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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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The Power Of Three On Confidence & Style After Sight Loss

Terese Goran's image is described in the post.

“When you base your confidence on who you are, instead of what you accomplish, you have created something that no one or no circumstance can ever take away from you.”

~Barbara De Angelis

Today’s Woman On The Move and fashionista, Terese Goran offers her insight on the topic of confidence for those new to sight loss. Terese was featured on Bold Blind Beauty last week, you can check out the article here: Blind Beauty 77 | Terese Goran

Early Love For Fashion & Makeup

I have to confess, when I was asked to write this, I wasn’t sure how to contribute. Personal style and confidence in how we look are so important to our identity. Growing up I really struggled with the way I looked, frequently hearing comments about how my eyes looked funny. Even at the age of 50, there are still some days where I lack confidence in my appearance. When I was growing up, my parents owned and ran a ladies fashion store, and this is where I developed my love for clothes and makeup.

As someone who has been legally blind all my life, I can’t speak to knowing what it’s like to lose my vision, because I never had it to begin with. However, in my career as an Assistive Technology Specialist, I work with a lot of people who are at the beginning of their vision loss. Most of these people are trying to come to grips with their situation. They may still be overwhelmed and not realize that it is still possible to do most things, even without vision. One question that I get asked repeatedly is “How do you get dressed?”. The simple answer is one step at a time.

Easy Answer To A Simple Question

It is such a simple question and a task that many take for granted. But no matter what your vision situation is, looking and feeling confident and put together can be possible. So here’s my advice:

First things first. Be open to learning to do things in a different way than you have done them in the past. There ARE ways to do practically anything you want to, from putting on makeup to matching your clothes, but they will likely be different than how you did them before. You have to be open to learning new ways of doing things.

Secondly, take things one step at a time and be patient with yourself. Learning to do things in new ways will take time and practice. I’ve had to develop my sense of feel over the years to tell where my makeup is applied. I don’t mean by paying attention to what my fingers feel, but how my face feels as I run my fingers over it.  I have to first put it on and then look in the mirror when I’m done to see how it turned out.

When it comes to makeup and clothing, some days things come together better than others. I remember quite a few days that I thought my clothes matched and when I left the house I realized they clearly don’t. To help with this, ask people that you trust for their feedback. I’ve had a lot of help from my family. They aren’t afraid to tell me if I look like a hot mess. Moms, sisters, and nieces are good like that, but if these aren’t available, close friends or even significant others can give helpful feedback. 

Speaking more generally, I’m a big believer in the power of three. Pick your base, sweater and pants or dress, then add 3 pieces to bring the outfit together. This may be shoes, a necklace, and a jacket. It could also be a hat, belt, and earrings. It could even be your eyeglass frames, handbag, and your cane. Whether you’re in work clothes or a t-shirt and jeans the rule can still apply.

I know this world is all about “the look”.  Almost every morning I strive to put myself together. What’s more important is the confidence and belief in yourself. The truth is you can be dressed to the 9’s but if you don’t have the confidence to back it up then that look isn’t going to work. At the end of the day, I just want to be the best me I can be.   

Image Description:

In this photo of Terese, she is looking very stylish in jeans, a burgundy top, and a long taupe sweater. She paired her outfit with a gold statement necklace and brown peep toe, sandals with a block heel.

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Grace Nzomo On Living Positively With Albinism

In this stunning headshot, Grace is wearing a red tam and lip color. The colors are a bold contrast against her thick gold statement necklace.

“Looking into the eyes of a beautiful young lady and providing encouragement is the spark I need to continue in my mission to empower people with albinism. I am very passionate about education and ensuring its accessibility to the disadvantaged.”

Grace Nzomo

Growing Up In Kenya With Albinism

Grace Nzomo, a psychology graduate from USIU-Africa, is a 25-year-old woman who is living positively with albinism. “Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes. Albinism occurs in all racial and ethnic groups throughout the world.” While many people are unfamiliar with the term “albinism,” many are aware of the word “albino” (sometimes used as a derogatory remark towards people living with albinism).

Throughout her life, Grace has faced bigotry and injustice simply because she has albinism. When she was enrolled in school her teachers had no idea what albinism was nor how they could meet her needs. In each of Grace’s classes, her mother explained to the teachers why Grace required accessibility so she could receive an adequate education.

Because of her poor eyesight, when she reached the high school level, Grace’s teachers decided she would be unable to learn chemistry, physics, and geography. She was also informed that since she was visually impaired, it was mandatory for her to learn braille. For Grace, this was unsettling as she felt ostracized because of her sight. In the end, she taught herself how to use braille yet because of its complexity she equated its use in mathematics to teaching someone the Greek language.

The education system in Kenya prevents students who use braille from studying among other subjects, chemistry, physics, and geography. Improved braille transcription in Kenya is sorely needed especially as far as the science elements are concerned. Unfortunately, approximately 70% of Kenyan children with albinism attend schools for the visually impaired at primary and secondary school levels. It’s here where they are forced to learn braille yet they are not totally blind. Grace says this approach “narrows down the student’s career choices by 50% which is very unfair and a violation of their rights to holistic education. However, this should not deter persons with albinism from realizing their full potential. Given the opportunity, they can study in mainstream schools and obtain careers in whichever field they desire—be it Business, Hospitality, Banking, Medicine, etc.”

There are innumerable misconceptions associated with albinism. Most children with albinism in Kenya are kept hidden in the ‘backyard of society’ away from others where they acquire very poor self-concept which later on leads to low self-esteem. Others are raised in single-parent families since the father disowns the mother and child alleging that his wife has been unfaithful to him with a ‘white’ man hence bearing a child with albinism.

Grace Nzomo

Living With Discrimination In Graces Words

In school, fellow students treated me like an object of fascination and the questions never seemed to end. ‘Why is your skin white? Is that your real hair? Can you feel pain? Why are your veins blue? Is your blood blue too?’ and on and on…

In the past, children were left in the sun so as to ‘develop’ pigment so as to be ‘normal’ like the others. Unfortunately, this only led to skin cancer as the child grew older. Nowadays, because of who I am, there is a market for my body parts in neighbouring Tanzania, particularly during the election period because some politician has been told by a witch-doctor to get my hand or leg in order to win that tough election.

It seems people with albinism are worth more dead than alive because when we are born, we are hidden away from the discriminative society and when we grow up and can no longer be hidden. Then we are hunted down for our body parts to make the most potent portion to guarantee wealth, success, fertility… you name your problem, even our bones will solve it. Such violence in its many forms is too close to home and this is the albino mentality by the society that we need to eradicate.

Choosing The Empowerment Route

Supporting the efforts of Dr. Choksey Albinism Foundation is in the interest of my work to improve the lives of people with albinism. As its former programs officer, I still dedicate my time and skills to provide workable resources to children with albinism and their parents who may have never had the hope of living fearlessly in this discriminative society. Looking into the eyes of a beautiful young lady and providing encouragement is the spark I need to continue in my mission to empower people with albinism. I am very passionate about education and ensuring its accessibility to the disadvantaged.

I engage in part-time modelling as I see fashion and beauty a way through which I can express myself and create awareness about albinism in a world which is filled with innumerable stereotypes about it. I believe that when one is comfortable with their own skin colour, then they have the confidence to face the world. In my free time, I engage myself in reading novels, swimming and dancing the Latin dances especially Kizomba which is my favourite.

I envision a society where persons with albinism are fully integrated, appreciated, and empowered to realize their full potential. Being able to brighten the lives of those I come into contact with is only the beginning and accepting opportunities of impact will take me even further.


Image Description:

In her stunning headshot, Grace is wearing a red tam and lip color. The colors are a bold contrast against her thick gold statement necklace.