As we enter 2021 with the hope that a new year brings, I have been reflecting on this pandemic lifestyle and what we have endured. It takes me back to another time when I was stuck at home. I used to say that losing vision benched me from the game of life. It was as if once I reached a certain level of vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa, I was set aside after having a productive career and busy family life. It felt like someone had pressed the pause button on my life. My journey began with the painful social, emotional, and economic impacts of leaving my job. I suddenly felt quite useless and unproductive. When I first began this period, my days were often aimless and filled with worry, fear, and frustration. I had many anxious thoughts. How can I get back to living? What can I do to get back in the game? How can I reconnect with my friends and community? These concerns may sound all too familiar during this time of social distancing and the current global pandemic. There are similarities between the experiences; for many, losing vision can feel much like a “shelter-in-place” order or being on lockdown.
Facing Life with Vision Loss Can Be Overwhelming
The thought of leading your life with limited sight can paralyze even the strongest among us. Facing blindness, the world feels unsafe and full of uncertainties. Often, you are afraid of the future, unable to imagine what it will look like. There is an overwhelming sense of loss of control as your independence is taken from you. When you are new to blindness, you feel confined and your life constricted. For some, it might feel as if isolation and loneliness are the new order of the day. When you lose your sight, life will never be the same; for vision loss changes everything. But after a time, it also becomes clear that there is a way forward.
Life During the Pandemic Also Requires Fortitude
As with adjusting to life with vision loss, life during the coronavirus crisis requires patience, action, and courage to find a way forward. Those were the qualities I developed and had to nurture in myself in order to get my life back after losing my sight. I was unwilling to put my life on hold.
I Learned There Is a Way Forward
Thus, began the journey which led me to Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB). Once I learned how to travel safely in the world again, I no longer had to stay home. First, white cane training at LDB freed me and gave me the courage to try lots of new activities as a blind person. Eventually, I returned to a full life with a guide dog at my side and ready to meet the challenges ahead. Though my life was interrupted and things changed when I lost my vision, my courage and determination to find a path forward made blindness a temporary test of my resilience.
Learn to Take Baby Steps
Many people have made this journey, felt frustrated and overwhelmed with once familiar tasks, and found ways to move forward. DeAnna Noriega, another VisionAware peer, shared her experience of adjusting to life after vision loss by taking time to break things down and make small adjustments to familiar activities:
“Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed when trying to do something after vision loss. What works for me is to break it down into manageable smaller steps. A lot of things we did before vision loss are still in our motor memory. Slow down and work through the task one step at a time. Some things will require changing how we perform a task. For example, getting toothpaste on your toothbrush when you can’t judge how much you are squeezing out. One option is to squirt the paste directly into your mouth. Gently collect it on your brush and proceed to brush your teeth. If you are afraid of cutting yourself when using a knife, a lot of foods can be cut with kitchen scissors. These are easily twisted apart for easy loading into a dishwasher and you don’t have to worry about inadvertently slicing your fingers. Don’t panic, where there is a will, there is a way to do almost anything you want to do.”
2021: A Time to Challenge Ourselves To Take Control of Our Lives
Many people with disabilities are used to a life of imposed social distancing. For some, there seems to be no end in sight, while others find their way out and become active participants in life. COVID-19 has tested our country and provided us all with opportunities to learn many valuable lessons. Vision loss is a great teacher too. Blindness is always with you, challenging you to find new ways to do things. We do not know yet if COVID-19 will always be with us or when the vaccine will allow us to return to the life we knew before, but I am confident we will learn new ways to deal with pandemics. As with learning to live with blindness, this season of physical distancing has been an opportunity to develop new skills that will help us adjust and prepare for the next crisis. Who knew blindness and pandemics had so much in common?