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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.

Connecting With Jenn On Social Media:

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Finding Empowerment When Societal Expectations & Capabilities Clash

Finding Empowerment Featured Image Description is in the body of the post.

Finding Empowerment When Societal Expectations & Capabilities Clash

While trying to deal with my vision loss I struggled with comments from others. Comments like: what they believed I would and wouldn’t be able to achieve with my level of vision. There were days when I would believe what was being said, I would admit defeat and question whether I was making the right choices. 

~Cassie Hames

WOTM* 58 Cassie Hames

How often do we hear that we can’t or shouldn’t be able to do something because of our vision? This belief can come from family, friends, medical professionals, strangers and even ourselves. Through my vision loss journey with my cane Hawkeye by my side, I’m learning if there’s a will there’s a way. There just might need to be some modifications needed along the way.

Shark Cage description is in the body of the post.
Shark Cage

While trying to deal with my vision loss I struggled with comments from others. Comments like: what they believed I would and wouldn’t be able to achieve with my level of vision. There were days when I believed what was being said. I would admit defeat and question whether I was making the right choices. Other days the comments would frustrate me and I became more determined than ever to prove them wrong.

I once had an educational manager inform me I was making the wrong choice in wanting to become a programmer. As far as he was concerned I wouldn’t be able to use a computer. He believed this in spite of my attempts at explaining about the technology that was available. Going home that day I was upset by his comments and started to doubt myself. Thankfully, I turned those doubts around and backed myself. As a result, I’ve been working as a programmer at Skytrust for the last ten years.

Inspiration Leads To Acceptance

Like a lot of people, I struggled to accept the fact that I needed to use a cane. I was certain that I could get by without one and I tried hard to prove it. However, when walking without using a cane my posture was terrible, and my neck was in a lot of pain from staring intently at the ground.

To help come to some level of acceptance to use my cane I decided it needed a name. Inspired from one of my favourite tv shows M*A*S*H I chose the name Hawkeye. Soon after I decided Hawkeye needed some eyes, and with this, I started taking photos of his adventures for a bit of fun. As Hawkeye’s personality developed, my acceptance of using him improved.

A few years after naming and putting eyes on Hawkeye I created
an Instagram account, @HawkeyesTravels, for him. It was created to show a lighter side to vision loss as well as to show that anything is possible despite the challenges we might face. If you have seen his Instagram account, you will notice that in most of Hawkeye’s photos he is in focus while the background is blurry. I have done this intentionally to give an example of what it might look like for someone with a vision impairment.

New Challenges On The Horizon

I am always looking for new ways to challenge myself and show others what can be achieved even with a vision loss. Last year I bought a unicycle so that I could teach myself how to ride it. Whilst I currently can’t ride it without holding onto a handrail, I believe that with enough practice and determination I will one day be able to ride it without holding onto something.

Cassie and Hawkeye image description is in the body of the post.
Cassie & Hawkeye

This year I have also been teaching myself how to juggle. Currently, I can juggle three balls and given enough time I will be juggling more. My goal is to one day be able to ride my unicycle and juggle at the same time, while it won’t happen overnight it will happen someday. In previous years I have been shark cage diving, go karting, horseriding, climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge, and travelled to different countries around the world to name a few activities.

As for what I will try to learn or attempt next? In the short-term it looks like sword fighting or fire eating. Long-term I haven’t decided yet, but I am certainly excited coming up with all kinds of different ideas.

While I know it’s not easy to ignore the doubters, remember to back yourself—you have got this!

Finding Empowerment Featured Image Description:

This photo is a still shot of Cassie holding juggling balls while on a unicycle. Photo credit:  Richard Lyons

Additional Images:
  • Shark Cage – Cassie is underwater in a shark cage wearing goggles and breathing apparatus. Additional air hose tubing can be seen floating above her head.
  • Cassie & Hawkeye – In this image Cassie is posing with Hawkeye to her left (who’s looking a tad shifty-eyed) and a dog in front of her. Cassie is smiling broadly and wearing a ballcap, sunglasses, and a gray hoodie.
*WOTM is Women On The Move
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Freedom In Acceptance

Freedom In Acceptance

After extensive tests, I just remember the words “you are going to go blind.” My world just shattered, the room spun and I just had to get out of there. 

Victoria Claire

Women On The Move 57 | Victoria Claire

When I was first diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at the age of 19 was a very pivotal point in my life. I was already studying at art college and had just been offered a university place on a figurative sculpture degree course. With only 28 offers in Europe, was one of those 28.

Victoria Claire & The Guardian image description is in the body of the post.
Victoria Claire & The Guardian

After extensive tests, I just remember the words “you are going to go blind.” My world just shattered, the room spun and I just had to get out of there. I drove home and dropped off my mum and then drove off. Ending up on the beach, I sat on the end of the jetty. The sky was grey and the wind was howling, I just cried, and thought the tears would never stop.

That was 24 years ago and my sight loss has taken me on one heck of a journey. I was registered legally blind back in 2002. Currently, I have between 3-5% residual vision, this is hand movement in the left eye and shapes and light in the right.

Although I had to walk away from university I could not deny that sculpture was in my veins. After taking some time to adjust to my new circumstances, picked up a chisel and mallet and begin creating. This was really for therapeutic reasons at first but then I began to put my work into local galleries. In a short amount of time, I was gaining private commission work. Since then my work has gone from strength to strength. I’ve worked in teaching for many years and this was a nice way to diversify my artistic skills and share them with others.

Turning The Corner

My personal epiphany with my attitude towards my sight loss came only 3 and a half years ago. I had always dodged the need to use a long cane. For years organizations tried to introduce me to using a cane without success. Then about 5 years ago I had a very big wake up call.

I was out walking my little Westie dog. It was November and the autumn sun was very low in the morning sky. I had on my sunglasses but it was very difficult to see and I misjudged a left turn. Instead of turning onto the pathway leading to the park, I fell 6ft into a culvert.

The fall damaged my right knee severely, tearing my inside medial ligament. It was extremely painful and I could not walk and it took 3 months to properly heal. This was when I decided I could no longer keep on struggling without a mobility aid.

Initially, I thought perhaps I needed a Guide dog so I contacted my local Guide Dogs Association. After some initial training, I had to stop my application, when we realized our Westie would never let another dog in the house! So there was no other option for me than to bite the bullet and learn how to use the long cane.

After 3 months of long cane training with my incredible trainer, I passed and became a proficient cane user. I now have gone from a cane hater to a cane lover, owning 4 long canes including my faithful purple one and a bamboo one that I created myself.

Crucial Component To Acceptance

Self-development has played a very important part in my acceptance of my sight loss. I worked very hard with my holistic counselor. For nearly 4 years we worked on my self-worth, learning how to love myself, and embracing every part of myself. It’s been the most wonderful journey, connecting on a spiritual level feeds me with all I need. This is the very reason why I am where I am today, through an acceptance of who I really am and a love of all my imperfections. It is truly a beautiful lesson, and I look forward to all the future lessons ahead.

I am happily married to my husband, who is an incredible support, he has such a positive outlook on life and helps me find solutions to how I can continue breaking boundaries. My parents have always been there for me, providing practical help and support throughout this journey.

True Work/Life Harmony

My work has been my source of connection to my inner self. It has seen me through some very tough times and has brought me the success I now enjoy today. My work is symbolic, based on form and shape and I use piercings in many of my pieces–I create my sculpture from wood and I like to suspend gemstones.

I have exhibited all over the South East of the UK, including central London, the Houses Of Parliament and America Square. Also, I have been featured by the BBC and in many national magazines; my work is owned internationally.

A national gallery is reviewing my Blind A Sixth Sense exhibition for inclusion in their exhibition programme for 2020-2021. This exhibition explored a unique concept of placing 6 sculpted pieces depicting the senses into a pitch black gallery space. The public was invited to interpret the work by using their other senses. This was an incredible success seeing over 500 people visit the exhibition and a sell out on work.

Sight Loss Change Agent

As an Ambassador for the national charity Retina UK, I advocate the work of the charity. This includes social media, public speaking and offering support to those newly diagnosed with RP. This advocacy work is very dear to my heart. I want to offer help to those who may be struggling with their sight loss by helping them navigate their own pathway through this very life-changing time.

Victoria Surfing
Victoria Surfing

I share my experience of sight loss through public speaking, exhibiting my work and will be writing my memoirs later this year. I’m also designing a new website which will act as a central hub for those with sight loss. It will be a place where the blind and VI community can connect, share stories, and support one another.

The website will also highlight all of my activities, including my career as a professional sculptor, public speaking and my Ambassador work. I will share all of my other loves, this includes surfing, something that I learnt only 4 years ago. Surfing is one of the most freeing activities I’ve ever done. There are no obstacles in the ocean and the feeling of connection to the force of mother nature as you ride a wave is just incredible. I’m also a keen skateboarder, and again, like surfing it gives me such a sense of freedom. I use my long cane out in front of me in my left hand, this helps me navigate. I am learning to snowboard too, I think the board sports give me such joy.

Finding Freedom

I’ve been a musician for over 20 years, singing and playing in many bands as well as solo work. I love to write new material on my piano, it’s a beautiful form of expression.

I feel so very blessed to have found a sense of freedom within the acceptance of my sight loss. This acceptance has shown me the beauty within blindness–a sense of stillness, a sensory experience that you cannot gain when sighted. A connection to one’s own trust, this trust is what will open you to all possibilities.

I have learnt that blindness is not to be feared, it is to be embraced wholeheartedly, through acceptance, adaptivity, and accessibility. You can live a life that is full, joyous, successful and incredibly meaningful, with limitless potential.

Freedom In Acceptance Featured Image Description

In this photo, Victoria is stunning as she stands facing the camera with her bamboo long cane. She is wearing a beautiful cream lace dress and her straight blond hair frames her face.

Additional Images:

  • Victoria & The Guardian. In this photo, Victoria, in a purple sleeveless sheath dress and matching long cane is posing with her sculpture, The Guardian. The Guardian is a wooden sculpture of a vertical wing. The photo was taken at the FLY Freedom In Acceptance exhibition in central London. 
  • Shaded of Lillies is a lovely wooden tactile tabletop delight. Three graceful flowers, from light to dark shades stand atop a light wooden base. The slender stems of the flowers ever so slightly bend upward to the floral base which resembles raised cupped hands.  
  • Surf, Sand And Spirit. This piece depicts a symbolic upright surfboard with an amber suspension hanging from the piercing. The base represents the ripples that form in wet sand, this piece is created from alder wood and oak wood.
  • Victoria Surfing: An action shot of Victoria riding a wave on her surfboard in a wetsuit.

Connecting With Victoria Claire:

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Vision Loss With A Vision Gained

Vision Loss With A Vision Gained Featured image description is in the body of the post.

Vision Loss With A Vision Gained

“I experienced repeated hospital visits, 21 spinal taps, two eye surgeries, and one temporary shunt in my head. With my current level of vision I can see hand-motion in my left eye and light in my right eye.” 

~Krystle Allen

Woman On The Move 55 Featuring Krystle Allen

Image 1 description is in the body of the post.
Image 1

I became legally blind 18 years ago to an acquired condition called Pseudotumor Cerebri due to malpractice. Pseudotumor Cerebri is a false brain tumor. It mimics all the symptoms of a brain tumor except for the actual growth of a tumor.

In lieu of a tumor, excessive fluid is produced around the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. It manipulates the brain to shift forward placing pressure on the optic nerves. This lead to inflammation of the eyes and nerves rupture as well as dangerous head pressure levels. If left untreated it can lead to total blindness in some cases and brain aneurysm.

My condition is in conjunction with Papilledema which is the rupture of the optic nerves and bilateral optic atrophy. At the start of my vision loss, I did not know how to respond because it was a foreign circumstance to me.

There were repeated hospital visits, 21 spinal taps, two eyes surgeries, and one temporary shunt in my head. I am able to see hand-motion in my left eye and light in my right eye. Out of my peripheral view, I see blurriness, floating red dots, and most objects.

When I developed this condition I was expecting to enter my junior year of high school in Passaic, NJ. I believe there was a different plan in store for my life. What many might view as a set back I now know was a set up for greatness!

Adjustment, Transition, and Adaptation

I was declared legally blind due to my incurable condition and vision restrictions. However, my vision loss was my vision gained to pursue visionary experiences for the rest of my life.

I will not pretend that losing my vision was not difficult and will not be difficult. However, where there are difficulties there is an adjustment, transition, and adaptation.

At the beginning stage of my vision loss, I adjusted to the good and bad one day at a time. Before my vision loss, I had never met a person with a vision impairment. I had no knowledge of the resources and broad community of people who happen to be vision impaired. People such as students, advocates, employees, employers, entrepreneurs, and movers and shakers.

Transition meant taking advantage of every opportunity that came my way to regain and build my independence. Beginning with being proactive in using the services available from training centers for the blind. I re-enrolled in high school and went on to study social science once I entered college. In addition, while pursuing my studies I also worked part-time jobs.

I became a self-advocate due to lack of access to adaptive technology in my learning institutions and my places of employment. My day-to-day challenges inspire my drive to be a better person and leave a lasting impression.

Living Life On My Terms

There are so many stereotypes which challenge my efforts to live life and not just exist. Things like:

  • people approaching me to ask who dresses me,
  • employers doubting my skill sets before experiencing my talents,
  • or even when passersby critique my independence

It’s as if I should always have someone helping me because of my disability. How does the phrase go? “I can show you better than I can tell you.”

My experiences have taken me as far as Tokyo, Japan to advocate for residents with disabilities. For starters, I blaze trails of innovation to share resources and uplift people who I encounter daily. I’m a founder of a non-profit organization Eyes Like Mine Inc. Our mission is to share awareness about the capabilities of individuals with vision loss through:

  • community service initiatives
  • comprehensive empowerment workshops, and
  • innovative social change awareness events

Along with my past and current ambitions, I’m a plus-size model and competed in the 2018 Face of Kurvacious competition in New York. I am the creator of the Ms. Blind Diva Empowerment Pageant on a mission to empower women with vision loss by providing tools to encourage and cultivate their daily life experiences.

“The sky is the limit for me and I do not allow my doubts to be bigger than my dreams. I don’t party in pity; I party in heels. And I am not the blind chick but the original blind diva and Ms. Blind Diva if you’re nasty!” 

~Krystle Allen

Krystle Allen Bio:

Krystle Allen is a Newark, New Jersey native. She is a millennial entrepreneur and non-profiteer. Krystle is no stranger to work that involves community development, social change, and grassroots efforts. Krystle presently serves as an AmeriCorps Vista member with a non-profit organization known as the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center located in Newark and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

Vision Loss Featured Image Description:

Krystle looks stunning in a royal blue one-shoulder form-fitting dress as she stands to pose with her blinged-out white cane. Shiny crystals adorn the single strap on her right shoulder and she is wearing a pink wrist corsage. Her long dark hair flows gently over her right shoulder.

Image 1:

Headshot of Krystle in a mauve off-shoulder sparkly top. Her dark hair is draped over her left shoulder and she is wearing a gold statement necklace.

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