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Exchange Program Sparks Sense of Adventure

Exchange Program Featured image description is in the body of the post.

Exchange Program Sparks Sense of Adventure

My (then) boyfriend’s parents refused to let me into their home, solely because I was visually impaired. At that point, my world fell apart.

~Fern Lulham
Women On The Move 61

Inherited Eye Condition Affects Sight

#1 Fern at lectern image description is in the body of the post.
#1 Fern at lectern

I was born with a condition called aniridia. This means the colored part of my eye (the Iris) is absent. The severity of aniridia varies from person to person. In some people, the condition affects only one eye and they are able to drive. For others, it can lead to total sight loss.

Because of aniridia I’ve been severely visually impaired all my life. Even so, when growing up I had enough vision to do virtually everything my friends could do. Although I had little support in my lessons, I went to mainstream schools and could join in all the activities. I was happy in school and made lots of friends who remain my friends to this day.

Communication has always been my passion. As a child, I pretended objects like egg whisks and large spoons were radio microphones to “interview” family members! Before going to sleep, I preferred listening to a local phone-in radio program to a bedtime story. Once I fell asleep I dreamed of hosting my own show. So it was no surprise when I went to university, I studied Radio Broadcast Communication.

Chasing The Communications Dream

I spent my early university days in Cardiff, South Wales. Since Cardiff is several hours drive from home, I lived away from home for the first time.

I never thought my visual impairment would be a barrier to independent living and I loved my new way of life at university. However, when the chance for a year’s exchange to Western Carolina University in the USA came along, my sense of adventure went into overdrive!

While my parents were always supportive, they were nervous about me living on the other side of the world. They could have tried to stop me, but I’m so glad they didn’t. I literally had the time of my life in Carolina.

I made friends from all over the world, hosted the breakfast show on the local FM radio station, and ultimately became the station manager. Such was my love of life in the Great Smoky Mountains. What began as a one year exchange ended up as three years and I graduated from WCU. After graduation, I got a job as a drive-time host at a commercial radio station in Michigan. I felt unstoppable!

Returning Home Brings Bad News

When my visa expired I returned to the UK. After I returned home, routine hospital checks identified conditions often associated with aniridia were starting to affect me. I developed glaucoma, cataracts and corneal problems which needed treatment to avoid further sight loss.

The reality of finding a job in the UK as a visually impaired person, combined with newly diagnosed issues was challenging. The latest news concerning my sight, affected my confidence, my mood, and my sense of self-worth.

Although I’d always presented myself as a positive, happy person, the truth was more negative thoughts were never far from the surface. These feelings grew, when, for the first time in my life, I experienced rejection. My (then) boyfriend’s parents refused to let me into their home, solely because I was visually impaired. At that point, my world fell apart.

Hope Leads The Way

#2 Fern & Mr. Samer Hamada
#2 Fern & Mr. Samer Hamada

Despite the fact my sight worsened as I’ve got older, one of my guiding principles is always to have hope. Thanks to this principle I’ve carried on; found a job, stayed involved with radio, and pursued a public speaking career.

I’m now President of Eastbourne Speakers Club, part of Toastmasters International and I use my skills as a speaker to inspire others. Encouraging them to never to give up hope and to value the person they already are. I am passionate about becoming more influential in the area of mental health and have a youtube channel devoted to the subject.

I am so lucky to be surrounded by positive, supportive people. One of these is my Consultant, Mr. Samer Hamada. In November, I am due to have stem cell surgery carried out by him. If this is successful, it might slightly improve my vision, or it might just prevent further sight loss. Either way, it contributes to the feeling of hope for my future.

Like so many others, I have dark days – days when it would be so easy to just give up. But I won’t give up. I have the love and support of others and hope in my heart. Hope that my best days are ahead of me!

Connecting With Fern On Social Media:

Exchange Program Featured Image Description:

Fern is a pretty brunette who has bangs and hair length just beyond her shoulders. She is wearing a white tank top with a chunky silver statement necklace. Fern’s quote overlayed on the image reads: “My (then) boyfriend’s parents refused to let me into their home, solely because I was visually impaired. At that point, my world fell apart.” 

Additional Images:

  1. In this photo, Fern is standing at a lectern at a speaking event. She is wearing a dark-colored cold shoulder dress with a silver necklace and ankle boots.
  2. Fern is posing in this photo wearing a sparkling lacy red dress with her consultant, Mr. Samer Hamada. 
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Visual Impairment Leads To Advocacy Campaign

Visual Impairment Featured image description is in the body of the post.

My vision changes every hour, sometimes I can read a street sign, recognize a friend, or read a newspaper headline. Some days I can’t see an inch past my nose.

~Dr. Amy Kavanagh
Women On The Move 60

Visual Impairment Leads To Advocacy Campaign

Amy at BBC image description is in the body of the post.
#1 Amy at BBC

It’s taken 27 years for me to accept my visual impairment. I was born with nystagmus, limited depth perception, and almost no peripheral vision. Alongside light sensitivity and myopia, it’s a mixed bag of sight issues that my doctors continue to puzzle out. My vision changes every hour, sometimes I can read a street sign, recognize a friend or read a newspaper headline. Some days I can’t see an inch past my nose.

In a typically British approach, my parents didn’t want to make a fuss about my disability. They encouraged me to be as normal as possible and it was the best solution when no other help was offered. To this day, my mum says how much she wishes the internet had been around when I was growing up. Although I knew I was different, I didn’t really feel the impact of my visual impairment until I went to university.

I’ve always loved history and I pursued my passion all the way to a PhD! I spent nearly a decade in higher education, and over the years had some of the happiest and lowest times in my life. Working towards my PhD was exhausting and being in denial about my visual impairment added to the strain. Eventually, the work took its toll on my mental and physical health. I’m immensely proud of my accomplishment, as acquiring my PhD was a huge achievement. However, in the end, I knew I needed a change.

Actively Seeking Help Opens The Floodgates

#2 London Underground

It was only through starting a new career at a disability charity that I realised how much help I denied myself. So I started to reach out for some support. First I turned to my twitter community, I had used the social media platform for a few years, mostly for academic networking, but I soon discovered an entire online family of visually impaired people. These new friends had so much advice and guidance. They had been there; they had struggled, they had denied the difficulties, and also finally they had asked for help. It was so refreshing and such a revelation to hear so many similar stories and read about so many people living confident lives after sight loss.

I was encouraged to contact Guide Dogs UK, but I was skeptical. Part of my problem was that I just didn’t identify as “blind.” Even though I was born with a visual impairment, I didn’t think of myself as disabled. Everyone always went on about sight loss, but I’d never had it in the first place! It was my normal, but I was fast realizing I didn’t just have to put on my stiff upper lip and accept it.

Contacting Guide Dogs UK changed my life. The support, skills, and encouragement they have given me, has been incredible. Just one year later I’ve gone from suffering in silence to being a visually impaired activist! I’m now a confident long cane user and I’m waiting for a guide dog. Instead of being in denial about my disability I now advocate for the rights and equal opportunities for visually impaired people.

Advocacy Born Through Acceptance

Selfie description is in the body of the post.
#3 Selfie

I’ve even started a campaign to encourage the public to offer help to disabled people. My #JustAskDontGrab message uses my experiences of positive help, and unwanted grabbing, pushing or pulling, to educate people about how to offer assistance politely and respectfully. Over the last few months it’s gone viral, and I’ve been on the radio, tv and in newspapers! It’s been a whirlwind, but such an empowering experience. Also, I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of visually impaired people who’ve contacted me to say they’ve experienced the same journey. They’ve told me, my story of accepting my visual impairment and the cane has encouraged them to do the same.

I will keep sharing my story because it’s the message I needed growing up. I want young people struggling with their disability to know that they don’t just have to cope. They don’t have to manage alone, there is help out there, and that asking for support is the first step to being themselves, rather than hiding who they really are.

Since embracing my visual impairment as part of my identity I’ve been a happier and more confident person. Using a long white cane has given me freedom and I can travel independently and safely. Most of all, I finally feel like the real me. Of course, there are still difficult days, but I’ve stopped denying my real self and now I openly love my disability.

Visual Impairment Featured Image:

Profile photo of Amy walking through a park. She is using her long cane and wearing a summer dress.

Additional Images:

  1. Head and shoulder shot. Amy is sat in front of a wall with the BBC logo on. She is wearing big headphones over her bright pink hair. She is smiling and looking at the camera.
  2. Amy is standing at a London underground station, with the classic red, blue and white sign behind her. It’s a sunny day, Amy is wearing sunglasses and holding her long cane across her body. She has a light turquoise 50s style print dress on.
  3. A selfie, it’s a sunny day, trees and blue sky in the background. Amy is smiling looking at the camera in large round sunglasses. Her hair is blond with bright pink hair fading from the top. She is wearing a black t-shirt and badge, the badge shows a pair of sunglasses and reads, medical necessity not fashion accessory.

Connecting With Amy:

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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