Lauren: I am a strong, independent and visually impaired woman
I was born with a rare eye condition called Nystagmus, which is when the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements. For me, these involuntary movements occur from side to side. It can often result in reduced vision and depth perception, which can affect balance and coordination. Personally, I don’t feel these movements, however, when my eyes work too hard, I can feel the ache and strain of the muscles trying to focus.
This is, in fact, a disability. I was registered as visually impaired from the age of 17.
Although this was a late time to be registered, my parents did, of course, support me through my younger years. They also decided to give me the independence to figure out what help/support I needed for myself as I grew up. When I was born, nurses told them I'd never have enough vision to get involved with sports, especially ones that contained a ball, because of the perception of my vision.
They were also told I'd never ride a bike due to balance - but guess who proved them wrong! I was taught to ride a bike by my dad, thanks to the endless days/weeks spent, I can gladly say “I can ride a bike”. Ball games were never my cup of tea and I was never a fan of P.E at school, however, I took on a sport I immediately fell in love with; horse riding.
There is so much coordination, balance, and vision needed to ride a horse, most things that having Nystagmus gives you the inability to have. Although knowing I had a disability from the day I was born, I've not known any different. I’ve practically been riding since I could walk.
There were points in my life I had anxiety over how I looked with my glasses on. I hated wearing them because I was bullied as a kid at primary school. I constantly worried what people would think if they saw my eyes moving in strange directions. Some people even believed I was cross-eyed or they’d say I have a lazy eye.
Growing up, I began to find my own ways of coping. Although this was easier said than done. If anywhere made me feel like an alien, it was school. Big fat glasses, large bits of paper, teachers calling me to the front so I could see better, losing all motivation to tell many classmates why I have all this extra support and finally learning the phrase “No, thank you!”.
As much as I appreciated the support from every single teacher, it became overwhelming and I gradually lost confidence in myself. They did everything they could to help me, but having a Learning Support Assistant (LSA) sat next to me, plus millions of large worksheets and photocopies of the textbook, it felt too much.
By the end of it I just gave up and said, “No, I want to be like everyone else”. I said to teachers that I would rather go to them if I needed help - I wanted to put my eyes to the test and see what I was really capable of.
I remember having a lovely LSA called Ellen Coates, she was one of the best I had at school. She understood that when I needed help I would speak up, mainly because she was the only teacher throughout the whole school that I would turn to. She would take time to sit with me and talk through things with me before school, after school, or in my study time. If I needed to rest my eyes during lessons, she would take notes for me, then I could catch up in my own time. Equally, at times I felt down and I continued to lose my confidence, but she was there for me to talk to.
As I started to lose my confidence, I started to feel more and more anxious about life.
I questioned if I would ever get a job.
“How will I explain my eye condition to employers? Am I going to be a pain to employ? Are there more people like me? Am I alone?”
Despite these thoughts, I decided to step out of my comfort zone. I started commuting to London every day, to work with a charity called Royal Society for Blind Children. I worked with them for 9 months. I met so many people who were like me. There were those that had more vision than me and those that had less, but we all faced similar battles. We were all there to make a difference.
Meeting more people who were like me helped to boost my confidence. Listening to stories of those that had lost their sight during their lifetime, or even when they were born, I looked in the mirror and realised I wasn't alone.
When I saw what other people like me were achieving, I knew I was capable of it too.
I was eligible to have the help and support that was out there for me to go on in life. I was able to figure out what would work for me and what wouldn’t. I was able to adapt to my surroundings and find my capabilities, which started to really boost my confidence.
I started to use my other senses more than my eyes. I figured that words started to look like patterns which helped me define them on small print. I worked out that my sense of smell was more enhanced than those around me. The main sense that improved was my hearing. I could hear the train coming to the platform, I was always prepared way before everyone else for departure.
To this day, I still hate to wear my glasses. However, I compromised with myself - I now wear contact lenses and occasionally reading glasses that help when I do feel the strain. I have finally found the ability to be independent and be the person I knew I wanted to be. I didn't need help 24/7, I wanted to give myself a chance to know what I was capable of.
Taking myself out of my comfort zone has allowed me to meet people like me, try new activities, talk to people who understood me and be around people who let me be me.
It's given me the true ability to be the strong, independent and visually impaired woman I am today.