SPONSORED: What's it Like to be a Visually Impaired Teen?
Trinity Lewis. Photo by Kimera Basore.
Trinity Lewis is a gregarious, kind-hearted, confident 18-year-old entering her final year of high school. She loves to swim, dance and watch scary movies with younger sister, Tristain. Her mom describes her as someone who’s never met a stranger and her gift with words was recently highlighted in a speech at the State Capitol. Lewis dreams of pursuing a career in education.
Lewis’s captivating smile belies that her future hasn’t always looked so bright. Born at just 32 weeks after mom Sylvia Lott was in a car accident, Lewis spent several months in the NICU. Her first pediatric appointment after her release revealed pupils that weren’t dilating, and an immediate visit to an ophthalmologist confirmed Lewis had a visual impairment.
“I was devastated,” said Lott. “You worry about what they’re not going to be able to experience, how it will hold them back or how other people will hold them back because of it. You don’t want your baby to be thought of as ‘less than.’”
As a child, Lewis said new experiences intimidated her and she got lost often. Stints in both private and public school included extensive work at home to ensure she wouldn’t fall behind. Bullied by classmates, Lott recalls birthday parties where no guests showed. While the challenges of low vision will always be part of her, Lewis said her family, NewView Oklahoma and the Oklahoma School for the Blind have taught her to embrace it.
“I realized this is how it’s going to be and I had to learn to adapt to it,” Lewis said.
Cathy Holden, senior vice president of rehabilitation and clinical operations for NewView, has watched Lewis gain confidence that she can achieve anything.
“We are affording a child the opportunity and training to overcome the stigma of a visual impairment,” Holden said. “We help them feel accepted and develop the confidence and skills to go forth.”
As evidenced by Lewis, NewView helps equalize the playing field for children and adults with visual impairments.
“We teach children to maximize their vision, to overcome and to adapt,” Holden said. “When Lewis came to our program, she had no clue what she would be capable of. Now she mentors other kids in the same predicament. She is such an encourager.”
The Gift of Hope
Opened in 1949, NewView Oklahoma is the only private in-state provider of comprehensive services for people with significant vision loss that can’t be corrected. It’s also the largest employer of blind and vision impaired individuals in Oklahoma. Those comprehensive services include access to visual specialists, occupational therapists, mobility and travel specialists, adaptive software and technology, Braille and even summer camps for elementary students through young adults.
Holden calls blindness the most misunderstood and feared disability. She takes parents of her young patients on tours of their facility to see adults who are blind or visually impaired succeeding in administrative, manufacturing, management and rehabilitation careers.
“We want to give them hope,” said Holden. “We don’t expect for them to get it all at once, but to give them time to observe and build trust.”
Lewis’s initial NewView experience was through Oklahomans Without Limits summer camp. Designed for ages 8 to 14, OWL camp includes rock climbing, swimming, art, music, boating and field trips to local attractions. Though Lewis and her mom were nervous, both were mollified knowing Lewis would have a buddy camper without sight limitations.
“The buddies spend their week building that camper up,” Holden said. “They are there as a support but also allow them to be independent.”
Buddies are vetted through interviews and then trained with a blindfold to better understand the challenges campers with sight impairments face.
“The kids with sight impairments just want to be treated normally,” Holden said. “Many of them have been bullied, but by the end of the week they realize kids with sight aren’t bad after all.”
OWL camp gave Lewis confidence, inspiring her to try out for her school’s basketball team and serve as the school mascot. Lott still harbored fear when Lewis tried new things, like swimming, riding a bike, roller skating or even going to the mall, but OWL camp demonstrated the benefits of stepping outside their comfort zones.
“She was building friendships and that’s something she craved,” Lott said. “It’s heartbreaking that it takes someone who your kid will only interact with for a week to show kindness, versus kids from school who wouldn’t take the time to get to know her.”
As a teen, Lewis attended NewView’s water skiing camp, where campers live in cabins and have counselors but no assistive buddies. They use canes or adaptive devices to get around, practice cooking and daily living skills and learn to tube, wakeboard and water ski. In NewView’s transition camp for young adults, campers live independently, learn to grocery shop, cook and do laundry, practice mobility skills, work on their resumes, volunteer in the community and participate in mock job interviews.
Empowering the Future
Through OWL camp, Lewis and her family learned about Oklahoma School for the Blind, and Lewis was determined to attend. Though hesitant for Lewis to live at the school’s campus in Muskogee during the week, Lott relented, recognizing the importance of fostering Lewis’s independence.
“I want to handle everything for Trinity,” Lott said. “But I also don’t want her to miss the opportunity to build relationships or experience life. I’m afraid I’ve held her back because I was scared the world wouldn’t accept her.”
At OSB, Lewis is a cheerleader and involved in FCCLA. Academics are top-notch and Lewis appreciates the small class size and accessibility to resources she didn’t have in other schools. OSB hosts weekly outings for students and facilitates sleepovers at classmates’ houses, as approved by parents, an experience most students have never had. Via FaceTime and dorm parents, Lott ensures Lewis is keeping up with laundry and cleaning her room. Through a program called ABLE, Lewis learns about technology she’ll need in college and beyond and in a work study program, she earned a job in OSB’s front office. Sorting the mail, taking phone calls and delivering packages assured her she will succeed in the professional world one day. In the spring, Lewis was selected to share her experiences at the Capitol on Disability Awareness Day.
“I hope I widened people’s horizons about being visually impaired,” said Lewis.
Holden said most people think of visually impaired individuals as unable to see anything, but that’s not the case. Though Lewis can’t distinguish facial details, she is very attuned to vocal inflections, tone and body language, recognizing Lott’s emotions as soon as she walks in the door from work or sensing someone making fun of her in public. Though such situations distress her mom, Trinity responds by saying those people aren’t worth her time.
“She’s always had positive role models to keep encouraging her not to be disheartened but to brush off negativity,” said Lott. “She has a beautiful spirit and a positive outlook on the world.”
Lewis said people with vision impairments are usually pretty open, and that it’s always okay to ask questions.
“Just teach kids to ask questions in a way that’s not disrespectful,” Lewis advised.
The biggest lesson Lewis has learned in her 18 years—and what she wants to impart to the world—is that there is no such thing as normal. Lewis’s heart of gold means she stands up for others. She’s traveled five hours to attend the funeral of a friend’s parent, and she made it a priority to attend prom with a friend with low vision who’d never been to a dance before.
Whether trying out for basketball, public speaking and, now, approaching her future as a young adult, Lewis doesn’t let anything stand in her way.
“With every new thing I do or learn a new way to do something, it feels like I get more freedom,” said Lewis.
Editor’s Note: Cathy Holden died tragically in late July, after this article was written. We dedicate this article to her and all the hard work she did to bring awareness and equality to people with vision impairment.
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