucoma, the failed attempts of laser for correction, the scared tissue, slowly bit away with her self confidence, and she too was ashamed and embarrassed about even going out in public…just so so sad.
    Anyway, you have overcome so much and I am so proud of you for being you. I am glad you are homeschooling your daughters, as that too adds confidence. x

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you Lynne!! Joy has such a way with words and this post has moved a number of people. We don’t really hear much on shame and disability and I’m glad that Joy touched on it in her post. Would I be correct in assuming your mom’s sight issues began in later years?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You’re welcome Lynne. I suspected as much and the reason I asked is I’ve talked with others who have family members who experienced sight loss later in life and it seems to be a more difficult situation. One woman told me that when it happened to her mom they didn’t know where to go for help and as a result the loss of sight caused her mother to isolate herself. I thought I had a tough time when my issues began at 44 but I can’t fathom what it would be like to go through it in my 60s or 70s. The one saving grace today, though we have far to go, is the technological advances.

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      2. Thank you! Yes, shame can be a sad thing, but it can also be empowering when we recognize it. I hope your mom is able to overcome it by sharing her experiences with those closest to her!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this and thanks for sharing! Some of your comments remind me how people respond to my boys’ deafness. There’s a lot of ignorance about it, and there are many types/degrees of hearing loss, like vision loss. I enjoy sharing about my boys’ experiences so people understand they are not limited and have much to contribute. And Joy these pictures are really beautiful!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for visiting, reading and commenting Michelle. I’ve sent a message to Joy to let her know about these wonderful comments. When we focus on abilities and embracing our differences it makes the world such a better place. I think sharing our stories helps. Do you have a blog where you write about your boys?

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    2. Thank you Michelle! Yes, there are a lot of similarities with other disabilities, such as hearing loss. Navigating the education system as both a student and teacher, for one And navigating social life for someone with vision or hearing loss can be a challenge. So glad that your son has you as a mom and advocate!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing. Hope you continue to find helpful ways to deal with your vision loss. I’m sure you were a great teacher so it’s unfortunate you can’t teach, but hopefully, you have found other ways to fill your day. Blogging for one, is always good 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  6. This is a truly inspirational story. Tood bad she didn’t stick it out to further her teaching career. However, I’m glad to see her home schooling her 2 children. I feel she is an inspiration to everyone in the teaching field.
    Sherri

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Sherri. It was a tough decision to leave that particular teaching job, but i guess in thinking about it, I feel like I never really left the field. We are always teaching and learning. It’s a long, convoluted story about why I left, and I originally left that part in, but in the end, I felt like it took away from the crux of my story! Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. What a great post.

    I know I have learned a lot here, even though I’ve only been visiting a few weeks – I think I would have been much closer to thinking of blindness as a black and white thing before. So you’re helping at least this one person!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Thanks Joy! I am a fan of anyone who is willing to face their fears and Resistance head on in the name of personal growth and that which makes our world a little bit better. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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