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Embracing Disability Through Self-Expression

Editor’s Note:

The following article, originally published on  is a work of fiction and is being republished from our Cane EnAbled series. Since we are reintroducing Abby to our audience we will share recycled as well as new content about her. We hope you enjoy!!

Going forward, 4 of our main series (Men In Motion, Women On The Move, B3 Magazine (formerly Blind Beauty), and Cane EnAbled) will be published monthly on Mondays). For example, Men In Motion will be published on the 1st Monday of each month, Women On The Move the 2nd Monday, B3 Magazine the 3rd Monday, and finally Cane EnAbled will be published on the 4th Monday. The balance of our content will be a mix of reviews, Q&As, and more.

Embracing Disability Through Self-Expression

I’ve always loved fashion and style. So when it came to my white cane I thought why not use it beyond its intended role? Why can’t it help express my inner sense of being, much like my hair, makeup, clothes, shoes, and jewelry?

~Abby
Abby & Gold Cane
Abby & Teal Dress

Hi Everyone, Abby here! It’s been a while since I’ve last spoken with you. The boss lady (Steph) has me going hither and yon all while working behind the scenes. Today though, I want to talk about a topic near and dear to my heart―embracing disability through self-expression.

During my business trip to the UK, I met up with my friend Vicky (Victoria Claire) to accompany her to Dublin. As an Ambassador for Retina UK, Vicky serves to help people living with sight loss understand life is not over. She shares her message of hope through the 3 A’s―acceptance, adaptability, and accessibility.

Depending on the severity, acquiring a disability at any time during our lives can be a soul-crushing experience. There are a plethora of articles about the fear of blindness and how people feel it would end their life. It’s no wonder when we find ourselves in this very situation we balk and some of us give up. Granted, working through sight loss is a deeply personal ordeal and getting through it can be an ongoing process.

When we lose our eyesight it can feel like a small part of us is dying. Our whole world shifts and like a baby learning how to walk and talk, we have to learn to adapt. Sustaining a part of ourselves that’s familiar yet tweaked to our new life circumstance becomes a lifesaver.

Customized Colored Canes At Home & Across The Pond

For me, I’ve always loved fashion and style. So when it came to my white cane I thought why not use it beyond its intended role? Why can’t it help express my inner sense of being, much like my hair, makeup, clothes, shoes, and jewelry?

While there is some debate on using customized or more specifically colored canes, my canes are an extension of me. I believe what makes blind and visually impaired people stand apart from other cane users is our technique. Our canes are used to help us navigate by probing to let us know if there is an obstacle in our path. 

So it was fabulous meeting up with Vicky, both of us with canes in hand (hers black and mine gold). Both of us noticed a significant difference in how we were received by those around in our respective countries and Dublin. 

Here in the U.S., with the explosion of mobile devices, it seems like people aren’t really attentive to their surroundings in general. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Research Note “2016 pedestrian fatality count (5,987) is the highest number since 1990.”

In the UK when we were making our way through the airport people seemed to be oblivious to us using our canes. However, when we arrived at the Dublin airport the attitude was very different. It was immediately recognized that our mobility canes were for the blind.

Freedom To Express Ourselves

The hotel we stayed at was very lovely and had good lighting in the room, along with contrasting colors in the bathroom. We visited the Jameson Distillery which was really great and we also spent a lot of time walking. The River Liffey was well paved with decking and a nice and flat walk area for us.

When we went to the NewsTalk Radio Station Studio, they couldn’t have done enough for us. The conference, held in a large and well-lit conference room was very organized. Overall we had a great time in Dublin and I for one cannot wait to return one day soon. Vicky said it best:

The world can become a much more accessible place, somewhere we are all free to express ourselves and we are not stuck in a limiting space.

While I cannot speak for Vicky, I believe she would agree with me that those who choose to use the standard white cane rock as do we!

Image Descriptions:

  • Abby is sitting cross-legged in her PJs (gray bottoms & white top with a gray collar). Her laptop on her laps has a teal Abby logo on the cover. Atop her signature explosive hairstyle, she is wearing a headset with a microphone. Her white cane is propped up next to her.
  • Abby & Teal Dress: Abby is holding up a teal dress on a hanger in her right hand. She is wearing a stylish black off the shoulder dress, black heels with ankle straps and a white hat with a black band with a loose end waving. In her left hand is her white cane.


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Facing Down The Silent Thief of Sight

I knew something was wrong, but I assumed that perhaps all I needed was a prescription of some kind. Still, I was nervous when I got to the ophthalmologist’s office. And with good reason, as it turned out. I was in my early 30’s and I was diagnosed with end-stage glaucoma.

~Helen Gentry | Woman On The Move

In early 2014, I knew something was wrong with my eyes.

A haze had appeared around fluorescent lights in public buildings. Also, my vision always seemed blurry no matter how often I blinked to try to clear it. One day while walking quickly in front of my office building, I ran into a sign and was knocked to the ground. That got my attention! “How could I have not seen that?!” I wondered.

I was busy working fulltime, attending graduate school and raising a daughter, but I finally couldn’t ignore my symptoms anymore. So I scheduled an appointment with an ophthalmologist in my small town. I knew something was wrong, but I assumed that perhaps all I needed was a prescription of some kind. Still, I was nervous when I got to the ophthalmologist’s office. And with good reason, as it turned out. I was in my early 30’s and I was diagnosed with end-stage glaucoma.

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide and it is called the “silent thief of vision” for a reason— first the peripheral vision leaves, and the patient doesn’t notice because the loss is so gradual. Once the central vision begins to be affected, alerting the patient to the fact that something is wrong, a significant loss has already occurred.

Heartbreaking News After Diagnosis

After receiving my diagnosis, I also had to digest an additional fact: My condition had resulted from medical malpractice. My optometrist had prescribed a steroid eye drop that I was instructed to use up to four times a day to treat discomfort caused by eye allergies. I now know that this medication is intended for use following cataract surgery. It is not intended to be used for more than 10 days. I used it for 13 months. I also now know that patients who are using this drug are supposed to be closely monitored by a medical professional, and if eye pressure increases, they are to discontinue use immediately.

I was not closely monitored nor was I informed of the risks of using the medication. Instead, I was assured that it was FDA approved and perfectly safe. I was told that the eye allergies could cause some blurriness, which was why I was unconcerned at first about the changes in my vision once I finally did begin to detect them. Just a short time before this medication was prescribed, North Carolina changed state law to allow optometrists to prescribe medications, although they have not been to medical school as ophthalmologists have. My optometrist failed me, and so did my state by allowing this atrocity to take place. Every time I raised the bottle to my eyes thinking that I was being responsible and helping myself, I was giving myself an incurable disease.

Chain Reaction Set In Motion

In the months that followed my diagnosis, I experienced anger and overwhelming grief. I also began to fight to retain my remaining vision. I was a patient at Duke, UNC and Johns Hopkins. At Duke, I underwent trabeculectomy surgery in which a metal shunt was placed in each eye to help drain the pressure. The two surgeries, which I was awake for, were daunting and required a lengthy recovery during which I had to try to stay off my feet.

After the second surgery, I felt pressured to return to work too soon. Once I did, my supervisor put pressure on me to give a brief speech at a large meeting of leadership, faculty, and staff at the college campus where I worked. When I took the podium (a mere week after my surgery), I began shaking uncontrollably. I couldn’t speak and I suffered what I now believe to be a nervous breakdown of sorts. I now understand that major surgery can easily lead to temporary emotional instability, but no one had told me that at the time.

A Difficult Aftermath

In addition to feeling pressured to return to work, I also experienced workplace discrimination in a variety of ways. My boss would periodically stop me on campus and jokingly ask me if I could see how many fingers he was holding up.

A different supervisor condescendingly asked me if I had any doctors’ appointments coming up. His reason being that he needed to be aware if I would be feeling emotionally unstable in the days ahead. He then informed me that he had a wife and daughters and therefore understood the emotions of women. He also said that I could talk to him if I needed to, adding that the word “panties” was a regular part of his vocabulary. It was obvious that he thought that my breakdown had not stemmed from receiving a devastating medical diagnosis and undergoing a terrifying surgery, but it was because I am a woman. No woman should ever be cornered by her male boss while alone in his office and be encouraged to talk about her undergarments.

Sometime later, I received my “TPD discharge” from the US government. This was a letter in the mail stating that I had been found by a government-contracted medical professional to be “Totally and Permanently Disabled.” (Let those three words sink in for a moment…..I can see them now, in bold font across the top of the document.) The letter continued to explain that my outstanding student loans were being discharged completely. As a totally and permanently disabled person, I was not expected to have significant work, so I was not expected to pay back my student loans.

Reclaiming A Vibrant Life

Fast forward to the present, and I am not totally and permanently disabled, nor have I ever been. I am happily self-employed as a life coach, franchise broker, and realtor. I get to partner with my clients to support them in building the life that they want to lead. Meanwhile, I am living my most vibrant adventurous life.

I love being an active mother, wife, and friend. I am currently enjoying traveling as much as possible and seeing as much of the world as I can. I enjoy hiking, taking painting classes and cooking. Soon I will be starting piano lessons. There is so much I want to do. I am filled with gratitude every day that I get to live in the gorgeous mountains of Western North Carolina. My mission through my work and volunteer service in my rural community is to see people, particularly women and families, empowered and lifted out of poverty.

Healing

I’m currently 38 years old, and my worst-case prognosis at one time was that I will be completely blind by the time I am 50. I do not accept this prognosis. (At one point I had a friend strongly encouraged me to simply accept my prognosis, and I concluded that no real friend would encourage another to voluntarily sit down, shut up and go blind without a fight.) I understand that many patients report feeling that it is helpful to them to accept their diagnosis; however, I choose to draw my strength and courage from fighting and defying mine. This is a daily journey of faith in Christ and His healing power. The distinct discrepancy between my medical records and the kind of life that I actually experience on a daily basis is nothing short of a miracle, and I want to continue to be a walking miracle all of my days.

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image taken last summer near Helen’s home in NC shows her standing outdoors. A pretty brunette with shoulder-length wavy hair, Helen is wearing a print tank top and skirt. The waterfall behind her makes a beautiful backdrop.
  • A gallery of two black & white photos (before and after) of Helen from her surgery at Duke. In both photos, she’s on a bed in her hospital gown. In the post-surgery photo, her left eye is bandaged.
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You Matter To Me

Featured image shows Victoria sitting on a large rock on the beach as the sun sets behind her

Don’t reduce yourself,
Not for anyone else,
Know your value from within,
Let it radiate through your skin,

~Victoria Claire | Know You Matter
Landscape shot across marshlands with a large boat winch on the left and Victoria walking towards the camera on the bottom right of the picture. The sun sets in the background.
Landscape shot

For the last few days, I’ve been attempting to publish a blog post about my recent experience at a 3-day conference. “To Impress Or Not To Impress” is the title I chose because of the internal struggle I felt. Truth be told, for the past week and a half, I haven’t felt like I’m enough. What it boiled down to was trying to seek validation from others was a very uncomfortable feeling for me. Then this morning, I listened to “Know You Matter” a new single released today by my good friend Victoria Claire.

So many of us are looking outside of ourselves to find what can only be found on the inside—value. Knowing your value, who you really are, empowers you to accept yourself wholeheartedly. When you know who you are you can stand confidently in the knowledge that you matter. Self-compassion, accepting yourself as you are is a key component to loving others.

The Creative Process

2019 was a year of revelation for me in coming to terms with who I am. Serendipitous is the only word I can use to explain my ongoing journey to self-discovery. And I’m so thankful that part of this journey enabled me to be part of Vicky’s creative process. Following is an excerpt written by Vicky, from the upcoming edition of CAPTIVATING! about this process:

The creative process of going into a recording studio is one of building from the base up, from a band perspective the first track to be laid down is always the rhythm section, drums, then bass, after this comes the melody section, keys, guitar, strings, etc. the last part is always the vocals, this means the lead vocal and any harmonies. Once all elements have been recorded it’s over to the editing room to edit and mix, this can be a lengthy process for the producer but probably the most important part. Once this has been done the track then has to be mastered.

~Victoria Claire

Vicky is an extremely multi-talented person who sings, composes, sculpts, speaks, advocates, surfs, and skateboards just to name a few. As an artist, she thinks deeply and feels even more deeply. In “Know You Matter,” you are gifted a rare glimpse into my friend Victoria.

Finding Know You Matter:

Here is the link to iTunes for the song: https://apple.co/35Ftjhg. The song is also available on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Google Music, Tidal, Youtube and more. 

Connecting With Victoria Claire:

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image shows Victoria sitting on a large rock on the beach as the sun sets behind her 
  • Landscape shot across marshlands with a large boat winch on the left and Victoria walking towards the camera on the bottom right of the picture. The sun sets in the background. 
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Sword, Lightsaber Or Broomstick?

So indeed, there are days I choose to use my white cane like a sword. I use it to cut away at the misconceptions people have about my capabilities. I cut through the limitations as if they are coiled thick vines, which others place on my dreams.

~Catherine Harrison, Women On The Move

Fantasy To Reality

There are days I wish my white cane was a sharp sword, able to cut through the complexities of life coiled around my ankles like thick vines.

Or perhaps if it were a lightsaber that glowed in the dark and could vaporize the enemies of my greatness like fear, self-doubt, impatience and my horrible spelling.

Or better still if I could ride my cane like a magic broomstick and use its power to turn my competitors into toads.

But it’s not any of those things.

My white cane is one of the tools I use to navigate life in pursuit of my dreams.

It not only identifies my handicap but it gives me the freedom to travel alone.

Embracing Tool Crushed Fear

I will admit, I was not too happy about having to use it at first. I didn’t like how people stared at me; I didn’t like “looking blind.” It was humiliating having to re-learn how to safely cross the street using a cane. But after I ran into enough walls, stepped out in front of a car and repeatedly fell down steps I got over my pride and embraced the tool designed to help me.

Now, it takes lots of training and practice to travel by myself without getting lost or run over, and I have certainly made my fair share of mistakes. But the experience I gained through the years has taught me to pay close attention to the cues my white cane gives.

My cane is designed to go out in front of me to find the obstacles, curbs or steps I am not able to see. It is long enough to give me two steps to either stop or change direction.

The metal tip makes a noise as it strikes the ground allowing me to hear the difference between a smooth sidewalk or street pavement, carpet or tile flooring. It’s painted with white reflective material for travel at night and comes in several styles for different purposes.

My cane, however, has one drawback…it only works when I follow, letting it go ahead of my steps. It doesn’t work if I drag it along behind me, then wonder why I ran into a wall or fell down a step. I have to unfold it, put it out in front of me, trust what I hear, respond to the obstacles it finds and never take a step forward without it.

Acceptance Is My Superpower

So indeed, there are days I choose to use my white cane like a sword. I use it to cut away at the misconceptions people have about my capabilities. I cut through the limitations as if they are coiled thick vines, which others place on my dreams.

There are also days I choose to use it as a lightsaber. It is a glowing symbol of my independence, my ability to rise strong and defeat my inner enemies.

And better still are the times I use my cane like a magic broomstick. I learned early on in my training just how much power it has when you swing it in a wide arc…people WILL get out of your way! It makes me feel a little like Moses parting the Red Sea when I can clear a path through a crowded airport.

I am fearlessly equipped to walk (in high heels) with my cane in front because I learned to use the tool that will get me where I want to go.

👠Don’t let fear alter your steps.

👠Excuses will kill dreams.

👠Choose your tool and use it!

About Catherine:

Catherine was diagnosed in 1995 with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), only weeks after returning from serving for two years on the mission field in Nigeria, Africa. She has been a national public speaker and article writer for several magazines, sharing her story of learning to walk with strength and faith behind a white cane.

Catherine holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from Baylor University and had a wonderful career as an operating room nurse. She is a former ballerina and studied dance at Julliard’s School of American Ballet in New York. She is currently a professional commercial print and fitness model with DMG modeling agency in Dallas, Tx. She is the proud mother of 3 grown sons and wife of Plastic Surgeon, Dr. Craig Harrison. Catherine serves on several non-profit boards and regularly volunteers in her local community.

Her mission is not only to successfully work as a model, who happens to have a visual impairment but also to empower women of all ages to step into their strength, regardless of their circumstances, with poise and courage.  

You can find Catherine on:

Image Descriptions:

  • Photo credit Julia Wagner at Feather and Root Photography.
  • Featured image shows Catherine walking with her white cane wearing a white long-sleeved keyhole dress.
  • In this headshot with short blonde hair and mesmerizing green eyes, Catherine is wearing a blue halter dress. The neckline on the sleeveless top is cut to partially expose Catherine’s shoulders.