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Becoming A Blind Photographer

A black & white image of a long stretch of railroad track taken from the caboose.

Introduction:

When I began Bold Blind Beauty my original intent was to empower others by sharing lessons I learned through my sight loss. As this site has evolved, however, many of us are beneficiaries of empowerment from the sight loss stories of others. Each of the Women On The Move (WOTM) and Blind Beauties featured here has unmatched strength and resilience. Every story is different as we walk separate paths yet the one thing we share in common is a change in our perspectives.

Experiencing losses in life is universal. How we each deal with our losses is the difference between living and thriving as Megan Sinks, today’s WOTM explains.

Becoming A Blind Photographer

There are events that draw very bold lines between your life “before” and your life “after”, in which nothing is the same on the other side. This is my story.

~Megan Sinks

The Body Battles Itself

Megan & Her Mom (#1 Supporter)
Megan & Her Mom (#1 Supporter)

My line was drawn when I was 25 years old. It was 2011; I was a newlywed and recent college grad with big dreams. What started as excruciating pain in my feet became much scarier when I could no longer see my face in the mirror. Although it’s still not well understood, I’d had an autoimmune attack. Many of my nerves had been damaged, including my optic nerves. Fortunately, after the hemorrhaging subsided, I was left with some functional vision, but I’m legally blind and in constant pain.

My first 25 years were as bright, as I had been, in terms of both grades and spirit. I was a happy person who studied abroad in Germany while getting my Bachelor’s degree in philosophy. My plans were to either go on to graduate school to teach or attend law school. Those plans—everything, really—changed when I was plunged into a disorienting, blurry world of alternating darkness and unbearable light.

My body and mind couldn’t make sense of the sheer amount and variety of pain sensations that never stopped. When I did sleep, it was during the day to avoid the harshest light. I didn’t have much of a schedule, sleeping or otherwise, for the years it took to get my pain under control. I could no longer drive, work, walk well unaided, even prepare a meal or have any semblance of a social life.

In Search Of Answers

My family and I were doing all we could to find the cause for my body’s deterioration, regularly seeing new specialists and trying increasingly dangerous treatments. Our lives were focused totally on this. My young marriage couldn’t handle the stress of this sudden and debilitating illness that made me very dependent, depressed, and… different. We all wanted “the old Megan” back.

I was no longer the bubbly, vivacious, smart young woman I had been, I was desperate and exhausted. I had become a tragic version of myself. In moments of lucidity, I recognized how bad things had gotten but had no idea how to address them.

When my husband and I separated, I felt even more physically and emotionally isolated, living on my family’s farm in rural southern Illinois. As difficult as that time was, I am so grateful for it because I had a lot of internal work to do. I had to learn how to live in this body that seems to hate me, how to appreciate what I have and define what I wanted. My primary goal was to become a contributory, functional part of society again. The only way to do that was to reframe how I saw myself and my situation. I’d been missing “the old Megan” so much, I hadn’t thought I’d appreciate my current self.

The Awakening

In my “Before,” I took everyday beauty for granted like most everyone else. That is until I lost most of my sight and identity. Sight loss caused me to see the world differently, both literally and metaphorically. I used the camera on my phone to take photos of things I wanted to see or read. Then I zoomed in to see the details I couldn’t identify without help. This was my first taste of assistive and adaptive technology which opened up a whole new world for me.

Organically I started to take more and more photos, which gave me a positive way to view my disability. I see the world differently than others and that can be positive as I can use my new perspective to become a better photographer. I’d taken photography classes in college but truly fell in love with it after becoming legally blind. I feel so much joy in rediscovering the visual world and sharing the experience with others.

After spending years going to doctors like it was my job, we were left with more questions than answers. It’s been almost 9 years since the autoimmune attack. I haven’t given up on finding the name of my disease, but I no longer see that as the key to my ability to live a good life I had to move on, somehow.

I attended a school for the blind in Chicago for a year, where I learned essential skills like using my cane properly, reading Braille and performing regular daily activities without sight. (Thank you, Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education/ ICRE-Wood!) From there, I was hired to work at the Base Supply Center at the Great Lakes Naval Center for the nonprofit AbilityOne agency, Beyond Vision.

Moving Onward

My husband and I decided to give our marriage another shot, so he moved with me to the northeastern Chicago suburbs. That was in the summer of 2017 and we are still here, I am still working at the Base Supply Center and I continue to explore the world around me with my camera.

I want to show people, through my art and life, that our limitations can become our strengths and there’s great beauty in disability. Disability is often thought of as simply a lack of ability, but it’s truly having different abilities and perspectives with value. Blindness and other disabilities are so badly understood, yet nearly one in five Americans is living with a disability. Widespread misconceptions are a problem that I hope to help, as no one expects a legally blind person to be a photographer (especially if they don’t realize that most blind people have some vision.) I hope to spread awareness and advocate for people with disabilities we have value and unique talents to offer if given the opportunity.

When I lost my sight, I didn’t think I’d be gaining anything, but I was wrong. The “old Megan” had more depth of field and visual acuity, but the new me has more depth of character and emotion, plus more vision than she could’ve imagined.

Connecting With Megan:

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured photo
    • A black & white image of a long stretch of railroad track taken from the caboose.
  • First Gallery (before Megan’s autoimmune attack):
    • A color wedding day photo of Megan standing with her arms around her smiling Mom and #1 supporter. Both ladies look lovely with Megan wearing a strapless white wedding dress and her mom in a sleeveless black dress.
    • Black & white wedding photo of Megan, her husband, and two adorable young nephews. The boys are being held by Megan and her husband.
    • Photo from Megan’s vision test at the beginning of her illness.
  • Second Gallery 3 Black & White Photos:
    • A bare reflection of a tree in a puddle of rainwater on asphalt. 
    • Closeup of the center of a flower.
    • Another closeup of a leaf with water droplets on it.
  • Third Gallery 7 Color Photos:
    • A partial closeup image of a bright yellow sunflower with a brown center.
    • Downward perspective closeup of the pink and white petals and filaments of type of lily.
    • The veins of a brownish leaf with water droplets.
    • Closeup of white tufts of a dandelion.
    • Reddish/brown veins on a green leaf.
    • Yellowish/brown withering leaf and the bright glow of the sun can be seen in the distance.
    • Another pale pink flower belonging to the lily family whose filaments are the focus of the photo.
  • Fourth Gallery 3 Color Photos of Megan today:
    • In the first and third photos, Megan is posing with her mom sporting a stylish cropped haircut.
    • The second photo is Megan, her husband, and adolescent nephews. The four of them are standing close together decked out in winter gear.

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Sports: A Vehicle to Disability Advocacy

Introduction

Last week I introduced you to Blind Beauty Eliana Mason. Today, in her Women On the Move article, you’ll learn more about how she became a fierce sports competitor. A Disability Advocate in the making, I can see Eliana changing perceptions about visual impairment through her love of sports.

It’s not easy living “in-between” (not fully sighted, not fully blind). Like a vast number of conditions, visual impairment/blindness is a spectrum. None of us “see” the same, even those who have the exact same condition. We all “see” differently and whatever residual sight we possess impacts day to day living.

Visual Impairment & The Public

Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana
Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana

When I was born the doctors thought I was completely blind. I have underdeveloped eyes along with congenital glaucoma and cataracts. At just 9 days old I underwent surgery to remove my lenses. However, because my eyes were not fully developed the doctors were unable to complete the procedure, and my lenses were not replaced. This resulted in me having very limited vision in my right eye and only light perception in the left.

People always ask me “what can you see?” I find this difficult to answer because I was born with my eyes this way. All I can see is all I have ever known, therefore it makes comparison almost impossible. One big frustration I have is that most people don’t realize what it means to be visually impaired. Our brain wants to quickly categorize things and so others typically either think you are sighted or blind.

Visual impairment is a concept that confuses a lot of people and I have been accused of “faking” my disability. Who would even want to do that?

I get anxious using my cane because people have said to me “you are looking at your phone, why are you using that cane?” What they don’t understand is my font is HUGE, I have my screen zoomed and I am holding my phone right in front of my face. I want there to be more education on what it means to be visually impaired, and that no two individuals’ eye conditions are the same.

I want to feel confident and empowered using my cane, a tool meant to help me. However, often I am nervous due to the stigma and reactions by other individuals. It is my goal to be a disability advocate and change the way disabilities and especially blindness is viewed.

Natural Born Competitor

Team USA Red Carpet 2016
Team USA Red Carpet 2016

I grew up as the middle child between two brothers. Thus, it was my mission in life to keep up with them in every way possible. They are to blame for my competitive, stubborn, determined, and assertive nature. You really have to be tough growing up with only brothers. I would get frustrated when I couldn’t keep up with them athletically due to my vision.

Growing up I led a very active lifestyle; I loved hiking, camping, skiing, and of course playing sports. I tried a variety of sports, including cheerleading, track, gymnastics, and soccer. While I loved them all my vision became a barrier to my overall success.

At 15 I was so excited to discover goalball, a sport I could excel in without having to compensate for my vision loss. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I could be an athlete first. I was able to focus solely on the sport, without making adaptations or accommodations for my visual impairment.

You may be wondering what goalball is? It is a Paralympic sport geared specifically for blind and visually impaired athletes. It was developed in WWII for blinded vets and is now played internationally around the world in over 200 countries. I highly suggest looking it up. I joke that it is a sport for blind individuals, however, the easiest way to understand it, is to watch a game. Goalball is unlike any sport you have ever heard of and has changed my life.

Taking Love Of Sports To A Higher Level

Lima 2019 Throwing Photo is described in the body of the post.
Lima 2019 Throwing Photo

Through sports, I have really developed a stronger sense of self. Competing with other athletes who share my visual limitations helps me see them as role models, not only in sports but in life. I felt like I was part of a community bigger than myself and it really improved my overall confidence and identity.

Sports have shaped me into the person I am today. Through playing a competitive team sport, I appreciate the hard work, dedication, failure, loss, success, perseverance, and extreme joy that comes with the game. These are skills I can take off the court and implement throughout the course of my life. I would be lost without the opportunity to compete in sports and am so thankful I found goalball.

At first, I enjoyed goalball because it was something new, accessible, and sports-related. However, something changed for me after competing for a year and I realized I wanted to try and make the Paralympic team. I knew this would take a lot of drive, determination, and sacrifice which I was ready to give. I made the 2016 Rio Paralympic team and helped Team USA win a bronze medal in the sport of goalball. While this was amazing I am hungry for more and am training fulltime to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics with the overall goal of winning a gold medal. Training involves strength and conditioning, on the court practice, and nutrition.

Rio 2016 medal photo
Rio 2016 medal photo

Athlete Becomes World Traveler

Goalball has expanded my world, opportunities, experiences, confidence, and ability to navigate the world as a blind individual. I first started the game at 15 and am now 24. During this period of time I have been to:

Additionally, I’ve met other Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and had the privilege and opportunity to represent the USA on a world stage in the sport I love. I am currently living in Fort Wayne Indiana to train fulltime for goalball. We have our resident training center out here where we conduct on and off the court training five days a week. Having the opportunity to train with my team daily has exponentially increased our team’s skill and ability. I am so thankful to the City of Fort Wayne and Turnstone Center for Adults and Children with Disabilities for providing us with this experience.

It has been worth it to make the move in my life, however, it was honestly really scary to do so. Moving across the country away from my friends and family to an unfamiliar location was a very hard decision. I have grown a lot from this experience in my independence and have learned a lot about myself.

My boyfriend competes on the USA Men’s Goalball team. We are blessed that we get the opportunity to travel the world together and cheer one another on. Dating someone who shares my disability has taught me to be creative in how I do a lot of things. However, it has been really empowering to navigate the world together and teach others that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to.

Furthermore, I am a graduate student at Antioch University, aiming to achieve a Master’s in clinical mental health counseling. It is a passion of mine to work with children and families and I would ultimately love to specialize in disability counseling. I want to ensure that all families understand disabilities and know how to foster growth and independence in their children. A quote I really like (not sure where it comes from, I saw it written somewhere online) is “disability does not mean inability” this is how I live my life, and this is the message I am hoping to impart on the rest of society.

Lima 2019 medal photo
Lima 2019 medal photo

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image – an action shot of Eliana playing goalball at the Para Pan American Games in Lima 2019. In this photo, she is on the ground blocking a goal shot from the opposing team.
  • Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana – Lovely capture of Eliana’s boyfriend, Calahan (his right arm wrapped around Eliana), while standing in the arena in Lima 2019. Both are grinning as they are about to bite into their silver medals.
  • Team USA red carpet banquet in DC after the 2016 Rio games. Eliana is standing on the carpet wearing a red dress and gold sandals. Eliana has honey blonde hair just below her shoulders. She is wearing a bronze medal around her neck and behind her is a dark gray backdrop with the Team USA logo and logos of company sponsors.  
  • Another action shot of Eliana from the Para Pan American Games in Lima 2019.
  • A team photo on the medal stand from Rio 2016.
  • Another team photo on the medal stand from Peru 2019.
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Elaine Huitt | ‘Seeing’ Her Way Through Life

Image is described in the body of the post.

You don’t need full ‘vision’ to have a ‘vision’ to ‘see’ your way through life.

~Elaine Huitt

Intro:

What are the odds that two blind women would run into one another at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)? I’m sure a statistician would know the answer but this is beside the point because, This Facility. Is. Massive!!

“Do you know the new departure time for the Wichita flight”, she asked? I told her I wasn’t sure as I just relocated to this new gate. Then ‘poof’ she was gone! My friends met me and together we flew to Wichita for a conference where we’d bunk in a university dorm suite.

The conference, for blind and visually impaired youth from across the country, promised to be a jam-packed week of activities. It was at the next evening’s kick-off event where I would formally meet Elaine Huitt. When she came over to our table I said: “weren’t you at DFW?” We laughed when we realized not only were we in the same airport unknowingly we were on the same flight headed to the same conference. Like so many of the women featured here on Bold Blind Beauty, Elaine has a story. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to today’s Woman On The Move, Elaine Huitt.

Growing Up With A Hidden Disability

Image is described in the body of the post.
Elaine Huitt

As a poised Sr. Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, no one would ever guess that Elaine Huitt is 60 and blind. A beautiful lady, who walks confidently, without a white cane I might add, said even her doctors don’t understand how she does it. Because of the severity of her sight, it’s not uncommon for Elaine’s doctors to ask her how she walked in their offices.

Elaine and her brother were both born with Idiopathic Congenital Nystagmus. While she wasn’t diagnosed until after high school graduation, Elaine began wearing eyeglasses at 11 months of age. She explains that her condition is a blockage of the pathway from the eyes to the brain.

When Elaine was growing up it was taboo in her household to talk about her and her brother’s visual impairment. It’s partly because of this that Elaine and her brother didn’t receive accommodations in their mainstream school to help them succeed. Since her sight was so poor, and her teachers weren’t aware of the issue, Elaine fell through the cracks at school. Were it not for the help of one astute teacher, Mr. Frederick, she wouldn’t have been able to glide through school. As unlikely as it was, she managed to graduate high school while never having any reasonable accommodations. Her brother wasn’t as fortunate and didn’t finish high school because he was so ashamed of his sight loss. He was, however, able to find employment as kitchen staff at the Department of Education and he’s been there for 36 years.

The Burden Of Shame

Right after graduating high school Elaine began looking for work. Since her condition causes her eyes to constantly move she struggled at each interview. Unable to look the interviewer in the eye was problematic as it was assumed Elaine was on drugs or medication. Therefore, as a direct result of her eyesight, she had great difficulty finding employment and would go home feeling discouraged.

Elaine went to college briefly then dropped out because she didn’t know about adaptations that were available. When a person carries a secret disability it complicates getting the required assistance. Sadly, this scenario Elaine faced is not unique. All too often people with hidden and (some not so hidden) disabilities aren’t aware of the tools and resources that are available to help them. Even so, many people in these situations develop strong coping mechanisms as workarounds, such is the case with Elaine. Memorization was the skill Elaine relied upon to get her through and it worked!

Eventually, Elaine got married, had two children, and went back to college, however, she wouldn’t even tell her exhusband that she couldn’t see. Shame, embarrassment, and perhaps a little pride prevented her from sharing her secret. What’s even more astonishing is how she kept this secret from her children while they were growing up. I can’t imagine how she must have felt when she couldn’t ‘see’ her daughter’s dance recitals or her son’s football plays. Her children became the reason why Elaine would slowly divulge her secret with her husband. Oddly enough, her husband was her major supporter and also a great source of inspiration for her.

Help Banishes Shame

Graduating college with a BA in Human Services and an MS in Public Administration wasn’t easy but Elaine pulled it off. Keeping her secret was even more difficult, yet there were people in her corner whom she could trust. For three years, one good friend would take notes and made copies for Elaine for studying.

On the work front, since Elaine was so good at memorizing everything; from her environment to the company manuals, she progressed. While it may have looked easy to her peers, what they didn’t know was the incredible amount of behind the scenes effort it took for her to do her job.

Because of her sheer determination and grit, Elaine would ultimately become a supervisor then move up into management. Of course, promotions like these meant more challenges as she had more responsibilities. Elaine spent 30 years of service in the Department of Social Services then it was time for her to move on.

Part of Elaine’s moving on process included divorcing her husband then relocating to Delaware. After her divorce and subsequent remarriage, life was very good as Elaine’s new spouse became her greatest champion. The downside was once again she began seeking employment opportunities and applied for 150 positions. Once again her eyesight became the barrier where she was turned away from each job she applied for.

As I listened to her share how she overcame so many obstacles I was stunned when she told me it was only in 2016 help arrived. This help, in the form of a Vision Service Coordinator, told her to stop being ashamed. This counselor recommended that she apply for a particular job. After applying for so many jobs it plays with your psyche so Elaine was surprised to get called back for a second interview. Midway through the interview, Elaine told them the questions they were asking weren’t giving an accurate portrayal of her story. Then she explained who she is and what she was about and asked them to give her a chance to work with them. This bold move, being her authentic self, got her the job.

Paying It Forward

Today, Elaine loves her job as a counselor and is helping her students take advantage of many opportunities. By the way, the one thing I neglected to mention was her reason for being at the conference. She served as a chaperone for a group of teenage B&VI students who participated in the conference. And the quote at the beginning is something Elaine developed and she shares it with her students to inspire them.

I’ll leave you with a motto Elaine adopted:

“How can you help someone else unless you help yourself”

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image – A headshot of Elaine wearing a crisp white shirt paired with a silver statement necklace. She has straight red hair, with on-point makeup that includes pink lip color.
  • In this outdoor photo, Elaine is sitting casually on the edge of a water fountain. She is wearing a black jacket, gray pants, and a white shirt. Her hair in this photo is long, dark, and wavy. Assorted trees and shrubs can be seen in the background.
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Facing Sight Loss With Hope & Grace

Facing Sight Loss With Hope & Grace featured image description is in the body of the post.

Facing Sight Loss With Hope & Grace

My sight loss journey has been long and sometimes painful; however, it has also been full of hope and grace.

Rebecca In Front Of
A Historic Building

I was born with cataracts on both of my eyes (bilateral congenital cataracts). Before I was a year old, I had nine eye surgeries to remove my cataracts and secondary membranes that grew in their place. I also had muscle surgery to keep my eyes from crossing.

When I was four, I developed glaucoma as a complication of surgery. Since my right eye had issues focusing, my doctor recommended eye patching. As a result, I wore an eye patch over my dominant eye for an entire year.

I’ve had fifteen eye surgeries as an adult. The scar tissue from all of these surgeries sometimes causes pain and discomfort.

I can only see colors and shapes out of my right eye and the field of vision in my left eye is severely limited. In addition to having no peripheral vision or depth perception, I also have severe migraines that center around my eyes. My vision fluctuates. On a good day, I can see 20/30 in my good eye with best correction. On a bad day, all I can see are clouds and shapes.

A New Dream & A New Purpose

In college, I suffered a crushing loss. My dream was to become a music teacher; however, an important music professor refused to teach me because he “didn’t teach students with disabilities.” His ableism caused me to need to change my major.

At the time, I was crushed by the loss of my dream. Eventually, I changed my major to English Education because I have always loved words. Sadly, I met resistance there as well. When I was student teaching, I was told, “We’re afraid to leave the students alone with a blind teacher.”

I believe that God put a new dream on my heart and helped to form a beautiful mosaic from the broken pieces of my life. I attended seminary in Washington D.C. and I am blessed to be able to say that I have now completed five years of effective ministry.

In May, my church covenanted with me to always provide me with a job and a congregation to serve. We call this “ordination.” It was one of the most special days of my life. I couldn’t stop smiling. At last, it seemed that I had found my place in the world and that my life had a purpose.

Glaucoma: The Silent Thief of Sight

Although I have been blessed to have benefitted from some of the best medical care in the country at Will’s Eye Institute in Philadelphia, my vision continues to wane. I take five eye drops four times a day and a pill three times a day in order to maintain my eye pressure.

Each year, I lose a little more vision. At thirty years of age, I’m unable to read a book with a regular sized font for any extended period of time. As a person who loves books, this loss is the most painful loss of all.

Beauty from Brokenness

Like many people who are disabled, I have a complicated relationship with my disability. I still have a long journey ahead of me to achieve full acceptance of my sight loss. For example, I only use my white cane when I travel because I need it for safety.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. I don’t know if I will someday become more comfortable using my white cane or if I will ever learn to read Braille; nevertheless, my heart is full of hope. The essence of my job is to share hope with a dark and broken world.

I am blessed to serve a congregation that I love dearly and a church that is striving to become a more inclusive place for people with disabilities. I am also blessed to have wonderfully supportive friends and a spouse who loves me very much.

One thing is for certain: Even with my blurry vision, I can see that the future is bright.

Rebecca Holland blogs about faith, diverse books, and disability awareness at BeckieWrites.com. She has written a chapbook entitled, Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse.

Facing Sight Loss With Hope & Grace Featured Image Description:

Rebecca grins broadly with her hand on her hip as she stands on the Millennium Bridge in London. St. Paul’s Cathedral can be seen behind her. She wears a bright green coat.

Rebecca In Front Of A Historic Building

Rebecca smiles while standing on the stone steps of a historic building. She is framed by a large wooden door. She wears a blue and green A-line dress.