When My Blind Son Turned 16 But Couldn’t Get a Driver’s License

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Two of my three kids, my boys, are blind. They read Braille and use white canes. My oldest son, Michael, just turned 16 and all of his friends are turning 16 as well… and all of their birthday celebrations include trips to the DMV for their learner’s permits and eventually — cue the dramatic celebratory music — the driver’s license.

But not Michael. Although this isn’t the first time his blindness has interfered with something other kids get do, it is the first time I can’t find a way to adapt the situation. I can’t find a creative solution to get him (safely) behind the wheel. I can’t tap into my arsenal of resources I have gathered in the 16 years I have been a parent of blind children that would connect him to driving. Nope, I cannot change the fact that his sixteenth birthday will not include posting a picture on Facebook of him with a big smile sitting in the driver’s seat. And I can’t change the fact that he is really bummed about it.

However, what I can do is create a lasting memory of his sixteenth birthday that will be so epic, so very meaningful to Michael, that he’ll hopefully forget all about this birthday’s connection to driving. And that’s just what I did — with quite a bit of help.

My son is a musician — the kind of musician who cannot go a day without banging out a few tunes on the keyboard and can’t walk past a piano without tickling the ivories. He is the keyboardist for his band, Casual Friday, and he mentors younger kids on performing rock music. If there is a piano in a building, Michael will find it, and when he starts playing, people are drawn to him. Lucky for me, Michael’s favorite music genre is classic rock (it’s my favorite, too!), and while he loves to play and sing his favorite tunes, he really loves experiencing live music performed by his favorite bands. He loves going to different concert venues and performance halls. He loves to take in the sound and feel the energy of the crowd, and sometimes he can even see some of the light shows the bands put on if the seats are just right.

One of Michael’s all-time favorite artists is Billy Joel. Back in November, I found out that Madison Square Garden was adding a Billy Joel show in February (New York City is easily accessible from our home). When I heard that, I immediately wrote to a wonderful foundation I learned about when I attended the National Organization for Rare Disorders summit back in the fall. This organization, Do It For The Love Foundation (DIFTL), connects kids living with challenges to their dream concert experiences, so I applied to have them connect Michael to Billy Joel. A few weeks ago, I got the great news: DIFTL was sending Michael to the concert — and they had backstage passes for him as well!

No sooner was that dream experience confirmed, another favorite artist of Michael’s, Bruce Springsteen, announced that he was adding a Philadelphia show to his tour. The Springsteen concert was at the Wells Fargo Center on the Friday night before Billy Joel. Wait, there’s more. Another one of Michael’s favorite artists is Bryan Adams — and he was performing at a new venue in Philly, The Fillmore, on Monday right after the Billy Joel date! In a four-day stretch, all three would be in or near our hometown. To top it all off, that weekend was also a four-day weekend for our school district, so Michael was off school on Friday and Monday.

three boys under giant balloons
Michael (center) showing off his birthday gift.

The epic plan: Take Michael to all three concerts! Instead of shopping for cars and comparing auto insurance plans, my husband and I worked out the logistics of getting him to three different venues in four days’ time. It wasn’t easy, but it was so worth it — you can imagine how overwhelmingly excited he was to find out the great news on the eve of his sixteenth birthday. He was blasting all three artists’ albums for days with a nonstop, ear-to-ear smile.

Michael still cannot get his driver’s license. However, instead of focusing on the lack of opportunity for him to drive or fixating on how blindness just sucks sometimes, I did what I have learned to do, what being Michael’s mom has taught me to do: Find a different way to make something memorable and meaningful for him. Music is a huge part of what makes Michael Michael. His heart beats in tempo with his positive, fun-natured attitude. He might not be able to have a license to drive, but he certainly has a license to rock — and rock is what he will do!

Follow this journey at Eye Believe in Miracles.

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My Ride With an Uber Driver Who Was Hard of Hearing

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Today was like any day at work. Busy and eventful, not to mention exhausting.

Typically, I have to take buses everywhere I go, and being legally blind turns a 20-minute drive home into a three-hour bus ride most days, even more so with the local highway under construction.

So when I have extra money, I Uber it.

I went to an area where I could hail myself a ride, and when I went to request one on my phone, I came across this pop up that informed me my driver was hard of hearing. It thanked me for putting in my destination so he could get step-by-step written directions.

Needless to say, I was impressed.

My driver’s name was Scott and he was extremely helpful. He was able to read lips and had a phone charger, water and candy all set up in between the seats for his passengers. Our conversation was great. We joked around about the irony that one of us was hard of hearing, while the other one had a visual impairment.

I am amazed that a company such as Uber went out of their way to accommodate its drivers in a way I have never seen before.

Thank you, Uber, for the safe ride home. And thank you, Scott, for everything.

Diversity is awesome.

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I Lost My Sight at 15 but Came Out on Top

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I often find myself replaying everything I have been through in the past four years. I used to have low vision in my right eye, 20/200, and was fully blind in my left eye. I read large print and didn’t use a white cane. I managed very well that way. My twin sister and I were born three months early but I have no other medical issues besides my eyes. Of course, it had its struggles, but I had never known any different so it was the way of life for me — until my retina detached in my good eye when I was 14 years old. That was the most heartbreaking moment of my life! It was never a risk, so when we found out that it had in fact detached and that was why my vision had become blurry, it was the most shocking moment I had ever been through.

I had eight surgeries in the span of six months to reattach my retina, including cataract surgery. I lost all of my sight a month after my and my twin sister’s 15th birthday. I had to learn how to use a white cane, how to use specialized technology, and had to adapt my entire way of life. There was so much going on at once — I went back and forth to the city where I had the surgeries every two weeks, then every four weeks, back to two, then every six and then back to two. It seemed like it would never end. It was a six-hour drive from my small town, and every trip was so exhausting. I never knew if it was just going to be a check-up or another surgery.

I can’t even begin to describe the emotions that were running through me — fear, hurt, sadness, anger, shock, hope, worry and so many more. Going from low vision to fully and permanently blind might not seem like that big of a jump, but trust me, it was by far the hardest thing I had ever ever had to cope with. It wasn’t just having to learn a completely new way of life. It was having to deal with the emotions that go through you every day. It was trying to figure out just how you were going to deal with it day to day. It was having to carry the burden of pity. It was seeing your family learn to deal with how to help you and their own sense of hurt at not being able to stop it.

Somehow I came out on top. I learned how to deal with everything that had been thrown at me with no warning. I sometimes can’t believe how I came through it all the way that I did. I came out stronger, braver and proud! The help and support from my family and friends is something I will be forever grateful for. They all helped me in ways I will never ever forget, whether it was showing me how to do things in new ways, standing by my side through it all, or the simple words that helped me get through the day. I will always remember my big brother saying to me, “If you ever need anything, you know I am always here for you.” He meant every single word and those few words will forever stay with me.

Yes, there are days when I don’t want to leave my bed because I can’t bear having to deal with it, but I somehow keep pushing on. Perhaps it’s my stubborn, spitfire personality that makes me keep pushing on; I dont know. There are also days when I am so proud of what I have accomplished and nothing is going to get in the way of what I want. Even though what I have been through is life-changing, there are other people who have it much worse then I do. Yes, what I have been through was beyond difficult, but I made it through, and that is something I will always smile about because if I can go through that and come out perfectly fine, I can do anything!

For others who have gone through similar situations, I would like them to know that, yes this was by far the hardest thing I have ever had to go through, but there are still other people who have it worse. You can make it through whatever losing your sight decides to throw at you. Just take all the check-ups, surgeries, eye drops, eye pressure tests, bright lights, the pain — take it all in stride because you can get through this and you will come out a stronger, braver, happier person. Yes, happier, because when you look back at what you have gone through you will learn that coming out of it made you realize all the little  things in your life are the things that will always make you happy.

Also, I encourage everyone who has gone through something like this to not fight the white cane or the specialized technology. Embrace it because as scary as it seems, it is such a huge relief in the end because it makes you so much more independent. I hated having to depend  on my friends and family all the time, so learning how to use those things made me feel better and gave me that confidence I needed to move on with my life. I know that anyone who goes through this will be able to do that, too.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Share with us the moment, if you’ve had it, where you knew everything was going to be OK. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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To My Mom, Whose Life Changed as Much As Mine From My Ill Health

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There are no pictures of my mother and me up on the walls of our house. The truth is, my father’s life and death can be condensed into a story in my mind, but my mother’s presence and influence in my life is much more complicated.

My mother is a poetic intellectual who believes in choices and who has supported me endlessly through, oftentimes, seemingly strange decisions. To give an example, some years ago I asked to go back to university in the U.K. newly blind, living alone in a new house and on monthly chemotherapy pulses. My mother did not even blink. She flew with me to the U.K. and left me crying and petrified on a train platform, unsure I even knew how to get home. She must have been terrified when she got on that train. I knew that then, too, but now as a parent myself I get chills even thinking about it. But she respected my choice and loved me enough to allow me the freedom of it.

By the end of that year I was confident and knowledgeable enough to be able to take a train and boat by myself and cross Europe, blind and on chemo. The following year I couldn’t walk and was in a wheelchair. She drove me, a cane, a wheelchair and my dog single-handedly through Europe to take me back to my house in the UK. Then she drove back home.

Five years ago I confessed to her I wouldn’t be able to live by myself anymore, that my medical reality was such that I needed help to live a semi-independent life. In response, she packed up all her things, a lifetime of things, left the only country she’s ever known and all her friends and life, and moved across the continent so I could have a shot at the life I chose.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Dot, my mother was in the house with me. When the test turned positive I screamed for her, frozen about all the unknowns and risks a pregnancy would bring. She was outside the room with a good friend of ours when I was giving birth, through those five days and nights that went so very wrong. She was next to me in the operating room and while I hemorrhaged, my blood pressure crashed and doctors were panicking, she was the first person to hold my daughter. In that operating room, when the doctor handed Dot to her, she sang a lullaby while she held her so the first sound in Dot’s life would be joyous.

I can never undo the deep sorrow she feels for my medical situation and for Dot’s. The only thing I can do is try as hard as I can to honor her, her love and her sacrifice. And love her. And learn from her and the complexities of her character and spirit.

So today and every day, I am so deeply grateful for my mother’s presence and example in my life.

mom hugging young daughter

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Write a thank you letter to someone you realize you don’t thank enough. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What I’ll Say the Next Time Someone Asks If I Know Stevie Wonder Because I’m Blind

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The 58th Annual Grammy Awards was held in Los Angeles on February 15, 2016. Artists representing every genre of music packed the Staples Center as fans from all over the country watched for performances and fashion alike.

With so many losses felt within the music community since the beginning of the year, Stevie Wonder and Penatonix honored Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White with an emotional performance of “That’s the Way of the World.” Wonder, who became blind shortly after birth, then preceded to remain on stage as Penatonix members read the Grammy nominees for “Song of the Year.”

After video played, the camera cut back to Stevie Wonder, who was holding the winner’s card. As he began to fumble with the card, attempting to open its seal, Wonder murmured, “So, I’m gonna break this open, pop it open… you know, what the hell?” The audience laughed while Penatonix members awkwardly looked on, seemingly wondering if they should intervene or let the music icon continue to open the envelope.

Wonder quickly attained success and upon turning the card towards the audience, it appeared to be blank.

“OK, so you all can’t read this huh? You can’t read it; you can’t read Braille. Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah Nah.”

The audience erupted with laughter. Stevie, glided his fingers over the dots adding, “I just want to say before saying the winner, that we need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.” The audience applauded Wonder as Ed Sheeran took home the win for his song, “Thinking Out Loud.”

As a blind woman, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Stevie Wonder since losing my vision in 2012. As one of the most famous blind people in the entertainment world, people often say say to me, “Oh, I can name a blind person, (pause) Stevie Wonder.”

I also get asked, “Do ‘you’ know Stevie Wonder?”

Know him? Of course I know who he is. I’ve heard his music. Are we going out to dinner or texting each other daily? In a word… no.

Surprising as it may sound, not all blind people hang out together. We exist in this world. We participate in our communities, and if we do happen to encounter a fellow individual with a visual impairment, then yeah, we compare notes. Maybe we swap numbers, similar to sighted people when they meet someone who shares a similar interest.

I know enough about Stevie Wonder to expect a great performance, but I was equally surprised by the Grammys’ choice to have him hold the winner’s card. Even as a blind woman, I was thinking, “Man, is somebody going to help him with that envelope?” and “How is he going to read that thing?”

Well, Stevie showed me. Hell, he showed the entire musical community. A blind man read and announced a Grammy winner.

He didn’t need assistance. He didn’t require a sighted person to do the job. He just did it. Elegantly. Professionally. Perfectly.

But beyond that, Stevie Wonder lightheartedly used the opportunity, perhaps even unbeknownst to him, to educate the world about “inclusion.”

We need to make every singe thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”

Inclusion for all, whether it’s the blind celebrity announcing the Grammy winner or the autistic child looking for matriculated classes in their school. The disabled community craves accessibility. We sometimes require accommodation. But we all, disabled or not, want inclusion.

The next time someone asks me if I “know” Stevie Wonder, I won’t be frustrated by their innocent ignorance.  Instead, I will proudly say, “Yes, he’s the guy who killed it at the 2016 Grammys by showing the world how accessibility for the disabled community is so empowering.”

Related Story: Stevie Wonder Calls for Disability Accessibility in Grammys Speech

Lead photo source: YouTube video

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To the Girl With a Visual Impairment Who Is Self-Conscious About Using Her Cane

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“Excuse me, are you training that dog, or is she yours?” came a woman’s voice from my right side, a few seats over in the crowded airport terminal.

“No, she’s mine,” I replied, “I’m legally blind.”

“Oh, well you look so confident that I just assumed you were a trainer.”

I sat up straighter and smiled. I liked this woman. “Oh, thanks!” I said.

“I have my daughter sitting here next to me. She just turned 18 and has been talking to Guide Dogs for the Blind about applying for a guide.”

“Oh, wow, that’s great!” I beamed. “You will love working with GDB!”

The mother’s voice dropped a notch.

“Admissions at GDB told her she needs to be using her cane more often in order to get a guide dog, and she really hates using it despite all her mobility training and the fact that glaucoma is causing her vision to get worse and worse.”

I turned my attention to the young woman sitting next to her mom. I couldn’t tell if she was very small for her age or if she was just crouched so low in her seat that it created the illusion of a very small person.

“I used to have a love-hate relationship with my cane as well. Can I ask why you don’t like using yours?”

She lifted up her head and a small voice replied. “I feel like everyone is watching me. I don’t like people looking at me.”

Our boarding call suddenly came over the speaker, and my husband nudged me. I knew we needed to get on the plane if we wanted any chance of getting bulkhead seating.

“I know you need to be going,” the mother said hurriedly, “but can you just tell us if you like having a dog and if she’s made a difference for you?”

“Definitely. I feel like I can walk so quickly and confidently, and my trainers at GDB were amazing. You should definitely go for it!”

As our plane took off, I couldn’t stop thinking about this teenage girl and everything I didn’t have time to say to her, and how I wished I would have responded to her comment about everyone watching her when she uses her cane. Why hadn’t I thought to give her my email address or phone number?

That flight was months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about this 18-year-old. Maybe it was her timid voice. Maybe it was the way she seemed to make herself smaller. Maybe it was the worry in her voice about what others think of her. Maybe it was the familiarity of it all, a reminder of an old way of thinking that once shrunk my world.

Whatever it was, it prompted me to compose this letter to her, and to anyone in similar shoes.

Dear beautiful young woman, crouched low in your seat,

I know it can sometimes feel like everyone is watching you, especially when you’re holding a long white cane in front of you. And with limited sight, I know it’s easy to imagine that all eyes are on you.

After years of worrying about the exact same thing, here’s what I’ve discovered: No one is looking at you as much as you imagine they are.

It is true that some people may give you an extra glance, but in reality most bystanders are so consumed with their own thoughts and plans they aren’t even giving you and your cane a second thought (and the few that are have far too much time on their hands).

Whether you realize it or not, beyond your self-conscious exterior is a human being who is strong and confident. The one thing I wish I’d learned sooner in my life is it’s OK to allow this strong, confident person to show up in the world.

The world needs you. It needs your presence. It needs your strength. It needs your story. It needs the uniqueness that only you can bring.

The time and energy that is freed up when you are not preoccupied with what others think of you is astounding. I am not going to lie and say I never worry about what people think of me anymore, and I admit I occasionally get treated differently when using my cane or guide dog. But these are now secondary thoughts in my mind. My primary thoughts are concerned with what I can offer in this life.

And the beautiful thing about offering up yourself to the world is the world gives back. It gives back beauty. It gives back grace. It gives back strength.  Whatever you give, you will receive in some form.

So go out into the world with your head held high today, my young friend, and show us what you have to offer — because your disability does not define you. It is a mere shadow, cast gently by your side from the light that illuminates from a beautiful human being. You have more to offer than you can possibly imagine.  So go. The world is waiting.

Sincerely,

Someone who has been there

joy thomas and dog
Joy and her dog, Roja.

Follow this journey on Double Vision Blog.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share a conversation you’ve had that changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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