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Functioning in a world without eyesight

Losing one’s sight can lead to a range of emotions normally associated with grief, including denial, anger, bargaining and depression, but in the end, with a little bit of help, acceptance can finally be attained.

“It pissed me off. I was very angry at first,” Jan Seeley, a volunteer at the Earle Baum Center (EBC) said. “There are different emotional levels when you lose your sight. One part is denial and I was there big time.”

Seeley, 81, began losing her sight about 20 years ago, when she developed glaucoma, but it was on a plane ride home from India in 2011 that she contracted an infection leading to the loss of vision in one eye.

She’s always led a high-energy life, running the customer service department at Sola Optical during her career; yet despite spending her corporate life in the eye care business, she never dreamed she would need the services EBC has to offer.

“The first day [at EBC], I didn’t think I should be here,” Seeley said. “But I was, and then realized Denise [the instructor] was blind and another blind woman was knitting, so I thought, ‘you are in the right place; it’s time to change your attitude.’”

In the ensuing five years, Seeley has learned to reorganize her life around her disability and remained active as a volunteer, leading the EBC volunteer steering committee and participating in classes.

The instructor Seeley met on that first day is Denise Vancil, the EBC Independent Living Services Instructor, who teaches living skills such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and other aspects of day-to-day living in her introduction to vision loss.

Vancil has been at EBC since its beginning in 1999. She was the first teacher hired at the center, and has devoted her life to helping people learn how to function once they lose their vision.

She comes to her calling after decades of living without the use of her eyes, which she lost as an adolescent—the victim of a rare birth condition that she said affects about one in 10 million people.

In kindergarten, she found she couldn’t read the blackboard in class. Her parents did everything they could to help prepare her for losing sight, ensuring she knew how to use a cane and read Braille. Despite several surgeries, she lost sight at the age of 13.

“One day I woke up and everything was orange and bright lights,” Vancil said. “My retinas detached and within 72 hours, I was totally blind.”

According to Vancil, the toughest thing was not learning new things, but the way people treated her once she became blind.

“Interactions with others was the hardest part,” she said. “People treated me differently: talking really loud, despite my hearing not being affected. It’s confusing to people, and they [tend to] treat all disabilities the same.”

Although she has lived a life full of adventure, traveling the world in her youth, Vancil has had to arrange her life around her disability and still struggles living in a world where even getting to work can be a challenge.

“On a day-to-day basis I have two kids to raise—an 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter — and my husband Ben is also visually impaired,” she said. “We moved to the SRJC neighborhood even though it was not our first choice, but it’s the only place in Santa Rosa with an elementary, middle and high school that are close together.”

Thanks to help from her family members and a workplace that specializes in providing service for the visually impaired, Vancil has access to the latest information and technology that she imparts to students who come to the EBC to help make their lives less daunting.

“A lot of our clients think our services are only for the blind, but they come here and realize that we teach techniques to help enhance their lives,” she said. “The hard part is getting them hooked.”

Since she had several years with full vision, Vancil has “sight reference,” which helps her relate more to the world around her, understanding things like color and generally what people and things look like.

“It’s a struggle with someone who has been blind from birth, like explaining colors: I can’t tell them what blue or green looks like,” Jeff Harrington said. “They don’t have those associations and no visual memory. It’s a different framework.”

Harrington, Assistive Technology Manager and an instructor at the EBC, began losing his own sight at the age of 12 and has spent the past 17 years helping clients deal with vision loss. He does that with the help of technology and a large dose of patience.

Harrington, who grew up in the Santa Cruz area, began to noticeably lose sight as a youth playing Little League baseball.

“I was trying out for the pony league and I was jumping around when the ball came toward me,” Harrington said. “My dad asked me what was the matter.”

Doctors thought he had an infection, but by the time he was 13 or 14 years old, they discovered he had glaucoma.

Glaucoma causes a buildup of fluid in the eye, which puts pressure on the optic nerve and can eventually kill it.

Despite about “40 or 50 surgeries,” Harrington eventually lost his sight completely over a 10-year period.

Fortunately, he earned a degree in occupational therapy from San Diego State University before he lost his sight, so he had something to fall back on professionally.

At EBC, he helps students use adaptive equipment and electronic devices. Although there is not a good time or way to go blind, technology is helping people lead more productive lives, while reducing isolation.

“There is probably not a better time to be blind with the technology that is available: there’s Siri and email readers; you can turn on your GPS and figure out where you are and there are the chirpers and tweeters at stoplights.”

But the most important thing is a support system that helps maintain equilibrium when one of the most important senses no longer functions.

“Having a supportive family can be huge,” Harrington said. “Sometimes, they can be fearful and overprotective. I was lucky because when I came home with scrapes, my mother would tell me that’s life and it’s going to happen. You have to be allowed to make mistakes.”

Seeley calls the EBC “the best kept secret in Sonoma County,” and said that it is an important resource that should be tapped before someone goes completely blind. “There are so many people we can help before they lose their sight,” she said. “I found that I can live independently with happiness and joy in my life and didn’t have to be a little old lady stuck in the house.”

For more information on the Earle Baum Center’s services, go to or call the center at 523-3222

By David Abbott, Associate Editor, Sonoma Seniors Today

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