On the path from low vision to legally blind, Gena Harper tells us what her condition has felt like—and how new tech has helped her gain a new vision
diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at birth—a condition that continues to worsen—Gena Harper is today completely blind in her left eye and can make out only shapes and colors in her right one.
Amazingly, Harper manages to balance that with being a wife and mother of two teenagers, and her high-level career as a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley in Oakland, CA.
And, in her free time, she has become an award-winning cyclist, elite downhill skier, and accomplished runner.
To say she is resourceful is an understatement. Take running, for example. “I go running with someone to give me verbal information, and we use a bungee cord to connect us,” says Harper.
A PATH TO ACCEPTANCE
How does she cope with her condition? Looking back, she says, “I had great doctors but very low self-esteem. I wouldn’t use a cane and went out of my way not to be blind.”
It took a serious fall to change all that.
Eventually, she enrolled at the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany, CA, and, while learning to accept her condition, use a cane, and develop new coping mechanisms, she also found a world full of opportunities.
While immensely grateful to her doctors, she nonetheless wishes that eyecare professionals focusing on the needs of low vision patients would address day-to-day needs more specifically, and put more emphasis on tools and technology.
“I’m not talking about [operating] a full-blown low vision clinic, but they do need more awareness,” says Harper. “And, they need to refer out to clinics that teach living skills and assistive technologies. Knowing about these options makes losing your vision 1,000% easier and makes you more independent. And that—independence—should be the ultimate goal.”
Harper suggests mixing and matching with available standbys and new technologies. “An optometrist can show you something to help you read your newspaper, but should also recommend VoiceOver to read things on your iPhone, for example,” she says.
“For work I mostly use JAWS [a speech synthesizer/screen reader program], talking calculators, a portable CCTV for client meetings, plus all kinds of iPhone apps. The most amazing one is Aira [which comprises smart glasses with a camera that’s driven by a smart phone and connects you to an agent who is like a personal assistant]. The iPhone has completely changed our world.”
At home, Harper’s tools range from Alexa [a voice-controlled virtual concierge] and Aira to dots, braille labels, talking thermostats, and more.
“My husband, Mike, who is also blind, developed Seeing Eye Dog GPS,” she says. “It’s amazing. One other big plus is ride share services like Lyft and Uber. They help to give us independence.
“For me there’s the blind part—then there’s the successful working-mom part,” says Harper. “I leverage myself and others a lot. I do what I do best, and let others help by doing what they do best.”
—Stephanie K. De Long
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