Raised in Ontario most of my life, I attended kindergarten through to grade 12 from 1982-1994. From early childhood I have had visual challenges. I got my first pair of prescription eye glasses at the age of four. I remember finding it difficult to adjust to my lenses, and I even fell down a flight of stairs because I could not see the depth of the stairs. By the first grade, I was learning to read and print. I struggled with forming my letters to print my name. Seeing the blackboard in the classroom was always a challenge, and throughout school I had to sit at the front of the classroom in order to see the board. My parents took me for routine eye exams and to various specialists, yet my eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, went undiagnosed until I was an adult.
I could not see in the dark, and this was a big problem for me when walking at night. At night I would often hold onto my dad’s arm to guide me. If I tried to navigate the dark on my own, I would walk into obstacles or trip and fall and hurt myself. In elementary school, my grade seven class in Ontario went on a two day trip to Ganaraska Woods. When the program staff announced we would be participating in a group night hike, I panicked. My classmates and teacher were unaware of my vision challenges in the dark. I was embarrassed to tell my teacher or any of my peers. When our teacher had us pair up in groups of two, I ended up with a boy in my class as my partner. I tried not to worry about my concerns of going on the hike, as I hoped that if my partner was to see me about to walk into an obstacle that he would tell me before I did so. However, my classmate/partner did not inform me while on the hike, and I ended up walking into a tree and hitting my head. I was extremely embarrassed about this incident. My classmates were all alarmed about what happened, and our teacher came to my rescue. I felt humiliated and embarrassed to then inform my teacher that I had poor night vision, and that I would need to hold onto her arm for the remainder of the hike. I was a pre-teen, so one can imagine how difficult this experience was for me. From that point on as a teen and young adult I tried to avoid night time excursions.
In the primary grades I struggled with the fundamental skills of learning to read and write. My parents were informed by my elementary school that I was not at the same level of learning as the other children my age. Despite the aptitude tests the school conducted, they were not aware of any diagnosis or learning disability. The Peel Board of Education in Ontario informed my parents that I must switch schools to attend a school for children with special needs. Children with disabilities had not yet been mainstreamed with the rest of the students in the public school system. Without a diagnosis, my parents did not consent to me attending a school for children with disabilities. Thanks to my parents’ persistence, I was able to continue enrolment at my elementary school, under the understanding that my parents would be responsible for supporting me at home with my school work. The school system made it very clear to my parents that there was no support available at the school for a child with my challenges. Thankfully the education system has come a long way since the early 1980’s, however there is still room for improvement in regards to supporting students with disabilities.
By middle school I increasingly had challenges with math concepts and seeing the blackboard and the information the teacher put on the overhead projector. Had I known of my eye condition while attending school, I could have received a lot more support as a child experiencing vision loss.
Throughout my childhood and youth I dreaded gym class. Most of the curriculum for physical education involved various ball sports. I was unable to fully participate in these games and sports as I could not see depth and often was hit by the ball in the face or hand. I enjoyed extracurricular activities in my childhood such as swimming and horseback riding. As a Girl Scout, although I attempted many times to achieve my astronomer’s badge, I never acquired this badge because I could not see the stars and identify the constellations in the night sky.
Once I learned how to read and write, I always had my nose in a book. I loved to read novels and non-fiction books, and I loved creative writing. By my senior years in high-school, I began to lose interest in reading, as I was having more difficulty seeing small print and often lost my place on the page. Although I had regular eye exams, I was still not diagnosed with my eye condition. Reading a play or novel for an English class was extremely time consuming and exhausting for my eyes, and I began to experience bad headaches. For the first time in my life I would only read what was required of me, and even then I began to skim required texts for school. I no longer read novels in my leisure time. I only enjoyed reading brief articles in magazines or newspapers. As time progressed, I had very little interest in activities such as reading, writing, and drawing. I did not have a computer and for me, creative writing became very difficult as it was hard for me to see my own handwriting. As a child I also loved arts and crafts. My preference was drawing animals and cartoons. As I reflect back on my youth, I think that I began to lose interest in these activities because I think my vision was declining, and I did not have access to low vision aids such as a magnifier or CCTV monitor that could have enabled me to continue enjoying these activities.
At age seventeen, I was enrolled in a Driver’s Education Course offered through my high-school. I somehow passed the vision test and acquired my learner’s driver’s license. Driving was a very scary thing for me, and I believe this was because I was losing my peripheral vision even then. I couldn’t parallel park and could not see when backing up a vehicle. Although I completed driving school, I never followed through with my road test.
When diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 2007, my Retinal Specialist informed me that I have had my eye condition my entire life. I experienced mixed emotions regarding my vision loss. I felt fear of the unknown, while also feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. The diagnosis of my eye condition made complete sense to me, and it explained a lot of the challenges I had experienced growing up. I also had many questions. How could I have walked through life not knowing of my vision loss? If my parents had known of my vision loss when I was a child, would my childhood have been different? Had I had the adequate supports in school as a child with a visual impairment, would I have had less struggles with my academics? I also cannot help but wonder if I had known about my vision loss, I also would have developed confidence and independence as a child. During my upbringing, I was extremely shy and felt awkward when participating in sports, and in regards to academics I felt like there was something wrong with me. As I look back on my childhood, I choose to focus on the positives. I grew up in a loving family, and I participated in activities that I was very passionate about, and I was very fortunate to live on a farm and have my own horse.
I returned to school in 2009 as a mature student with a disability. Attending university, I had a lot to learn about my vision loss and the supports I would need to be successful in my academic endeavours. I was introduced to assistive technology and concepts that were new to me. I remember a friend of mine chuckling when I told her that I did not know what an RTF file was! My peers in the blind community have been a huge support to me over the years. I have learned greatly from my friends. Attending university has not only provided me with a diploma or a degree; it has taught me critical thinking skills and how to think outside the box. I have gained independence and confidence and have developed self-advocacy skills, all of which are transferrable life skills and skills that will help me in all my future endeavours. I am passionate about social justice, inclusivity, and accessibility. I advocate for myself in my daily life and for others. I have recently completed a BA from Vancouver Island University and now have time to work on learning new skills. I am currently learning braille and a new screen reader through the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind. I also enjoy reading and writing again! Assistive technology enables me to read and write efficiently, without putting strain on my eyes. I look forward to the day when I am proficient in reading braille and can read my first braille book!
Shauna is currently a student in the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind’s Blind People in Charge program. It is through this program that she is learning a new screen reader and Braille.
The next phase of this program is the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre, an initiative to create a campus where students can come to learn the blindness/Deafblindness skills they need to be independent. The campus will also be home to the Camp Bowen summer independence camps.
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