“I have a fairly small field of vision – less than 5%”


Blindness comes in many forms and can develop at any age through a variety of different eye conditions.

World Sight Day (October 14) is an international awareness day, coordinated by the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness in cooperation with the World Health Organization. Three members of Fight blindness, an Irish charity that funds research and treatment for vision loss, talks about the impact their eye problems have had on their lives.

Katie-George Dunlevy

The 39-year-old is taking time after winning two tandem gold medals at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with her pilot Eve McCrystal. “Every year I take about 10 days off in September, but I take a little more time off after the world championships and the Paralympics,” says Dunlevy.

Although based in the UK, Dunlevy runs for Ireland because his father is from County Donegal. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) as a child.

“That explained why I was having such a hard time in school. The teachers thought I was stupid. When I was diagnosed I got my own books and was put closer to the board. I had a hard time accepting and refused the help at first.

Soon after, she was sent to a special school for blind children, where she also struggled to adjust but eventually settled down.

“For the first time, I was not excluded from the sport because the sport was designed for the visually impaired. My confidence grew. The activities coordinator said I was a natural swimmer and trained me for swimming and track and field competitions.

While still in school, Dunlevy began to participate and win competitions.

“I won a bronze medal against older girls at the International Blind Sports Association European Championships in 1999,” she recalls.

After her general secondary education certificate, she moved to another school where she was introduced to many other sports. “I was still swimming and doing track and field, but I tried skiing and rowing and I tried a tandem for the first time,” she says.

While studying for her A levels, she began to exercise excessively and lost a lot of weight. She completed her exams, but returned to her family home for a year to recuperate, postponing her course at the University of Southampton. Once in college, she started rowing and trained hard for several years without being selected for the British team.

In 2011 she started training with the Irish rowing team but broke her ribs.

“I realized I couldn’t take it anymore and a year later, in 2011, I tried the tandem. I now see that my determination [in tandem cycling] came from all these years wrestling with rowing.

I find it hard to see in a dazzling light and a dull light

Dunlevy says his RA has been more or less stable since being diagnosed. “I have a fairly small field of vision – less than 5 percent. I find it hard to see in a dazzling, dull light, ”she explains.

She uses a “symbolic cane” at airports and busy places. It is a light and thin cane that hovers above the ground.

“My eyes are no different and sometimes people who don’t know me can tell there’s nothing wrong with it. In other ways, it can be a good thing as long as you’re not treated any differently.

Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal celebrate with their gold medals after the Women’s B Time Trial at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Photograph: David Fitzgerald / Sportsfile

The Covid pandemic hasn’t changed his life much.

“Cycling is so complete. I do two sessions a day [on an indoor training bike]. Then it’s about recovering, feeding, resting, and sleeping. During confinement, I just went out for some fresh air. “

Her advice to others diagnosed with RP is to find something they love and can do.

“Physical activity is really beneficial in terms of well-being. Believe in yourself. Find the support you need and meet other people. I still have doubts about myself but I am very motivated.

Gillian stafford

Gillian Stafford.

Gillian Stafford.

The 40-year-old woman was diagnosed with degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa (RP) when she was just 17 years old. Around this time, she was learning to drive and realized that something was wrong with her eyesight.

“That ended my driving lessons. I also had trouble reading the blackboard at school, but I pushed myself to finish my Leaving Certificate, ”she explains.

After school, she took a Post-Leaving Certificate course and got a job as a medical secretary. However, although her eyesight deteriorated further – RP initially impacts peripheral vision – she decided to go back to school.

“I took a two-year access course at Pearse College which led to a degree in social policy and sociology, followed by a master’s degree in social policy and social rights at Maynooth University. I believe my sight difficulties gave me the determination to overcome the obstacles and challenges in college, ”she says.

These challenges included accessing technology to help him read documents. Stafford now uses his skills to advocate for people seeking housing in the independent living movement. She currently lives with her parents, one of whom regularly walks 5 km with her to help her maintain her physical shape.

“I can’t see people until they’re right above me and I don’t see slopes, so I need to walk with someone by my side. I started using a cane in the last three years, but I find it dangerous to be alone, even with a cane, ”she says.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, Stafford withdrew somewhat as she feared she would not be able to observe social distancing.

“I was verbally assaulted at the supermarket once because I couldn’t see the markings on the floor indicating where I should stand,” she explains. The increase in al fresco dining has also made navigating the streets more difficult for the visually impaired.

“I love to cook and listen to audio books. I can’t travel right now, but listening to audiobooks makes us feel like we’re on vacation.

And what advice would she give to anyone newly diagnosed with progressive eye disease?

Gillian Stafford.

Gillian Stafford.

“Keep your dreams alive, which is difficult when you are first diagnosed. The first year is like mourning [your lost self] but you are slowly coming out of yourself, ”she said. There is currently no cure for RP.

Stafford points out that there is a lot of help out there if you are looking for support.

“I do a tech club, coffee mornings, and online mindfulness classes. You can’t drive a car, but there are ways around it. You can learn to live with your condition.

Conor Lennon

Conor Lennon.

Conor Lennon.

The 31-year-old has had type 1 diabetes since the age of nine. He has managed his condition reasonably well over the years, studying community athletic leadership at the Dundalk Institute of Technology and working as a swim instructor and lifeguard at a recreation center.

However, about three years ago, he hit his head against the trunk of his car and burst blood vessels in his eye. Soon after, she was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes caused by high blood sugar that damages the back of the eye.

“I now realize that I should have taken the free annual diabetic retinal screening checks, but I didn’t. Once I was diagnosed I had injections in my eyes to help sort things out and until Covid I was still working and driving, “he explains.

However, one day he was driving from his home in Cullen, Co. Louth, when he suddenly had to stop the car.

“I had no idea where I was. I lost so much vision that night and what used to be like floaters in my eyes turned into blind spots, ”he explains.

He says that from June 2020 he had to come to terms with the fact that he was going blind. “I had to quit my job as a swim instructor and stop driving,” says Lennon, who lives with his partner, Aoife, their seven-year-old son Noah and their old English Bulldog.

Recently, he started working at the cash desk at a nearby Chinese restaurant. He says he uses a stick most of the time and walks a lot.

“The cane is a big help and everyone leaves me voice messages rather than text messages. I’m doing it and learning what it’s like to be blind without being 100% blind, ”he says.

He jokes that at home most of the dishes are chipped by him washing them. “We put stickers on the oven and washing machine doors and on the gate button to let me know where they are. I go for a 10 km walk every morning with the dog. He takes me out of the house. I also started playing the piano for one to two hours a day.

Lennon says the people are very helpful and kind, but his only gripe is that he can’t hear an electric car approaching.

“I listen much better because I’m not distracted by what I’m watching but I was very close to being hit by an electric car in a parking lot. Electric cars really need to have noise for people who can’t see them approaching.


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