Hi, I wasn’t sure what to write in this blog but what do I know the most about? My story!
My name is Caitlin, I’m 19 and I am an athlete, musician and a typical university student but I also happen to be severely sight impaired and have a beautiful guide dog called Honey.
I mention these things last as I want people to see me first before they see my sight loss, something that has been a constant battle my whole life! Yes my vision loss is a huge part of my life but it doesn’t define me at all, the things that define me are the things that would define anyone else.
What do they study? What are their hobbies? What do they want to do as a job? What’s their favourite colour?
These are the first questions that usually come up when having a conversation with a sighted person, so why should it be any different because my eyes don’t work as they should? Why should the first questions I get be ‘Can you see how many fingers I’m holding up?’ or ‘Are you training that dog, you don’t look blind’ or ‘what happened to your eye?’. These are all genuine questions I’ve been asked by complete strangers!
But we will get back to this, let’s start from the beginning. I have been visually impaired since birth, when my mum realised there was something wrong with my eyes because they were cloudy. It wasn’t long until I was diagnosed with a whole host of eye conditions but this blog isn’t about all the medical jargon, it’s about what my life looks like living with sight loss and how my vision impairment keeps up with me and not the other way around.
Judo and friendships
As a child I attended a group for vision impaired children and young people where we would do different activities to keep active and meet more people like us. It also gave parents the opportunity to support each other and have people that ‘get it’. I think this group was what fuelled the stubborn ‘I’m going to show you that I CAN do that’ mentality along with my parents, especially my mum, always knowing that my vision loss wasn’t going to stop me doing anything once I’d set my mind to it.
One of the sessions I did was judo. As soon as the session was finished I was getting the details for my local judo club which my uncle actually already attended. Me, my older sister and my dad, all started doing judo and 15 years on I’m the only one still doing it because I was hooked from day one! For years I took part in mainstream (sighted) judo until one day my dad went to a dan grading and in typical ‘dad fashion’ he introduced me to one of the ladies on the officiating table who was in charge of adaptive judo. She was friends with the Paralympic head coach and introduced me to VI Paralympic Judo and this moment changed my life forever (I didn’t realise at the time but if my dad hadn’t embarrassed me I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do right now!)
In 2012 my family and I went to watch the third day of the judo at the Paralympic Games in London because I was judo mad! We watched Sam Ingram win a Paralympic silver medal and I said, “that’s going to be me one day, on the podium at the Paralympics” and I’m still training to get towards that goal.
On that same day I met the rest of the Paralympic team, Joe Ingram, Dan and Marc Powell and Ben Quilter (I even got to feel the braille on the medal that Ben had won the day before!). And in a huge circle moment, last year Ben Quilter was my coach in the Netherlands for the VI Dutch Open where I won silver and it is honestly mind blowing that hard work and persistence can make dreams a reality.
The Paralympic podium dream is still a long way and a lot of hard work away but it is still an aim of mine. I am on the Paralympic Potential Programme with British Judo and it has given me the opportunity to train with some of the best VI judo players in Great Britain, it has allowed me to compete and train internationally alongside some of the best VI players in the world but it has also allowed me to make lifelong friends.
Friendships are something I have really struggled with as a visually impaired person, and it’s only as I’ve got older and more confident that making friends has become easier. It was a massive struggle of mine all throughout school, even up until I left sixth form and often made me feel so isolated and lonely. In primary school I very rarely got invited for sleepovers because children’s parents didn’t know how to look after me (even though it’s the exact same as any sighted child), and then in high school I struggled more because it is a much busier environment and reading social cues became even harder, especially as my vision deteriorated. Someone waving across a room or making facial expressions during a conversation just didn’t exist for me until my mum, for example, would say ‘they just smirked at that’. As well as this I struggled to find where my friends where in the sixth form common room if they weren’t sat in the same place and very much relied on my LSA to help me find them, which was quite a difficult thing for me because I’m so independent.
Now I’m at university I have managed to find a small group of friends who I am very close with and now live with and who I am very honest with about what I see and don’t see and they go above and beyond to help. They ‘sighted guide’ me when I’m not working Honey (my guide dog), they will tell me if my clothes match or if it has a stain or something along those lines and are subtle about it so that nobody else notices how much they are helping me because they also value my independence so much.
Life with a guide dog
Speaking of my guide dog, she has helped me so much in making friends in different ways, since becoming a guide dog owner in 2019 my confidence has grown massively. This has helped with making friends because I now have the confidence to speak to people I usually might not have, but also it can be conflicting because most people see Honey before they see me and it can be really frustrating! But in the same light people talk to me more as a result of me having a dog. Another thing people don’t realise about having a guide dog is the initial training that goes into developing a good partnering, it’s like learning how to drive. When I was matched with Honey we did six weeks of intense training, five days a week throughout my summer holiday before I went into year 11, it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do but also the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It mirrors my mentality with sport, “anything worth doing is hard work”, and now four years on Honey gives me more independence and confidence than I could have ever imagined.
We are now in our second year at university she takes me to all my lectures, she takes me to the gym, we go everywhere together. She has helped me develop into the person I am today, I am always up to take her out and feed her, we go out on walks after a hard day of working and it does wonders for both mine and her mental health, nothing beats going on a walk with your dog after a busy day of sitting in lectures and looking at screens all day. Honey is not only my mobility aid but my best friend and I would be lost without her!
Long days are university can be exhausting for anyone, learning about a completely new subject for three years, sometimes 9-5, everyone is tired after a day of university, and that’s not even considering student athletes, they train, go to university all day and then train again and it is all part and parcel of big dreams of being the best in their sport.
Then you add eye fatigue in there, people often don’t understand that eye fatigue is a very real thing so I’m going to explain what it’s like for me. As a result of my eyesight (no vision in my left eye and 6/152 tunnel vision in my right), day-to-day tasks take a lot more concentration and looking than it typically would for someone with 20/20 vision, for example in the morning I pick my phone up (like any typical teenager) and hold it so I can see it which means it is essentially touching my eyeball. Then I get up, walk to get Honey’s lead and harness, which means avoiding any ‘obstacles’ which could be as simple as a shoe on floor (something a sighted person would automatically visually process and avoid whereas I have to remember it is there then avoid it) and then finding where I put it (I always keep it in the same place) and then I put Honey’s lead and harness on (this is all done with feel) then find my keys (again I keep them in a very specific place but if I don’t I have to use the camera on my phone to find them).
All these things I have to think about within the first five minutes of waking up and they continue throughout my whole day. For example, avoiding people in busy corridors (Honey does this for me but in high school before I had her this would be so draining because I would have to decide which side to move away from them and if I had enough space to get around them without bumping into anyone else). So by the time I get in from uni I am so drained that I walk into things more (because one of my conditions makes my eyes shake and they shake more when I’m tired which makes my vision even more blurry), I forget what I was supposed to be doing and often have headaches or eye pain from being on full alert all day everyday.
Awesome opportunities I’ve had through my sight loss
A lot of what I have talked about so far is the hard parts of vision loss but I never dwell on these things, I decided to talk about them so other people with sight loss can see that they aren’t alone, on all my social medias I am very much an advocate of ‘I can do that, and I’m going to make a point to show you that I can because my visual impairment keeps up with me and not the other way around’ but in another light sharing my experiences might encourage other people who may be struggling with losing their sight to think ‘’if she can do that, so can I’.
I have had many opportunities as a visually impaired person that most sighted people probably wouldn’t have growing up. I have driven supercars around a race track at over 100MPH, I have done winter sport sessions which including skiing, skeleton and even went in those snow tube things down a slope which was incredibly fun! I have also done multiple residentials in summer where I climbed up and abseiled down a cliff face, did high ropes, archery, bike riding and so much more with other visually impaired young people.
Having a vision impairment has also given me lots of opportunities within sport, ⅗ sport that I’m currently doing are specifically for people with low vision (B1-B3). I have done judo for 15 years now and that is a mainstream sport but it is also a Paralympic sport, the only difference between the two sides of the sport is that in Paralympic judo we start with a grip and get walked onto the mat. The other non-VI sport I do is BJJ (Brazillian Jui Jitzu), I started this to help improve my judo and it is quite easily adaptable as you start quite close to your opponent so once you have your grip it is an even playing field.
It was only in this last year that I starting looking into and getting more involved in VI sports, I recently started playing goalball and am set to play for my first season for Birmingham Goalball Club this year. I have also started playing VI/blind ice hockey this year which is quite new to the UK but is a really enjoyable sport. It is a very similar concept to normal ice hockey, where you use wooden sticks to get the puck around the ice and into the opposing teams goal but there is a few adaptations, the puck itself is five times bigger than a normal puck and is made of metal, it has metal ball bearing inside it so when it makes contact with a stick or the sides it makes a noise. Additionally, all the goalies are completely blind so you have to make a pass in the half your shooting in before making a shot so that the goalie has an idea where the puck is. The final sport I have taken up while I am home for uni is VI tennis, these three sports are not only keeping me active but introducing me to other like minded vision impaired people that ‘just get it’ and have the same ‘can do’ attitude as me.
This is just a snippet of living life as a teenager with vision loss. Even though there are obviously challenges along the way, there are also so many positives too when surrounded by the right people. People can be mean, especially as a kid, but once you find your people you will know and they see you and not your visual impairment. Get involved in activities and sports, whether that’s VI specific or just a sport. But most importantly, never let anyone put you on a box and say ‘you can’t do that’ because of your vision loss.
Take opportunities, having a go is the biggest step and once you’re over that you may even find something you love, like me with my judo.
Your visual impairment should keep up with you and not the other way around.