When thinking about growing up with a vision impairment, finding a sense of belonging and everything that intertwines with that such as friendships, the first thought that came to mind was ‘it can all feel like a rollercoaster’. And I guess that’s how I’d sum it up.
I’m very lucky to be surrounded by incredibly supportive friends and family, I really don’t know what I’d do without them. I think it’s important to recognise that I have a mix of friends who are sighted, and friends who have a vision impairment or other disability.
During primary school, I knew that I was different to my friends and sighted peers, I knew that I couldn’t see like they could. But as they saw my vision impairment as something different and something exciting, so did I. They were fascinated by braille, interested in my screen reader, and absolutely loved all of the equipment I used to take outside during breaktimes to make play accessible. Looking back, I’d say that I felt like I had a sense of belonging at primary school. My sight loss didn’t phase them, so I was happy in my little bubble.
My parents encouraged me to try new things and take up hobbies from a young age, and never stopped me from doing things because of my vision impairment. This was detrimental in finding my place in the world. It helped me in becoming the person I am today.
They didn’t wrap me up in ‘cotton wool’ so to speak, and I think that has played a huge factor in my life.
I learned to play the recorder which led me on to learning to play the flute, I joined a band and regularly played at concerts, I was part of my local brownies group and attended swimming lessons. I had a jam-packed social life!
As I progressed onto secondary school, my love of music continued for the next few years.
But in terms of finding my sense of belonging, I’ll admit that I sometimes felt lost…
Every day of secondary school was a constant reminder of how different to my sighted peers I was, and the ignorance that surrounds vision impairment. My vision impairment was often an instant barrier. I won’t pretend that this didn’t hurt, because it did.
Luckily, I had people that saw me for the person I was, not just my vision impairment. I will forever be thankful for those people.
As difficult as it was at times, I do want to highlight the fact that I did all the usual teenager stuff with my friends such as going shopping, going to the cinema, having girly time at each other’s houses and that sort of thing. My parents never stopped me from doing all of this. It gave me a sense of independence which is vital, especially for young people with a vision impairment.
Feeling like an outsider and noticing my differences really came into fruition during my time at sixth form. During those two years, I especially noticed how different I was, and those were the times when I battled with my vision impairment the most. Everyone was learning to drive, gaining more and more independence and I wasn’t.
As challenging as it was, I reached a point when I knew that I could gain independence in other ways like finding the benefits of using a long cane, and by enhancing my independent living skills.
Doing these things helped me see so many of the positives of my sight loss, and realise how incredible it is.
I also became more involved with the disabled community. I found other people in the same position I was, and I soon realised that I wasn’t alone in the battles I’d faced or feelings I’d experienced. Everything clicked into place.
Becoming part of the disabled community completely changed my view on my sight loss. I found the beautiful side of my vision impairment, and it helped me find my place within the community, and this weird and wonderful world we live in.
I found people that I could relate to, and I made life-long friends.
I got involved with campaigning and found myself wanting to make my mark in striving for change.
Finding my sense of belonging whilst growing up was a bit like a storm; there was rain, and there was sunshine, sometimes they even mixed together and made a rainbow.
But that storm has made me relish my differences today. I’m proud of being disabled, and that in itself helped me find my place in the world. I’ve found my sense of belonging, and I’m making my mark.
Growing up is tough, but growing up with a vision impairment can seem even harder at times. But things will fit into place; and your child will figure out who they are, they’ll find people that bring out the best in them, and they will find their place in the world.
Encourage them to try new activities, do the things they enjoy and let them know that their vision impairment won’t hold them back. It may be difficult, but don’t wrap them up in a security blanket, let them be themselves and figure things out. But most importantly, don’t treat them differently because of their vision impairment – let them grow and learn, just like their sighted peers.
It’s okay if activities need adapting to be made more accessible, making something accessible should always be seen as a positive rather than a negative.
Encourage your child to open up about how they’re feeling. Let them know that it’s okay to feel different, it’s okay to fight with their vision impairment at times, but reassure them that these feelings won’t last forever, and things will be okay.
Remember that your influence plays a vital role.
I’ve taken these tips from my mum and dad, I firmly believe the fact that they had this approach helped me when growing up, and has had a huge contribution to the person I am today. They let me grow up like any other child or young person, my sight loss was not a barrier.
I know that navigating the stages of growing up with your child can seem daunting, but remember that it won’t feel like that forever.