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Dreaming Despite Disability: It's Not If, But How, You Can Achieve Dreams

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Joanne Ferguson lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She is married and has five children.

I worked full-time as a family physician prior to my vision loss. In 1990, however, I began to experience progressive vision impairment and was diagnosed with Stargardth's disease. It affected my central and night vision, as well as depth perception. I chose to discontinue working as a family doctor and sold my medical practice. This was a very difficult decision at the time, but it has worked out well in the end.

I have had much more time for my husband and children, something we have all really appreciated. We are a much closer family than we would have been if

I had continued working full-time.

I have had time, furthermore, to adjust to my progressive loss of vision without the added pressure of work, and I think that this helped me to adapt in a more positive way. I have relearned to cook, do laundry, manage a household, buy groceries, and many other tasks with reduced vision. I have learned to be more flexible and spontaneous since unexpected things can happen when I cook or go shopping.

Tiny labels on grocery items, for example, can make a big difference. Our family supper was much more lively than usual one day when the salsa on the nacho chips had a little label saying extra spicy rather than the usual mild. I can also recall making an unexpected dessert after I heated up a can of pineapple instead of corn for supper. We all enjoyed the treat, and had a good laugh too!

I have learned patience and persistence as well. It takes much more time to prepare food from a recipe now that I have difficulty reading, but the end product is worth the effort.

I have also discovered other enjoyable activities for which I now have time, such as cross-country skiing in winter and gardening in summer. I try to keep my sense of humour when encountering obstacles, such as trees when skiing. My husband sometimes has more trouble keeping his smile on, like the time I weeded the garden for him and picked all the yellow peppers he had planted between two of the rows!

Although I found that giving up my career was difficult, giving up driving and the independence it provided was even harder. Along with having several children, especially when they were in their preschool years, this lack of independent transportation led to social isolation and loneliness. It took a few years, but eventually we began to be able to manage public transportation together, and started to get out regularly. There were some challenging and interesting adventures at first before the children could read bus numbers, and we ended up on the wrong bus going somewhere unexpected.

Both the children and I grew to really enjoy travelling on buses, meeting people, and even shopping together (depending on the day). Making up for those years of isolation has turned me from being very introverted to becoming far more extraverted.

The children enjoyed public transportation so much that we have introduced their friends to bus travel. Going on a bus trip to the mall or the theatre with my family is an anticipated neighbourhood event that gives pleasure to all involved.

As my children grew older and more independent, I began to miss having a fulfilling career and started to yearn to be able to help others in a socially contributive way. I noticed that I had a lot of free time while the children were in school, and found that daytime TV, especially when combined with my vision impairment (I was legally blind by that time), was very unsatisfying. I began to think of options for future careers. These options were limited by my lack of physical vision, and this was discouraging at first. However, blindness really helped to narrow my choices, and I got over feeling discouraged.

My list of possibilities really brightened up after I contacted my local CNIB and Abilities Council and found out about computers and accommodative software.

It was so exciting! I had a lot to learn though. All I knew about computers was how to push the button, and that if a computer didn't work, restarting it often fixed the problem (like hitting the side of the TV to make it work).

I enthusiastically learned to use JAWS and the Kurzweil 1000 scanning and reading programs. I was so excited that I often stayed up late into the night reading books with the computer. I hadn't realized how much I had missed reading, even though I listened to books on tape. With the aid of this technology,

I found the courage to apply to the university to take a counselling degree. I was very excited when I was accepted into the counselling program.

I found that taking classes as a blind person, however, was very much different from when I was sighted. I wasn't able to see notes written on the board or on overheads. I could take notes, but I couldn't see well enough to read them. I could read textbooks and articles with the aid of my computer, but it took a lot of time.

I struggled with the obstacles I encountered daily, and gradually developed a system that worked for me. I bought a tape recorder, and obtained permission from each professor to tape lectures. I taped each class, then transcribed the tapes onto my talking computer at home, and saved the notes on the computer for review later. My teachers agreed to provide me with written copies of notes and overheads to take home to put through my scanner.

In addition, I discovered that the university offered services for students with disabilities. I used these services for writing exams the office arranged for volunteers to read exams and transcribe answers for me. This system worked well, but sometimes it was frustrating because everything took so much longer to do than when I was sighted. I was persistent though, since I knew if I did not stick it out, I would end up feeling bored and useless watching TV at home again. After four years, I completed the requirements for a Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology.

My next hurdle was to find a job. Not surprisingly, there weren't many agencies willing to hire a blind middle-aged woman who hadn't worked for 14 years.

I applied to numerous agencies, answered many advertisements, even got a few interviews, but after seven months I still did not have a job. This was very discouraging, but I did not give up.

Through the grapevine, I found out about an office with an opening for a physician/counsellor, and immediately investigated. Since then, I have re-activated my medical license and have set up my own counselling practice as a physician at that office.

Right now, I am in the process of working out ways of dealing with obstacles related to my vision impairment. I have purchased a computer, JAWS, and a scanner for my office. These help me to read mail and to keep records of my work. I developed a system for typing out my notes and saving them on disks in files, with a hard paper copy in case something happens to the disks. I use braille labels on files so that I can keep track of them myself. After losing almost everything imaginable in my office one or more times, I have organized it so that everything has a place. Now, I can usually find what I want.

I get to and from work by getting rides with my husband, on buses, or in taxis. For the most part, this works well (except when there is extreme cold or blizzards, both of which happened in my first month of work). When delays occur, I have a cell phone, and can keep in contact with my children and get them to start supper when necessary.

I am really enjoying returning to work part-time. The work is fulfilling, and it was quite wonderful to receive a paycheque for the first time in 14 years.

As I overcome various obstacles, I gain confidence, which I can use to deal with difficulties that may arise in the future.