6/24/16

How Ragnar Saved My Life: Story of a Blind Runner



This past weekend 12 runners set out to make history as the first ever all-disabled team to run the Reebok Wasatch Back Relay Race. A 200 (ish) mile race from Logan to Park City, Utah, spanning two hot days, and one cold night. The team consisted of 11 blind and visually impaired runners, a cancer survivor, and a runner with one lung—all Achilles International athletes. The team accomplished their goal as they ran through trails and mountains, and crossed the finish line about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday June 18th, making history. This dynamic team trained for over a year for the feat of a lifetime—some experienced runners, and even more amateur ones, set out to accomplish something that had never been done before. While this was an enormous team effort, this is my personal story and experience, as a member of this historic team, a story that goes far beyond being a blind runner and extends to a hugely personal triumph…

Photo: The whole Team Achilles at the finish line with medal.
I was approached about a year and half ago about joining a team that would run some 200(ish) miles across the Northern Utah Mountains, and would consist of all disabled runners. I was absolutely, 100% NOT on board with this request. In fact, I said NO at first with little to no hesitation. I grew up as a dancer, and enjoyed doing lots of physical activities, but running was NOT one of them. My husband is a runner through and through and when the prospect of him being my guide on this run came to be, he had all but signed the paper saying he would do it—I still flat out refused.

When I was first approached about the race, I was in a pretty dark place in my life. My husband and I had been struggling with infertility for several years, we had just spent every penny of savings (and non-savings) we had, and put ourselves into lots of debt trying to have a baby with IVF. We had invested almost $34,000 into using a surrogate (read our infertility story here) to carry our baby, which failed, and we had no embryos and not options left…our hearts were shattered. It was the hardest, darkest, most frustrating time of my life and I was a lost soul.

During IVF, I had gained over 30 pounds doing hormone injections, eating away my heartache, and feeling too miserable (mentally and physically) to exercise. I had gained a lot of weight, and lost a lot of faith in my own body during IVF. I looked at my body and hated all of it, the way it looked, how it had betrayed me, how it had let me and my husband down, how it had literally FAILED me. I cried for days/weeks/months after finding out our last two embryos didn’t take—I was in a deep depression and could NOT dig myself out.

My husband, family and close friends helped me tremendously by trying to support me in finding new ways to love myself again. I hired a personal trainer at the gym to help me get in shape, and to give me something to commit to, I started taking dance classes again, and I sought counseling. It wasn’t long after getting a trainer that I realized I had to do something to take back control of my life, and I had to find a way for my body to prove to me that it wasn’t always going to fail me.

After much convincing, and honestly having no clue what I was getting myself into, I decided I would join the Achilles team and run Ragnar 2016. I went on our weekly training runs very reluctantly, for months and months and months. I cried after almost every run because I was so discouraged and frustrated with my progress, and how slow my “new body” was. I complained ALL THE TIME about how much I hated running. I dreaded every bloody run, and felt discouraged every time. BUT…I was noticing a huge change in my body and my heart; I lost 15 pounds in training and gained a lot of muscle.

As the race actually approached I became more and more aware of what I had gotten myself into…and I regretted my decision DAILY! I can’t count how many times I said, “What the hell did I do???”  Months before the race I got a horrible kidney infection which put me in the hospital for days and nearly took my life. I thought my Ragnar dream was a bust, but soon realized I had to keep fighting…so I kept running.

I never grew to love running, that runner’s high thing people talk about, I still have no idea what that is. I, however, noticed that my confidence was increasing, and my body was changing, and I had a new focus to fight for.

The weekend of Ragnar is something I’ll never forget. It was long, tedious, exhausting, mentally draining, exciting, arduous, and thrilling…it was everything. Everywhere we went along the way, other teams stopped to encourage us, to push us, to motivate us…and it was incredibly empowering. Our team fought through some tough runs, and dealt with hot temperatures, and frigid nights. We slept in crowded vans, ate sparsely, and fought through fatigue and exhaustion. Most of all, we ran to fight against long-standing stereotypes that blind people don’t or can’t. 
Part of the Achilles Team during leg 2 of the race.

But on a much more personal level, Ragnar saved my life.

My first two legs of the race were tough for me. I was fighting just to get through them, I made horrible times and felt slower than ever before…but I finished. On my third leg of the race we encountered this hill, it was steep, and it was hot outside. I took my first step up that hill, and when I felt the drastic incline, I hit the ground and sobbed. I was done I wanted to quit so badly, I had already had a bunch of hills and there was NO WAY I could do another one, especially that steep of one. 
Photo: View of one of the hills we ran.

As I cried, and people passed me over and over again, my husband just kept encouraging me that I could do it. I begged him to call in someone else to take my place at that point, that I was DONE, that I just could NOT MAKE IT. After a little pity party for myself, I forced myself to get up and go. I cried the whole way up that hill. That hill almost conquered me but when I got to the top…well, it was one of those moments that everything hit me. 
Photo: View from the top of the hill.

Two of my teammates met me close to the finish line and pushed me the whole way to the finish. I finished my final leg and tears trickled down my face the entire way back to the van. I was so moved by the experience that I couldn’t even put into words how I felt. I just accomplished something I never even imagined I would. I couldn’t check it off my bucket list because well, this was not anything I’d ever even put on my bucket list.
Photo: Lucas and I during one of our runs.

This race will always hold a special place in my heart. It was something I desperately needed to move past a lot of personal heartache, a lot of dis-trust in my own body, and a lot of fear about my ability to conquer my future. For me it was a personal fight to believe in myself once again, and to trust my own body to get me through hard things.

Photo: My family and friends who met me at the finish line.

7/17/15

Teaching Visually Impaired Students to “Use Their Vision” is Destroying Them


blurred self portrait

As you can tell by the title, I’m going to be very blunt in this blog post. As an orientation and mobility instructor for seven years now, I have seen the side effects of teaching low vision students to visually learn how to navigate. If you are NOT teaching these low vision students some non-visual techniques, you are setting them up for epic failure. How’s that for direct!?! 
 
I have had far too many students come through my door who tell me they’ve had orientation and mobility training all their life and are “good travelers,” who have proven otherwise. I teach cane travel non-visually, I do this because I don’t believe teaching someone with poor vision to navigate visually is effective—and to be even more honest--I think it’s detrimental to their well-being.

I’ll describe this oh-too-typical low vision student to you. They walk into my office, head down, shoulders slouched, they have a short cane in their hand (only because it’s required of them) that has clearly never been pulled out of their backpack. The student talks in whispered tones, shuffles their feet as they try to find a chair in my office, and tilt their head in various directions in an effort to get some kind of visual cue. Now imagine if this person walked into your office for a job interview, would you hire them? I certainly wouldn’t.

These students are the most typical I see, they struggle, immensely to learn non-visually because they are fearful, of almost everything! One student recently walked into my office and told me what a great cane traveler they were after nearly 10 years of cane travel instruction. They proceeded to tell me that they don’t need the sleep shade training but it’s their only option at the moment. When I press further to find out what their goals are—most often, they have none. These students, and many others, have been taught that struggling through life is okay and even admirable. They’re told they are lucky to have what vision they do have; This type of feedback in ruining these students.

Now I have to add that I am one of these low vision students myself. I can’t tell you how many times in my life growing up I was forced to, “just try to see” using this telescope, this magnifier, your feet, this monocular, these glasses, this scope…the list goes on and on. And when I failed to be able to see using these various devices, I felt like an utter failure. I tried as hard as I could to use the vision I did have and most often I failed, miserably. There is lasting damage to one’s self-confidence and self-image when you are pushed to use something that simply doesn’t work. I always thought I was doing something wrong because I couldn’t see as much as people claimed I could. I felt awful when my parents took out loans to buy me the latest and greatest magnifying device only to realize it didn’t help me very much. I was failing at using my vision and in the process, was also letting others down.

When we tell our students to use what vision they have, we are only setting them up for a difficult life full of disappointing moments where our “lucky to have” vision failed us. We must change things! We must stop forcing people with poor vision to use something that is broken—we must start giving them the necessary tools to live a happy, productive life…without the guilt. Non-visual training is for everyone—no one can convince me otherwise. While there is not a day that goes by that I don’t use my vision (I use it all the time), knowing how to do things non-visually has taken away the guilt that I once felt. I no longer feel like I’m failing when I can’t use my vision because I have the skills to compensate for that.

We must stop teaching people to use their vision—it’s failing our blind students. We must provide them with what they need to be successful, confident, contributing members of society…free of the pain and guilt of not being able to self-fix something that’s just not fixable. The tools are available for these students to find their confidence, their strengths, their equal place in the world—as teachers, we must give them these tools or we are failing them.