September 24, 2020

By JESSICA REDIKER

This is the second of a five-part series on visual impairment and what it is like for the people who live with it.

From the moment we enter the education system it is drilled into our heads that to achieve greatness, we must achieve great grades. We are convinced that our future success depends on how well we can turn the material we see into memorized concepts, applied in a variety of situations.

So much of how school is taught is geared toward the majority of students who have full vision, but for students who have experienced vision loss, learning becomes a different kind of challenge.

Michael Mielniczek, a first-year student at the University of Manitoba has viewed the world through this  perspective since he was in Grade 4, when his glasses no longer corrected his vision and he had to become better acquainted with technology.

As a result of Mielniczek’s condition, a juvenile type of macular degeneration, he has no central vision.

“I can’t see faraway details. For example, if you’re standing five feet away from me I’ll be able to know it’s you by your body shape and height but I won’t be able to recognize your face or anything,” he said. “My peripheral vision is all good and dandy.”

Although his peripheral vision is in full focus, Mielniczek has had to view the traditional school atmosphere from a distance.

“I was so far out of the loop socially. I was  off to the side because it took me longer to do homework. Almost every evening I couldn’t go and hang out with friends,” he said, adding that even though he felt behind in some regards, he never lost his ambition.

“Despite my disability I was on the honour role throughout high school and actually graduated with honours.”

Mielniczek’s vision loss may have placed new obstacles in his path, but it has inspired him to do more, not less.

In middle school, he would stay after class with a teacher who would teach him HTML, something that sparked an insatiable curiosity and a new idea – Michael’s World.

Michael’s World is a website created by Mielniczek to educate people about vision diseases and how they affect people as well as the technology available to assist everyday living. The website was a result of Mielniczek’s interest in turning black and white code into something visual and was propelled not only by his motivation to raise awareness, but also by his visual aid consultant.

“Every year she’d bring in something new for me to try and I’d do a report and add it to my website. I just kept developing it,” said Mielniczek, whose website has grown to include his own personal writing and artwork.

The greatest piece of technology Mielniczek has found in recent years is the iPad.

“I’ve done two presentations to my school division on how great the accessibility is on the iPad and Apple devices in general. Since then, the department of education has been buying iPads each year to give to vision impaired students.”

Already leaving a legacy behind at his high school, he is looking forward to what lies ahead: a master’s degree in psychology and a road full of surmountable challenges.

“I chose psychology because I feel that it will constantly challenge my mental ability and skill compared to say, getting an office job like working at a bank where it’s a basic routine. I find psychology very inspiring because as you go along and you learn and develop your skill and abilities, it develops your overall self.”

Mielniczek has had time to adjust to his visual impairment and learn how to overcome the obstacles it presents him with, but this is not always the case for people who lose their vision.

Andrew Zylstra, a first-year general business student at Conestoga College, lost his vision all at once when he was driving and crashed into a tree just over a year ago.

The crash shattered his entire face, leaving him in a coma for four weeks and in the hospital for three weeks after he regained consciousness.

For Zylstra the process of losing his vision was a matter of waking up and not being able to see. There was no time to understand what was happening, just to realize that things would never be the same.

Zylstra said the new challenges of school haven’t hindered him in the least.

“Without vision you have to remember everything and there are no more hard copies. You have to be really good on the computer and be able to access everything,” he said. “It’s fairly easy to imagine a document because I can kind of remember how it used to be set up.”

Zylstra has maintained an above 80 average throughout his first year at Conestoga, though he feels there is room for improvement in how the school is equipped for visually impaired students.

“My biggest concern is the computers. I use Macintosh computers and they’re just not readily available at Conestoga. I’m trained to use JAWS (a screen reading software,) but they only have one computer with it.”

While being blind has created many exterior challenges for Zylstra, the biggest challenge he faces come from inside himself.

“It takes a fair amount of time to do something when you don’t have sight and it can be quite frustrating at times. Just trying to keep your head up and stay motivated is the hardest part.”

Although staying motivated can be difficult at times for both Zylstra and Mielniczek, neither of them feel completely limited by their disabilities.

“I can do anything the same as anyone else, just in a different way,” Mielniczek said.