Adjusting My Career to Vision Loss
by Audrey Demmitt
Editor's note: Welcome Audrey Demmitt, new VisionAware Peer Advisor.
A Career I Dreamed Of
The day I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1983 with a nursing degree was a personal triumph. I looked forward to a career I dreamed of since childhood. I was certain I had found my life’s passion in nursing. My future was full of promise and excitement. Then at age 25, a vision exam turned everything upside down. The diagnosis was retinitis pigmentosa and my future became uncertain.
Continued to Work After Diagnosis
A long journey followed as I struggled to adjust to vision loss and redefine life and career. In the early stages of visual changes, I continued working in a hospital. My husband and I started a family. I tried not to think about the possibility of more vision loss. At age 30, with three children and a part-time job at the local hospital, I lost my driver’s license. This was the first of many losses which would change my life forever. Grief, depression, isolation, frustration and disappointment set in. My life and career were not shaping up as I imagined.
For the next ten years, my vision deteriorated slowly. I struggled to keep up at home and at work. There were times when I doubted my abilities to be a good nurse and mother. My husband and I pulled together and found creative ways to get around obstacles. Always supportive, he affirmed and encouraged me to continue to pursue working as a nurse. I gave up working in the hospital setting when the pace, lighting, and technical duties limited my ability to function. It was difficult to let go and even more difficult to find the next job. There was much to consider: personal limitations, employers’ reactions and concerns, transportation problems, co-workers’ attitudes and more. Out of sheer determination, I landed jobs in a variety of settings from student health on a college campus to doctors’ offices.
Defending My Work and Advocating for My Career
Sometimes it required hiding my visual impairment, which was very stressful. On one job, I was confronted,told I was “too great of a liability,” and let go. Through such experiences, I learned to defend my work, advocate for my rights, present my limitations to employers and co-workers, and find resources that enabled me to perform the essential duties of my job. At times I wanted to give up, but was always driven by my passion for nursing and the belief that there was still a job out there for me. After all, nursing is more than the ability to perform technical tasks. It is more often about understanding patient needs, giving care and comfort, exercising skilled judgment, and educating patients and their families. With low vision, I could still do these things. The challenge was always in finding the right job, presenting myself as a capable and conscientious practitioner, and working out the transportation conundrum.
Employment as a School Nurse Becomes Challenging
In 1994 I was declared legally blind. Undaunted, I landed a job as a school nurse when we relocated to Georgia. This environment proved to be ideal and I enjoyed years of support and collaboration with my principal, the staff, students and parents. But it was not easy; it was never easy. The role was challenging, requiring lots of paperwork. I was having problems with mobility and reading printed words by then. So I sought rehabilitation services. I received a low vision evaluation, and training in assistive work technology and daily skills. This was again a redefining and redesigning of self. For now, my vision impairment was known to all.
The Importance of Training in Orientation and Mobility
Upon returning to school one year, I had three serious falls in the first two weeks of school. I was tripping on obstacles I did not see because they were in my blind spots. I sustained minor physical injuries such as bruises and a sprained wrist. However, falls had become a growing concern both to me and my employer. At that point I realized I needed to take the initiative to keep myself safe in the workplace. An orientation and mobility instructor came to my school and trained me in using the white cane and fall prevention. Before I began to "publicly" use the white cane at school, I asked to speak to the staff about this change. I wanted to allay their concerns, assure them I could still do my job and ease the transition for myself. So, I spoke at a faculty meeting and explained the hows and whys of using a cane for personal safety.
Low Vision Aids Help with Job
Though I have never “looked blind”, all the new accoutrements and trappings proved it was so. I wore thick magnifying glasses which the students called my “goo-goo goggles”. A large video magnifier helped me read. I used hand held magnifiers and special lights to assess skin rashes and other boo-boos. ZoomText enabled me to manage student files on the computer. I introduced the school to my first dog guide, Sophie, who quickly became a beloved school mascot. I adopted a straightforward way of explaining these tools and taught the school community what it means to be visually impaired.
Adopted Self-Advocacy to Keep Working
I developed a no-nonsense approach to problem-solving and self-advocacy to keep my job and do it well. I demonstrated that people with disabilities are capable of contributing in meaningful ways. I learned to be tenacious and resilient. And I was grateful for the opportunity to practice nursing.
Retired Now but Still Involved
After 11 years as a school nurse, I retired. I recently worked with a vision rehabilitation agency as an adjustment to blindness counselor and diabetic educator, another attempt to hone my professional skills. I started a local support group to assist the visually impaired community in finding resources, support and services. I enjoy teaching and speaking and writing on topics such as diabetes and vision loss, health and nutrition, adjustment to blindness, depression, stress management, self-advocacy and dog guides. I draw on professional training and life experiences as a visually impaired nurse. My career has not been what I originally imagined, but it has been rich and fulfilling. I am excited to see what comes next as I explore new opportunities. As a CareerConnect Mentor, I encourage you to use CareerConnect to find out about careers including healthcare.
Check out my blog at www.seeingpossibilities.com.
Questions About Your Career After Vision Loss?
Have you had to adjust your career after losing vision? Share your thoughts and comments.
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Lynda24 on 3/6/2014 at 10:37 AM
What a wonderful, uplifting, encouraging piece! I too have RP which I tried to hide for too many years. I too had to change careers. For me it was the best thing that could ever have happened. For the past 25 years I've had the awesome privilege of seeing others with visual impairments rise out of the ashes and learn how to live full and meaningful interdependent lives. I've watched many of my FSU vision rehabilitation therapy students become better at the job than I ever was and multiply the number of individuals who've conquered vision loss and are living their dreams. Again, Audrey, thanks for this contribution!
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Empish on 3/6/2014 at 1:23 PM
I agree this was a great post because it showed how with some guts, creativity and supports you can revamp your career. I did the same thing when I lost my vision. I was in the journalism field and had just barely got started when I lost my eyesight. I had to think of how do I use this degree I just got with a visual impairment? I stumbled around a little bit but eventually got into freelance journalism where I could do everything from home. I had already gone through a rehab program for the blind and so knew how to use my computer again. I set up shop in my home, e-mail magazines and newspapers pitching story ideas, did all interviews over the phone and then would write and edit my work sending the finished article to the publication by e-mail. I would either get paid via check in the mail or PayPal. That worked for several years and allowed me to increase my income and more importantly my confidence.
Now I work in public education/marketing/communication and community outreach where I apply some of those same skills that I learned those years as a freelancer. It helped me to keep the gap out of my resume and keep my skills fresh and marketable. When it comes to situations like this we have to reinvent ourselves for the workforce in order to stay relevant and marketable.
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Audrey Demmitt on 3/7/2014 at 7:59 PM
Yes, as you say Lynda and Empish, we have to reinvent ourselves and get creative. And as you both know by experience, determination helps us get where we want go too! Sometimes "letting go" of something makes room for something better in our lives! The end of one thing is always the beginning of the next thing...
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by 10mecleary on 3/14/2014 at 10:36 AM
I love this uplifting article and congratulations on your new position as Vision Aware Peer Advisor, Audrey. As former Director of Admission at the Carroll Center for the Blind I always encouraged potential nurse students to keep their registration current until they decided what direction to take. We processed diabetes self-managing adaptive training to provide CEs. See Carroll Center's Blog on VisionAware for online courses that provide CEs.
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Quietwater on 3/14/2014 at 11:14 AM
For those of us who were born blind or became blind during childhood, the biggest hurdle is imagining the possible when society tells us each and every day that we can't and shouldn't even try. If our parents fold under the pressure of public opinion and shelter us too much, we may fail to develop our skills and explore our options fully. It becomes hard to be successful when our self image is formed by failing to meet societal norms. Expectations are set too low and we must struggle against the inertia of being safe. We do have the benefit of early exposure to skill training, but may lack the drive to push our limits. This blindness gig isn't easy for anyone. Still, if we understand that life will only be as rich and fulfilled as we choose to make it, then we can find a path to a full rich life and our struggles only make us stronger. Good piece.
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by ksdavis149 on 3/25/2014 at 7:38 AM
Hello all. I have always wanted to be a nurse in the NICU. my problem is, I am totally blind. I tried asking my school if I could enrool into the nursing program, but they turned me down. I am only 22 and feel like I have a long time to fight this, I also know that this is the one career that I really want. Right now I am doing psychology, but Nursing is my passion. Can you give me some advice on how to pursue this passion?
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Quietwater on 3/25/2014 at 10:32 AM
Hello, KSDavis149, This is a tough one as breaking down bariers is never easy. Since you are studying psychology, have you thought of trying to train as a psychiatric nurse? I know that for a long time, any one wishing to become a doctor used the psychiatrist route since they needed an M.D. to become one. Or you could start out working for qualification to become a nurse's Aid in the gerriatric field since there is a need for professional nursing staff in the rehabilitation or nursing home market. I guess what I am suggesting is trying to find an entry sideways. Picking an area where skilled services are needed and keeping your entry at a lower skill level and working your way up. Or, if that doesn't seem to be achievable, choosing an area like Occupational or physical therapist certification to be part of the medical team. Sit down and analyze your capabilities and talents and the goal you want to achieve and breaking down the path to success in to smaller achievable steps is my suggestion. Get some volunteer experience and grab any chance for training in related fiels such as taking a Red Cross first aid class, learning CPR, whatever you can to get your toe in the water and build your knowledge base pays off in the long run.
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Empish on 3/25/2014 at 11:53 AM
Another suggestion for breaking into nursing is to contact AFB’s CareerConnect for a mentor. I have been mentoring for years to help others who are interested in my field of journalism and communications. You might find another person who is blind in your field and can talk to them about your ambitions. You can go to www.afb.org and click on the CareerConnect link.
Re: Adjusting My Career to Vision LossPosted by Audrey Demmitt on 3/25/2014 at 4:45 PM
Hi KSDavis149- I would like to share my personal experience working in the NICU while I was losing my vision. In fact, that was my last hospital job ever. It became clear to me that I was at huge risk of making a critical mistake or error which would cause harm or even the death of a fragile, vulnerable baby who was already fighting for his/her life...so I removed myself from that job as a matter of professional ethics and conscience. The NICU is one of THE most challenging, high-tech, fast-paced and stressful areas of nursing. It requires a highly skilled nurse with the abilities to think, move, and perform quickly-often in life-saving procedures. An NICU nurse has to attend to many visual details, read monitors, set machines, measure miniscule amounts of dangerous medications, start IV's in tiny little veins,and collect data through visual observations in an efficient and accurate manner. The environment is often crowded with people, machines and supplies which need to be portable and moved about. After a year of struggling with this job, I chose to leave due to the constant difficulties, fears, and stress I experienced as a person with low vision. I cannot imagine how it could be done with total blindness to be very honest...Now I am not one to say that easily as I have learned that that there are ways to work around obstacles. But this involves the safety and well-being of innocent babies and would also open you up to the threat of malpractice, lawsuits, and catastrophic litigation. There simply is not much room for error in the NICU...and errors happen with vision loss...
That being said, I encourage you to rethink what it is about nursing that sparks your passion. Reseach some of the allied health sciences and careers such a "Child Life Specialist" or Public Health careers where you could still be a part of the health team. As I lost my vision, I had to take a serious look at what my REAL limitations were and then reinvent my career path. I ended up focusing on the psycho-social aspects of nursing-counseling, health promotion and education, and even social-work. There are many opportunities in the healthcare field that would easily accomodate blindness. Keep asking questions and doing your research. Explore some of the collateral careers in health. Talk to a career advisor and do some assessments of your strengths and interests to help direct your path. I wish you all the best!
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