Devin Fernandez, Karate Sensei

This is an image of Sensei Devin FernandezSensei Devin Fernandez, founder of Third Eye Insight

Sensei Devin Fernandez (Sensei means "teacher" in Japanese) has been studying Martial Arts for the past ten years and has achieved a Shodan Degree Black Belt in Ninpo Ninjutsu. He has been living a life committed to training and discipline in Martial Arts and meditation. When he was first diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in 2002, Sensei Devin found himself wondering, "Why me?" "What is this experience trying to teach me?" and "How can I share what I have learned with others?"

At the time of his RP diagnosis, Sensei Devin was deeply involved in his Martial Arts studies and was determined to keep training despite the challenges presented by his vision loss. It was during that time that the vision for a full fitness center for the blind came to him in one of his meditations and led to the birth of Third Eye Insight, a fitness program of Martial Arts, yoga, and mediation for people who are visually impaired and blind.

Growing up in New York

I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, in a very close-knit immediate and extended family. I am one of four siblings, with three sisters. Both my parents were educators who, from an early age, taught us the importance of a good education.

I attended grade school at St. John Vianney Catholic School in the Bronx. Attending a Catholic school was a challenge for me because, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nuns and lay teachers were very stern and quite strict. I have to admit, though, that I was no angel, and so my experience in grammar school was not always a positive one. Needless to say, I looked forward to graduating. However, one thing I did enjoy was being an altar boy and serving at Mass. In fact, I think this may have been the beginning of my spiritual practice.

After school, my friends and I would go to the community center or meet in the park if the weather permitted. We would organize stickball, football, and basketball games, or if we didn't have enough participants we'd play "street checkers," "tops," or "stoop ball," which only required one or two players and a good imagination. We didn't have video games or computers to occupy us back then, so we had to be creative.

When I completed grammar school, my family relocated to West Islip, NY (on Long Island), where I attended West Islip High School. I joined the freshman basketball team, participated in schoolyard sports, and graduated in 1976. It was during my high school years that I met my childhood sweetheart. We later married and now have two children.

Working in the security field

After high school, I attended the DeVry Institute (now DeVry University) in Scottsdale, Arizona. I chose DeVry because of the electronics program it offered, which opened doors for me and supplied me with the knowledge I needed in order to enter the security field. The biggest adjustment I had to make in moving to Arizona was trying to live with temperatures as high as 117 degrees, along with the fact that there was no ocean nearby. The water temperature in the Arizona lakes was around 80 degrees - compared to Long Island beaches, it felt like a warm bath!

I have been in the security industry for 23 years and during the past ten years I have owned and operated my own security business installing residential and business security systems. At present, I am fortunate to still have enough vision to perform the work necessary to complete any and all installation jobs.

The Martial Arts

This is an image of Sensei Devin Fernandez in class Sensei Devin leading warm-up exercises

As a child, I was always interested in the Martial Arts; holding a Black Belt was somewhat mystical to me. Ten years ago, my interest was sparked while attending a Karate promotion; after that experience, I enrolled my oldest son and myself at the Long Island Ninjutsu Center in West Islip. I appreciated that the study of Martial Arts teaches discipline and the value of commitment. These are great life skills that continue to help me even now.

Ninpo Ninjutsu is the art of the Ninja Warrior. Ninjas were the common folk of Japan. Their style of defending themselves was by utilizing the everyday tools they used for farming as weapons. A Shodan is a first-degree Black Belt. As my teacher always says, the difference between a beginner and a Black Belt is that a person with a Black Belt never quits.

A beginner starts with no belt, and in this style, works to earn his or her initial white belt. With practice and commitment, we promote through seven different numbered/colored belt rankings to achieve a Black Belt. This process takes a minimum of five years.

It was when I started training in 2000 that I was first diagnosed as possibly having retinitis pigmentosa (RP). I was a Yellow Belt at the time, and the physical part of my training helped me deal with the anxiety of learning that I was losing my vision.

A diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa

In 2000, my optometrist reported seeing scar tissue on my retina. Initially, he wasn't sure it was RP because I had been in an electrical explosion 13 years earlier, which had blinded me for four days. In 1987, I was working on modifying an electric circuit breaker panel that short-circuited my screwdriver and created an arc (or current discharge), which exploded in my face. This caused first, second, and third degree burns to my face, hands, and arms, removing the skin and hair from those exposed parts of my body.

This is an image of Sensei Devin Fernandez in classSensei Devin leading a Martial Arts class. Sighted students wear blindfolds to "equalize the playing field."

I spent four days in a critical drug-induced coma and two weeks in the burn center of Nassau Medical Center. This is where I received skin grafts, in which skin was taken from my legs to replace the burned skin on my arms. I had to wear form-fitting gloves and sleeves for my forearms to prevent bubbling and scarring on my skin during the healing process. These gloves had to be worn for 23 hours a day for two years. The first couple of months I had little to no use of my hands, which was very difficult to adjust to. The only time I was only allowed to remove the gloves was when I took a shower. Needless to say, it was a very difficult process, yet I never doubted my full recovery.

I visited my optometrist in 2000 because I was having difficulty seeing well in bright light. He diagnosed my problem then as possible RP. When my family and I researched what RP was, I was in shock and disbelief. We learned that it was a hereditary eye disease, although no one in my family had ever been diagnosed or had any loss of vision due to RP or any other eye condition.

What upset me most was learning that RP is a rare disease with no available treatments at present. We visited many retinal specialists who all came to the same conclusion: that there are no known cures at this time, but the promise of future stem cell research to restore the unhealthy retina is very encouraging. It wasn't until 2002 that I received a definite diagnosis of RP.

Editor's Note: Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a hereditary, progressive retinal degeneration that affects both eyes. Night blindness, which usually occurs during childhood, is followed by the loss of peripheral (or side) vision. This peripheral vision loss progresses over many years to "tunnel vision" and can lead to total blindness. The rate of progression and degree of vision loss varies from person to person. Most persons with RP are legally blind by age 40, with a central visual field of less than 20 degrees in diameter. Loss of central vision can also occur late in the course of the disease. RP is an uncommon eye condition, affecting approximately 1 in 4,000 people in the United States.

None of the doctors I saw ever made me aware of what the stages of RP were and what I should expect as it progressed. My early symptoms were difficulty seeing in bright light; a few years later I lost my depth perception, and a few years after that I lost my night vision. Eventually I could not see anything in the dark, either at night or during the day in a darkened room.

Learning to cope and the path to rehabilitation

Initially, coping with this diagnosis was not an issue; however, as my vision decreased, I had to learn to adjust to many different daily living situations. In life we tend to take things for granted, and, as the saying goes, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."

One of the ways I've learned to adapt is to rely on my other senses; for example, I now rely more on my sense of hearing. I am consistently listening for cars, footsteps, dogs, birds, and other noises; in the past, I may not have been as aware of these sounds. I also depend on my hands to "see" and feel different shapes and textures. This allows me to continue to work in the yard, plant flowers, and do handiwork around the house.

Since meditation has been a big part of my life, I turned within and frequently asked myself "What is it that I need in order to learn and grow from this experience?" There is, at present, no medical or surgical cure for RP, so I reached out to organizations that provide life skills to the visually challenged. 

My mother was the one who reached out to the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. The Commission, in turn, put me in contact with a mobility coach (also called an orientation and mobility [O&M] specialist), who instructed me in the correct use of a cane for mobility, traffic safety, and railroad and subway travel. It is my orientation and mobility training that has helped me build greater confidence when traveling and has encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone.

The Commission also arranged adaptive computer training with the Suffolk Independent Living Organization, Inc., also known as SILO. I trained on and currently use JAWS for Windows. JAWS (an acronym for Job Access With Speech) is screen reading software that speaks the words that appear on my computer screen.

One of the continual frustrations I face is the realization that there are things that now take two to three times longer than before, such as getting work done around the house, filling out applications, going shopping on my own, crossing the street - everything we all tend to take for granted when we can see.

Adding to my frustration, I believe, is the fact that I'm grieving the loss of my eyesight. Each morning, I wake up in anticipation of the challenges that lie ahead, but I'm also excited about what the day will bring. I find myself both nervous and eager to face a new day. 

I've always been interested in camping, hiking, and enjoying nature. There is nothing as peaceful as being surrounded by the beauty and solitude of God's creation. I also love to put myself in service to others. If we all learn to help one another, what a great world this would be!

The Birth of Third Eye Insight

One of my spiritual teachers speaks of giving to others the skill you have acquired, and this is how Third Eye Insight came to be. The program began in May 2010 at the Long Island Ninjutsu Center in West Islip, NY, thanks to my teacher Kyoshi Allie Alberigo. ("Kyoshi" is a title or honorific that recognizes a "knowledgeable person" with special accomplishments within the field of Martial Arts.)

Through Third Eye Insight, I'm able to share my Martial Arts experiences with people who are blind and visually impaired. Currently we offer Martial Arts, yoga, and meditation classes. Classes are held every Saturday, starting at 12:30 PM. My long-term goal for Third Eye Insight is to create a state-of-the-art facility where blind and visually impaired individuals can come and train, work out, and socialize with others in the blind community.

My Martial Arts studies have provided me with a foundation for understanding the importance of developing not only my body, but my mind and soul as well. I realize that the experience of vision loss has deepened my spiritual practice, and together with my daily ritual of meditation and prayer, has enabled me to find acceptance.

My experience is teaching me to use my perceptive senses (such as hearing, touch, and smell) when meeting new people. Without the input that my vision used to provide, I'm no longer concerned with physical appearances, which can sometimes distract from the "real person" within. I understand the challenges presented by the loss of sight and I am looking forward to helping other blind and visually impaired people step out of their comfort zones and expand their life experiences to meet these challenges.

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