Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reconnecting with Creativity

Being creative is something that my life has encompassed since I was a child. I started dancing when I was three years old and kept it up for over twenty years. I did drama and singing, drama I didn’t like so much but I loved to sing. During primary school I learnt to play the piano, clarinet and saxophone, and kept the piano up in early high school.  I used to do creative writing and art.

I went to a performing arts high school and spent my days amongst a creative bunch of teenagers. I majored in dance (yes it was totally like Fame we used to bust out in the playground) but also continued art. I spent my first year out of high school doing a full time performing arts course before attending university.

Then my sight deteriorated. I stopped everything. Dancing had been my entire life; all my closest friends are from dancing. It wasn’t an immediate reaction, but I slowly gave things up and attributed it to ‘growing up’. Who says you need to stop doing things you love because you are getting older?!

Over the past months I’ve realised how being creative was something I enjoyed and shouldn’t let my lack of vision get in the way. I’ve made a conscious decision to start to ease back into the things I enjoyed and find ways to participate despite my sight. I know that it is going to be different doing these activities but I’m choosing to look at it as a challenge and as a new adventure.

My first focus is on playing the piano again. We have two pianos in my house and it’s time somebody actually played them! About two years ago I started private classes again to get back into it but it was extremely hard explaining my vision to the teacher and finding a way to learn because I couldn’t read the music. I had never learnt from ear and wasn’t sure how to start. I ended up giving up after a few months.

This time I’m determined to get my fingers working again. I have decided to learn braille music. I will admit it looks utterly daunting with all the dots everywhere. I do like to challenge myself so I am going to give it my best shot.

Another thing I’ve started is colouring. Art therapy is all the rage at the moment and I couldn’t miss out! I downloaded a colouring app (Colorfy) on my iPad and Samsung phone and it was great. You can zoom in and tap the spaces to fill in colour. Of course I wanted to do the real thing so I bought myself a mandala colouring book. I promised myself that I wouldn’t get frustrated if I couldn’t do it. I spent three hours calmly colouring in tiny spaces using only my peripheral vision. I don’t think I’ve ever sat still for that long! It was definitely calming but each stroke, as I guessed where some of the lines where or made mistakes, helped me accept a little more that my sight has deteriorated and also reinforced I can still do things if I really try. 

If you think you need to give up a hobby or passion because you are losing your sight, don’t. If you think you can’t do something because your sight will prevent you, you can. If you’ve given up something you loved due to your sight, give it another go.

Being creative is part of being human. For you it may be writing, drawing, dancing, crafts, cooking, absolutely anything. Make yourself engage in it again. 

Pick up something you did when you were a child and see how carefree you feel again. There’s no harm in trying! Apart from my braille piano project I plan to get back into the dance studio.  I know this is going to be a huge challenge but determination will always prevail.  Never give up on things that make you happy. There’s always a way to participate and be creative. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

My interview on Radio RPH

I was invited to do an interview on Radio RPH Adelaide on a program called Vision Extra. I was interviewed by the awesome Peter Greco and talked about my experience with Stargardt's Disease and how it lead me to establish See Through My Eyes as a not-for-profit organisation. 

I hope to keep raising awareness of Stargardt's, other vision impairments and how it affects our younger populations. Most of all, I want to keep raising awareness of how amazing and fulfilling our lives can be!

Monday, September 21, 2015

See Through My Eyes is now a Not-For-Profit Organisation!

I am very excited to share that See Through My Eyes is now a registered Australian not-for-profit organisation!

What began as a blog to share my experience with Stargardt’s Disease is now going to not only raise awareness and share information about the disease, but reach the wider community to help make a difference in the lives of people with a vision impairment.

I have brought together a team of knowledgeable Directors to achieve the organisations purposes – we are focusing on education and careers for vision impaired and blind individuals by offering a number of programs including scholarships, adaptive technology, careers counselling and support, workplace seminars and advocacy in our key areas.

My blog will be integrated into our new website - I will continue to raise awareness for Stargardt's Disease and share my personal experiences and research with you all.

You can follow the organisation on social media:
Twitter: @seethrumyeyes
Instagram: @seethroughmyeyes_au

I am looking forward to the future and change that we will make together as a strong community of amazing vision impaired people!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Updates on Clinical Trials

There are numerous clinical trials and research projects happening all over the globe for Stargardt's in different scientific and technological fields giving us great hope for the future. Here are the current clinical trials taking place:

Drug Trial of ALK-001
Alkeus Pharamceuticals are conducting a phase 2 trial of an oral drug in the United States. A phase 2 trial looks at the safety of the drug, what side effects it may have, how long it stays in a person's body and the dosing required. This study will also look at whether it affects the progression of Stargardt's. The trial will follow participants over two years assessing these key factors. For more information click here. If you are located in the United States and are interested in finding out more about participating in the trial visit their website here.

Phase 1 Trial using Gene Therapy in the US and France
This is a gene therapy trial currently recruiting in the US and France. It is a phase 1 trial thus the main focus is on looking at the dose of the sub-retinal injection and the effects it may have. If you are interested in participating, the two centres involved are the Casey Eye Institute in the US and the Centre Hospitalier Nationale d'Ophthalmologie des Quinze-Vingts in France. For more information on the specifics of the trial click here.

Stem Cell Trials
The stem cell trial using human derived embryonic stem cells (hESC) I have previously mentioned is still in progress. This trial is run by Ocata over three sites in the US (California, Florida and Pennsylvania). The trial involves an injection of the stem cells into the retina. The researchers will be observing the participants over a 15 year period to monitor the progression of the stem cells, whether they become retinal cells, how this affects vision and if there are any long term complications. More information can be found here and here.

Investigative Research
There are a couple of research projects taking place looking at different aspects of Stargardt's Disease such as its progression. It is important that researchers continue to look at the how, what, where and why of SD to better understand the disease as we don't have a lot of information about it. This information can then be used for targeted treatments and even prevention of disease progression. These projects are always good to participate in because they involve little risk (unlike treatment trials) as they simply gather information, test results and images. The more participants these types of studies get the more information can be gathered and learnt about a condition. 
The National Institute for Health Clinical Centre in Maryland, USA, is currently recruiting for a natural history study of SD. If you are interested in participating check out their website.
The other project is the Inherited Retinal Degenerative Disease Register which is not only for SD but other inherited retinal diseases. This is run by the Foundation Fighting Blindness and more information can be found here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

We are all unique

A phrase I seem to be continually hearing goes something along the lines of "another person who is legally blind could do it". The most recent time was in reference to attending a residential school for my university course located in another state.

I want to get something straight, just because people are classified as 'legally blind' it DOES NOT mean that they have the same level of vision, experiences, confidence or abilities as the next person. The assumption that we all share the same experience is incorrect.

Now I understand that I can't expect everybody to understand what I am going through, but I at least expect from people in certain positions to have a degree of empathy and knowledge that people with disabilities needs differ. No two people's experiences are the same. There a so many factors that come into play.

Stargardt's Disease and other inherited retinal diseases such as Retinitis Pigmentosa are degenerative diseases. Vision deteriorates over time. Progression may be rapid or slow, it may start when you're in school or when you're an adult. Vision can stay stable for a period of time and then deteriorate dramatically. No two people share the same experience of vision loss. 

In my case, I have been losing my vision for five years. My vision has decreased from 6/15 to 6/60 in that time. When you start to lose your vision you go through a process of adaptation; adapting to the world, viewing it in a new way and finding different ways of doing things. There is also a grieving process (I've written about it here) and each time my vision deteriorates, I go through it all again. 

Every person has a unique experience, has developed different coping mechanisms and is at a different stage of acceptance. To assume that because two people are both 'legally blind' that they share a common experience is untrue.

Never assume a person's ability and experience. Ask questions. Be open to suggestions. Be helpful. Listen. Be empathetic and not sympathetic. Be positive. Be part of changing the perception of people with a vision impairment.

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

When to use a mobility aid

A common question that arises amongst people with Stargardt's Disease and other vision impairments is whether I use a cane, a guide dog or neither. The question then  asked is visual acuity, how it helps and why some people use aids and others don't. I've been thinking about this question a lot lately and hope to help others with a vision impairment and without to understand why I choose to use a cane and what factors influenced my decision, and hopfeulyl help others to decide, whether to use a mobility aid.

As I've previously written, my cane and I have a love-hate relationship. I went through a period of using it to not wanting to know there were three in existence in my house, to becoming best friends with it once again. For the past few months I have made a conscious effort to get used to using it and taking it whenever I'm out. 

There were two main reasons I chose to use the cane:
  • Crossing roads: My ability to cross a road is absolutely terrible. I'm an avid walker and love to get out in the fresh air and walk to calm my mind. Every time I found myself curbside, I felt vulnerable, clumsy and even more vision impaired. I couldn't make out whether there were cars coming, if near a busy road there was no auditory break in the traffic and I felt like I was walking into an abyss. Then came the anxiety from the feeling of vulnerability and the loss of control. When I walked with another person, I would solely rely on them to usher me across the road. I knew this wasn't healthy and I couldn't rely on others. So Mr Cane came back into my life once again like a clingy, annoying boyfriend although this time he had gotten his act together and we were actually getting along. I found just having the cane in my hand to indicate brought a sense of calm and confidence to crossing a road, it let others know that my vision sucked and they should be patient and careful if I start to cross. More than anything it was security. It was a way of announcing to the world I'm vision impaired. People's reactions were (mostly) helpful, they would stop and let me cross and some even reversed to let me pass. It restored my faith in humanity and made me feel like the world isn't such a scary place. 
  • Pavement problems: I'm a klutz on the best of days and now I'm a super klutz. The pavement around where I live seems to be really bad, the huge eucalyptus and gum trees' roots have made the footpaths cracked and uneven. Since using the cane I haven't had any stacks or tripped over where I normally would. Just to reinforce this, I went for my usual walk the other day without my cane and I tripped numerous times and realised it was my karma for leaving the cane at home. It's actually quite surprising how helpful the cane is when on the street. I never noticed how much I was concentrating on where I was going and what I was walking into. When I started using the cane I found I could relax a lot more and take in my surroundings using my other senses rather than staring intently at the ground in front of me.

Choosing to use a mobility aid such as a cane or guide dog is a highly personal choice and isn't solely based on visual acuity or degrees of vision. Each person is different, has different experiences and different needs. Here are some of the things that are usually taken into account when deciding on an aid:
  • Confidence: This is extremely important. Being confident with your surroundings, with the amount of vision you have and the way you use it will impact whether you decide to use a mobility aid.
  • Lifestyle: This includes work - how you get there and what you do at work ie whether you need to navigate a great deal, leisure activities such as sports or running and social situations. Use of a mobility aid may not be needed in all areas of a person's life. It is pretty much impossible to run with a cane (yes I've tried and looked like a clown running down the street) and sometimes it's better left at home.
  • Location: Where you live can also play a part. If you need to travel far on public transport or have access to lifts from others will influence the decision to use a mobility aid.
  • Perception: How you perceive mobility aids plays a huge role, not so much for the positive. I personally have struggled with, and still do, the stigma surrounding using a cane. There tends to be a little less stigma associated with a guide dog as they are far more cuter than a cane! As much as I'd like to say how you perceive using a mobility aid doesn't attribute to whether you use one or not, it really does play a major part. I avoided using my cane for a very long time because I was embarrassed as to what people think and I still have times where I feel like people are staring and talking about me. 

The one thing I have learned is that if I need help to not be ashamed and to use it. If a cane, guide dog or anything else helps me navigate, feel confident and improve my quality of life I should use it. I also know personally and from others with a vision impairment that because we have some sight we don't 'deserve' a guide dog. This is utter rubbish. As I mentioned before, if it helps us in life, we deserve it. Be open to trying mobility aids, sometimes you find a use for them that you had never considered.

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

My Fear Vs My Optimism

Over the past few years I have had numerous thoughts that provoke fear and sadness about things in my future. From having my whole life seemingly planned (yes I know I'm slightly OCD) and my goals within my reach to all of it taken from underneath me. I sometimes look back at the day of diagnosis and the weeks following it and the feelings and thoughts I had - they were grief-stricken and quite frankly irrational. I'm thankful that at the time I did not make any rash decisions, most likely because I had no idea what to do.

I've gathered some of my most personal and distressing thoughts I've had about my diagnosis with Stargardt's and how it will affect my life. For each of them, I've tried to take a positive spin and find the reality in each to help me cope and see the glass half full. I hope this can help others who are having the same thoughts.

My Fear: How will I ever see my babies faces?
My Optimism: I can still see faces up close, and let's be honest I'll be in my babies' faces constantly! From being around other babies I won't lie and pretend I haven't noticed that I need to get closer to see their cute little eyes and smiles, but from the experience I've been able to find a certain peace in it and know that I will still be able to see them to a degree up close. It won't hinder my bond with my children. They will also learn to adapt to my situation and become strong, positive little beings who are sensitive to people with a disability.

My fear: I won't be able to live independently. I won't be able to get where I need to go in an emergency and especially if I have kids.
My optimism: I live at home with a huge family and enough animals to have our own zoo. I have lived out of home previously but this was the early stages of my disease and I could still drive. I'm hoping to move into my own place in the near future and have realized that there is a lot I need to consider - I need to make sure I live walking distance from shops, doctors etc, close to public transport and my work. I also want to be a short distance from my family so I can travel alone to them. When I tell people that I want to stay living locally I am frequently questioned and told there are so many other beautiful places to live. The reality is - I need support. Is that a bad thing? No. Do people without a vision impairment need support? Yes. So what is so bad? Nothing. I may need to plan my location a little more than the average person but that really doesn't matter. In the end I will still be able to find a home with accommodations to support my independence. 

My fear: I won't be able to find a partner who will accept me for me.
My optimism: If someone can't accept I have a vision impairment and see my worth as a person, then they aren't worth another minute of my time! This is something I have grappled with numerous times and it is hard to actually truly believe it. My generation is focused on possessions, selfies and everything is disposable. There is always something better (apparently). This has really broken me down. I have thought I now have a 'flaw' and 'who would want to be with someone who can't see or drive?' I've realized how untrue this is. My vision doesn't affect my worth as a person, in fact it increases it. It has given me knowledge, strength and resilience. It has given me a whole new outlook on life, taught me empathy, taught me determination. These are all qualities that are positive and can bring wealth to a relationship. So if somebody doesn't appreciate that, to be cliche, it is their loss. I would never be the strong woman I am today without this experience.

M fear: I won't be able to work doing a career I enjoy.
My optimism: Of course I can! Never say never (sorry, I hate to quote Justine Beiber but he is actually right!). I've said this from the start, I may just have to take a different route to get to the end goal. For instance, I wanted to do medicine, I wanted to be able to help people. What did I do instead? I studied psychology. I'm still doing what I love and will be able to sustain this career despite my vision. It could be anything you want to be (with the exceptions of anything driving related but driver-less cars could change this!).Don't listen to people who tell you otherwise. It may be tough at times but what in life isn't. The most important thing is to do something you love and enjoy every day and do something that gives you meaning. Don't settle for anything that doesn't make you happy. 

I hope that others can find the optimism in their fears. I am still battling with these ideas but over time it becomes easier and I become more positive. It is always scary at the start but once you really think about the truth in the thoughts they don't seem as overwhelming. 

Most of all never think you are alone. Sometimes speaking out about your feelings and emotions can be beneficial. It is cathartic. Whether it be family, friends or a counselor. Vision loss is not just a physical condition, it affects every aspect of one's life. Don't be afraid to acknowledge that. 

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