September 30, 2020

BY JESSICA REDIKER

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

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to view the world through a different perspective – metaphorically and literally speaking.

When I walked into the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) for the first time, as someone who’s never experienced even a slight departure from 20/20, I thought that I was simply going to arrive, hear first-hand stories of visual impairment and that would be it. What I left with, instead, was an experience that not many people get, but perhaps should.

After I was introduced to a lot of ideas that I had never previously considered, such as “how does the city expect visually impaired people to navigate roundabouts,” (something that still perplexes me,) I got a chance to understand exactly why they need to be considered.

In a kit that is sent out with CNIB ambassadors to educate others on visual impairment were several pairs of goggles that each simulated a different type of vision disease in one eye, while covering the other.

To wear these goggles was a truly eye-opening experience.

A commonly held belief that I mentioned in the first part of this series – the belief  that vision is simply a switch that your body turns on or off – was one I had fought hard not to personally subscribe to but through inexperience found myself believing.

The first pair of goggles I tried on simulated age related macular degeneration. I tried these first because I wanted to gain a better understanding of the way that Jessica Milicevic, a volunteer and client at CNIB, and Michael Mielniczek, a first-year student at the University of Manitoba, see the world.

In the middle of my field of vision was a large grey splotch and I soon realized what a challenge it would be to adapt to this new way of looking at things. The goggles had full focus vision in the peripheral field but my central vision was completely obscured. I had to force my eyes to not focus on this obstruction because  they naturally wanted to stare right at it, leaving me somewhat cross-eyed.

As I tried on the rest of the goggles I thought it was neat, but I recognize that it isn’t “neat” for someone with a vision disease. In fact, it is an emotional journey and social barrier.

Another exercise I took part in was to be blindfolded and led to another area of the office.

I was able to see my toes through a slight crack in the blindfold’s coverage, but as soon as I had the blindfold on and was directed to put my hand on Milicevic’s arm for guidance, I felt defensive. This was an instant reaction due to trust. It caught me off guard.

I couldn’t help but wonder how you become comfortable putting your trust in other people to ensure your safety, help you navigate or get you ready for the day.

As a female who went through middle and high school changing her look from one day to the next, I was fixated on what it must be like to have someone else in charge of your physical appearance.

“My sister helps me with plucking my eyebrows and my mom paints my nails. I can do my hair by feel and I can do my makeup by feel but then I have to get them to fix it,” said Milicevic, adding she does benefit from her visual impairment because she can’t see enough to compare herself to other girls.

Though she can do most of her hair and makeup on her own, there is one step in the cosmetic process that she sees room for innovation.

“I wish there was a thing that you could put the mascara brush in and it does it for you and doesn’t mess up.”

The ways in which those who have vision loss must depend on other people varies from having their family and friends tweak their makeup, to being given navigation instructions from an orientation and mobility specialist and even to having a visual aid consultant present through most of the schooling process.

Mielniczek had a consultant, and said that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

He chocks up much of his success in school to having an au pair with him.

“Now that I’m in post-secondary I’m caught up, or actually ahead of everyone else because I find time to do my studying,” said Mielniczek,  who found that having a consultant with him made him less social and more focused on his schoolwork, but is  now able to branch out as he is flying solo through his first year of university.

Having to rely on others for certain things is something that goes along with being visually impaired that people don’t often think about. It is easy to assume that a person who is visually impaired is either incapable of doing most things, or is completely self-reliant, but wearing the simulation glasses reinforced that every situation is different and the only way to truly understand a person’s capabilities is to ask.