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Pushing Boundaries: Supporting Independence of Visually Impaired People

Featured Image Description is in the body of the post

Pushing Boundaries: Supporting Independence of Visually Impaired People

“I asked him what he envisioned for his future…“I don’t know. I think I will always be with somebody”, he said.”

~Kassy Maloney
Pushing Boundaries: Supporting Independence Image of Kassy is described in the body of the post.
Kassy Maloney

“I… I just don’t like to talk about it”, my student told me. It was our first Orientation and Mobility (O&M) class together. He was about 15 years old with the degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

For people with RP, there is a significant chance that they will eventually lose most of their vision. Vision is worse at night, often resulting in night blindness before losing their peripheral fields.

As we sat facing one another in the principal’s conference room, I asked him what he envisioned for his future. His once jolly smile turned into a saddened face. He looked down and suddenly began avoiding eye contact.

“I don’t know, I think I will always be with somebody”, he said. Describing what he thought his night-time travel needs might look like in 10 years.

“Even as an adult?”, I probed.

Here I was, a stranger without a visual impairment, trying desperately to casually bring up the forbidden “C” word; CANE.

There have been many of these instances in my career. I’m a person who doesn’t have a visual impairment, and yet I am pushing boundaries. Their boundaries. The boundaries of what they think they can do; the boundaries of what their family members think they can do. Sometimes I even push the boundaries of the perceptions of what their community members think they can do.

It’s my job to push the boundaries of my students’ independence level and get them out of their comfort zone. That does not come without its own fair share of push-back.

Stradling the Fence of Independence & Pushing Boundaries

Supporting the independence of people with visual impairments when you are not blind yourself is a delicate balance. A balance between knowing when to push those boundaries, and knowing when to sit quietly. When we are new to our students we are still outsiders who have not yet earned their trust.

We know that even though we have no pity for anyone, our sympathy is not empathy. We don’t actually know what it is like to live with a visual impairment every single moment of the day.

Kassy Malone

President Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care”.

Reminders For O&M Instructors

When we aren’t blind ourselves, we must remember a few things when supporting the independence of people with visual impairments:

  • We must remember everybody goes through cycles where they’re dealing with the stages of grief. Even those who have been blind since birth. 
    • We also must remember the student and their loved ones may be on different parts of this cycle at any given time.
  • We must remember that building relationships and trust can take a long time.
    • When we only see a student once a month, this can take a lot of persistence to overcome. We are outsiders coming into their inner circle. Sometimes the pushback we receive is simply because we haven’t yet proven our worthiness.
  • Most of all, we must remember while we’re both cheerleaders and coaches to our students’ independence, we’re NOT the quarterbacks. We cannot do the work for them.
    • We can teach them the skills. We can coach them to make that big play. We can cheer them on from the sidelines. We can even get their water-filled after the game.

BUT, we cannot make the moves for them. Ultimately, this is THEIR independence; not ours.

Reminders For Students & Clients

To our students and clients reading this, there are things for you to remember, too:

  • Remember that we care.
    • Each and every O&M Specialist in this field care about each and every one of you. We may be pushy. We may be bold in our attempts. And we may step on your toes. 

But overall, it is out of a deep sense of caring for you and your independence.

For most of us, the privilege of sight is actually a burden in our careers. We know that even though we have no pity for anyone, our sympathy is not empathy. We don’t actually know what it is like to live with a visual impairment every single moment of the day.

It is our joy to help support the independence of people with visual impairments. And it’s our passion to see every person with a visual impairment live their most independent, successful, and fulfilled lives.

I hope this gives some insight into how we try to support the independence of people with visual impairments. Leave a comment and share your story.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject!

Pushing Boundaries Featured Image Description:

Kassy during an O&M session is walking behind her student who is learning to navigate with the white cane. Both brunettes with shoulder-length hair are casually dressed in jeans and flats. Kassy is wearing a black tank top and her student is wearing a green top. Some green foliage and city buildings can be seen in the background. It looks like they just came down a set of cement stairs.

Additional Image:

Kassy is smiling while sitting in a chair with her left arm casually propped against the chair’s back. She is wearing a black cami with a rose-colored skirt and gold medallion around her neck. 

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Finding Confidence Through Vision Loss

Finding Confidence Through Vision Loss featured image description is in the body of the post.

Finding Confidence Through Vision Loss

Today’s Woman On The Move, Jennifer Dunlap shares her heartbreaks and triumphs while living with RP. FYI – Jennifer was also a recently featured Blind Beauty.

“I am more than my vision loss. I am more than my disease. At the same time, my eyes have helped define my character as I grow into the woman that I want to be. It’s a fine line that has had difficult moments, but that line is one I will continually walk, some days with my cane, and some days without.” 

~Jennifer Dunlap

Knowing From the Start

Finding Confidence Jennifer Dunlap photo description is in the body of the post.
Jennifer Dunlap

I wasn’t surprised by my diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). What surprised me was how the disease took hold of my youth and unraveled it unexpectedly.

It’s fairly common for women in my family to have RP. My mother, her mother, one of my aunts as well as her daughter―all have this eye disease. There are a few members of our extended family with RP as well. We all have varying degrees and different sight loss stories. With the exception of me and my mother, the other female family members were able to drive among other things. They were able to drive and only had vision loss in dim lighting or issues with peripheral vision.

With RP, gradual vision loss and eventual blindness are expected. Not knowing when or having the exact timeline didn’t scare me as a kid. The majority of my family with this disease didn’t start losing a lot of vision until their late 30’s.

My only setbacks as a child were not being able to play cops and robbers in the dark and decreased peripheral sight. When high school hit, everything changed and my vision began decreasing rapidly. It took a toll on my self-esteem because I felt like I couldn’t actually see what I looked like. I struggled with body issues and developed bulimia, yet I was able to hide my self-loathing very well.

Facing the Obstacles

Once my vision became an unavoidable obstacle, I got a mobility specialist. Then I looked at my options with a counselor who could help me find my footing in the blind world. In a matter of two weeks, I found out I wouldn’t be able to drive and was declared legally blind. I wasn’t heartbroken, I was angry and still struggling with my appearance.

My senior year of high school was when I was fitted with my white cane and low vision aids. I pretended to be strong on the outside to get through my senior year. But in reality, I was up and down with depression and an eating disorder. I hid things so well from my family and was already accepted to a great college one town over. They didn’t notice the internal struggles, and I wanted to keep it that way.

Seeing Through the Storm

Even though I did really well in college, I still had issues I was hiding from everyone. My vision kept getting worse, but I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in writing. I also had two minors- Professional Technical Writing and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Getting my degree helped me find a new understanding of my eyes and what I could accomplish, but I couldn’t shake the self-loathing. My purging and depression became so bad, that I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt.

Seeing my body crash from the damage I caused, made me realize that my blindness wasn’t at fault for my bulimia. After a lengthy period of rehabilitation and out-patient counseling, I was able to find some hope. I married my best friend from high school and only had a few issues with relapse. Once we decided to start a family, I didn’t let my vision loss hold me back, and I decided to be healthy. It was a decision only I could make.

Blinder, Bolder, and Busy with Babies

Having kids was the self-loathing turning point in my life. I realized that seeing beauty isn’t as powerful as feeling it. Being a mother made me love myself.

I couldn’t see the detail in my babies faces. My vision was like seeing through a straw and there with broken glass at the end of the tunnel. The colors were dim and lighting played a big part in what silhouettes I could see. I didn’t let the vision loss hold back my opinions about how beautiful my children are or how beautiful my life had become.

Motherhood showed me that blindness wasn’t my weakness, it was my superpower. Blindness made my other senses stronger, and it helped me find the self-love that I needed. I was wrong to blame RP on my self-doubt. RP became the backbone for my character and confidence.

Finding Confidence Featured Image Description

In the photo, Jennifer is holding her adorable son and daughter. All three are smiling for the camera. 

Additional Photo:

This photo is a selfie of Jenn. The softly smiling, long-haired brunette beauty is wearing a yellow tee under a plaid shirt.

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Jennifer Dunlap | Blind Beauty 57

Jennifer Dunlap Blind Beauty 57 Featured image description is in the body of the post

Jennifer Dunlap | Blind Beauty 57

“Trying to explain my vision is still an anomaly to me. I don’t like the first impression people have of me is that I am a blind woman. I am more than my vision loss, I am more than my disease. At the same time, my eyes have helped define my character as I grow into the woman I want to be. It’s a fine line that has had difficult moments, but that line is one I will continually walk, some days with my cane, and some days without.” 

~Jennifer Dunlap

Wife, mom, and blogger Jennifer (Jenn) Dunlap has a passion for writing. On her blog Housewife Hustle, she writes about everything from being a mom to style. She also occasionally lightly weaves in stories about her journey with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

Diagnosed with RP as a youngster Jenn is no stranger to the disability community. She has done a lot of public speaking and participated in disability panels during her college years. Stay tuned for her Women On The Move post which will be published on October 16.

Blind Beauty 57 Featured Image Description:

Featured image is the new faux fashion magazine cover titled Blind Beauty. Jenn’s close-up image on the cover is black & white. The softly smiling brunette beauty is wearing a tee under a plaid shirt.

Blocks of text superimposed on Jenn’s photo are: “Bold–She Keeps Pressing Onward, Blind–She Has Deeper Insight, Beautiful–She Sees To The Heart Of Others.” “Real Beauty Transcends Barriers.” “Makeup Trends for 2019–How To Maintain A Flawless Look”

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People Always Ask: Is Kai Really Blind?

Kai skimboarding

Blindness has changed our lives and has forced us to see the world in a new way. As a mom, I’ve had to constantly reevaluate what I “think” about blindness and replace my outdated thoughts with our new lived experiences.

~Kim Owens

People Always Ask: Is Kai Really Blind?

Hi, I’m Kim Owens. I am a wife, blogger, watercolor artist, swimmer and I’ve been fighting a tough autoimmune disease for the last 9 years. I’m also the mother of 2 boys–Cash an avid rock climber and college junior studying geology and Kai a sponsored skimboarder and drummer in a local rock band. Kai’s also held the highest GPA in his class for the last 5 years and accomplished all of this while going blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

Family of 4 sits around a table enjoying a meal.

People are always asking “Is he really blind?” When we say, yes, they typically reply, “I don’t know how he does it. He’s amazing! If I were blind I would never leave my house.” To which we say, “Yes, he’s amazing, has lots of support, and we don’t allow ourselves to project our fears about blindness onto him.”

Blindness is one of the most feared conditions in the world. If this fear is allowed to propagate unchallenged, it will create a barrier between blind and sighted people.

Blindness Is Just Another Way Of Seeing

Blindness changed our lives and has forced us to see the world in a new way. As a mom, I constantly reevaluate what I “think” about blindness and replace my outdated thoughts with our new lived experiences.

For example, my fear may say: “No, he can’t go into town with his friends. Who will make sure he’s safe when crossing the streets?” But my voice of experience overrules these outdated thoughts with: “He is probably safer than his friends who are walking while staring at their phones. Kai is highly trained in orientation and mobility and as long as he uses his cane then I will allow him to go.”

Kai began skimboarding when he was 3 and fully sighted. As a blind teen, he’s continually improved his skills and has graduated from sand skimming to skimming the big waves. Kai typically meets up to skim with other local skimboarders early in the morning before the beach is crowded. So when he wanted to compete in an out of state skimboarding competition, my fear said:

 “There is no way he can compete against sighted skimboarders, on a crowded, unfamiliar beach.” But my voice of experience spoke up and said: “Maybe I just need to look at this differently…”

Kai

With Creative Thinking There’s Always A Way

  • What if there is a cane tip that can be used in the sand? YES! Check out the Dakota Disk.
  • What if competition organizers were open to the idea and able to offer a sighted guide? They were thrilled, they agreed immediately, and several pros offered to assist.  
  • What if he had the opportunity to compete and change public perceptions of what is possible for blind kids? Event organizers asked him to give a live interview in front of the crowd and he provided the audience an opportunity to try on simulation glasses. Many beliefs about blindness were changed that day.

Do you see the difference in these thought patterns? It’s a mind shift that starts with awareness of our thoughts. In my blog post “A New Way to See” I describe the exact moment I became aware of the disparity between my thoughts and reality – and it was a life changer.

Kai’s Achievements & Continuing Success

For me, it all boiled down to realizing that my internal thoughts were limiting my ability to be fully present to my son’s real-life experiences. In the last 6 years Kai:

  • learned to read Braille and Nemeth code
  • became proficient at using assistive technology 
  • learned how to navigate busy city streets with a cane
  • continued to skimboard and skateboard
  • became a drummer in a rock band that does gigs all around town  
  • is attending honors courses at our local high school

In addition to everything Kai has already achieved, his short-term plans include learning to snowboard and applying for a guide dog. Thankfully, his dad, brother and I have been fully present and able to support his journey toward independence.

Chances are that your visually impaired child is not interested in skimboarding, but no matter what their passion, please don’t let your own fears become a barrier to your child’s success.  

Featured Image Description:

Kai is skimming a wave creating a large spray of water in his wake. He’s wearing a black wetsuit and bright yellow jersey that reads Blind Athlete.

Additional Images:
  • The family of 4 sits around a table enjoying a meal.
  • Kai as a 3-year-old skimming the whitewashed sand, and his 8-year-old brother Cash is holding a skimboard in the background.