Beyond Barriers—Living With Low Vision

Gena Harper is legally blind. She’s also a wife, mom, star athlete, and a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Berkeley.
She is also one determined woman. For example, she just started running last year, and has already completed two 10Ks and two half marathons.
When it comes to sports in particular, and life in general, she is amazingly resourceful.

“My running partner is Kelli Taylor. We met through our boys, who play basketball together. She is an assistant U.S. attorney, and she has the same ‘can do’ attitude as I have,” Harper says.
“She had never run with a blind person before, and we worked out using a bungee cord to connect us and to help her give me verbal information. For cycling, I have pilots who tell me right turn, left turn, etc.
“I love sports. I finished my first half-marathon last October. Seven years ago, I participated in the U.S. Road Nationals. Though most competitors were half my age, I figured I had the benefit of sheer determination—something I’ve developed over a lifetime. I took third place.”
Harper also says she’s very fortunate. Unlike many suffering from low vision, she had first-rate medical care starting at an early age. Growing up in Fresno, CA, her ophthalmologist was Dunbar Hoskins, M.D., former president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Since moving to the San Francisco area, she has been a patient of renowned glaucoma expert Andrew Iwach, M.D.
Looking back, she says, “I used a CCTV sometimes, but wouldn’t use a cane.” Until she fell down stairs at Fresno City College, that is. That accident was a big turning point in accepting her condition and moving forward. To that end, she enrolled at the Orientation Center for the Blind in nearby Albany, CA.
“I was blindfolded in all my training. That made such a difference. Knowing what to do…it’s an amazing gift. You may not need something now, but, as your eyes get worse, it’s a lot easier if you’ve already developed the skills. It saddens me that they don’t make people wear blindfolds in school now.
“One of the most significant things there was that I got into sports. I didn’t know I was an athlete…and then I became a world-class downhill skier. That started to change my self-esteem.”
Since then, whether it’s pursuing sports and building a successful career or raising a family and becoming an inspiration to others, she never, ever allows her visual disability to slow her down. All this despite the fact that her sight continues to worsen.
Like many low vision and legally blind patients, she wishes eyecare professionals would get more involved in addressing the day-to-day needs of patients. “If a person goes blind, the doctor feels like they’re failing in that, for them, it’s mostly about drugs and surgery.”
“It’s a tragedy that you could literally go your whole life with my condition and, depending on the doctor, never be told to use a cane, and how to get trained to use it.
“In my case, my left eye was kind of squished, and I was very self-conscious. Nobody told me about a prosthetic eye until I was 40. Now I have one, and it’s beautiful.”
“When it comes to technology, it’s definitely not all or nothing,” Harper says. “I had thick glasses that I used when they worked for me, for something like a label. Doctors shouldn’t just stop at helping you read a newspaper, for example.
 “I have no depth perception and have always used a seeing-eye dog. When it comes to work, I use a lot of technologies. The most amazing product I use is a new one, called Aira. You put on Smart glasses that have a camera that’s driven by your phone. From the phone you push a button that says, ‘Call my agent’ and it connects you to a highly trained agent who’s more like a personal assistant who has a complete profile on you. At the airport yesterday, for example, I asked what shops were around. There’s an earpiece, too, so when I was at a movie in the park the other day, she narrated the whole thing for me.”
“If there’s one thing I would say to the medical community, it would be to empower each individual to go out and find resources for wherever they are in life at that time. Then push them to learn about both those resources and about technologies,” she notes.
“Start with what they’re ready for at that moment, but keep pushing. Stress independent living, expose them to resources, and tell them to keep at it!
—Stephanie K. De Long