Cause of blindness - Congenital Glaucoma

For ten years Barbara had lived independently with her guide dog Walnut. She was born with congenital glaucoma in both eyes, which has taken all of her vision. But with a guide dog, technology and her will to live, Barbara has made an independent life for herself despite her vision loss.

When Barbara was four, her family moved to the Philippines from the United States. There, she started grade school. Though she was young, Barbara understood that something was different for her.

“I couldn’t see, so a lot of the time I couldn’t play, and kids teased.”

Barbara’s parents explained to her that she and her older sister were born with a condition known as congenital glaucoma. Barbara was slightly more comfortable knowing her sister had it too, but life was still an uphill battle.

“I couldn’t see small lines and what my pen was writing. I was having a hard time, and all the other kids were fine… I knew I had a limitation.”

Because of that, when it came to school Barbara forged her own path.

Back then in the Philippines, schools did not have materials to accommodate students with visual impairments-- a problem that still exists today in developing countries.

“I had to negotiate with the teachers, I had to tell them how I’d do it.”

Eventually Barbara and her family moved back to the United States, and the greater availability of materials made school a little easier. Books were available in large print, or provided electronically so that Barbara could use a screen reader.

As school became more manageable Barbara’s vision continued to decline. By thirteen she couldn’t see color.

Barbara reminisced all this calmly, despite her life’s struggle. It was hard, of course. But Barbara was strong, and came through it stronger.

After all, Barbara had the support of her parents and family, which was a great source of confidence. The emotional support was Barbara’s safety net, and crucial logistical support came from her family’s devotion.

One of the most helpful things for Barbara was going to school with her cousin. Carpooling, group studying, having a reader and a teammate to work with-- there were so many invaluable benefits. Grateful for all the help that Barbara received, her parents paid for part of her cousin’s college tuition.

And after college Barbara continued educating and improving herself. Barbara had a passion for computers and technology, and with their growth and unique value to the visually impaired Barbara’s focus was a no-brainer.

Barbara took tech and suite courses, and also received her adult teaching credentials. Barbara made herself a valuable employee. Finding purpose in her passion has been key to her success and her independence.

“I keep upgrading my skills nonstop. Even if I don’t need them now, I don’t know when I’ll need them!”

“I’m the kind of person who never gives up. If I want something I go after it, so I took a lot of computer classes to be computer savvy. If you work with something and like it, go for it!”

“I have to accept my blindness, otherwise I can’t be happy. I had spent so much time being sad, thinking of what I couldn’t do. But now I’m a lot happier, and my faith in God keeps me going.”

Barbara is fully empowered by the capabilities she has through technology. It’s made her career flourish, and it’s also made her vastly more independent.

Through email and screen readers, Barbara can read anything people send her. She can scan printed materials, and have her computer read those too. Barbara has learned to pay her bills online, and label and organize everything with a braille printer.

“I do wish that my TV guide could talk,” Barbara joked.

But even with the technology she has invested in, Barbara still needs to hire others for transportation and to read material she cannot scan to read. Barbara is painfully aware that vision loss is expensive. Without her capacity to do skilled work, Barbara would not be able to afford to lead the independent life she lives.

For much of her life Barbara was blessed to live with her parents. While she educated and trained herself, Barbara had her parents’ loving support. But in 2003 her mom and dad tragically passed away. She lost both her parents and her support system in the span of a few months.

“I was scared. I was very much depended on her. On both of them.”

Not long after Barbara’s nephew started living with her and began to fill the same role Barbara’s mom had.

“I didn’t want to grow dependent, and I started thinking, what happens when he leaves?... so I told him to stop.”

Though Barbara was grateful, she knew it was time to live on her own.

Barbara started considering getting a guide dog. At first, Barbara didn’t want the responsibility of feeding and cleaning up after her. Caring for another living being seemed unmanageable when it was already difficult for Barbara to care for herself.

“But really, I wish I got Walnut sooner. Getting Walnut changed my life, I’ve become stronger with her.”

Through the guide dog matching process, Walnut was chosen for Barbara. They took into consideration Barbara’s personality, as well as what she was looking for: a happy and behaved dog. With Walnut as her match, Barbara couldn’t be more content.

“As long as you’re a dog lover I recommend it, they truly love you back.”

Their first real test was crossing the six-lane intersection in town. Three months into practicing together Barbara felt ready to give it a shot.

“I made the mistake of going at the wrong time, and I stopped in the middle of the intersection. People were honking, telling me to go left and right.”

Barbara was completely disoriented. In that moment she knew it was time to put her faith in Walnut.

“I told Walnut, ‘just go!’ and she took me to the other side of the street. She did a great job, I felt like we bonded already, it was amazing.”

I call Walnut my eyes to the world. And that’s what she really is.”

Barbara grew to completely trust Walnut, and because of that her mobility has increased dramatically.

“As a guide dog I can take Walnut everywhere. We’ve gone to Virginia, Florida and Canada. We’ve been all over!”

“I call Walnut my eyes to the world. And that’s what she really is.”

Barbara spent most of her time with Walnut. They made an excellent team.
Sometimes, however, when they were out together, people would pet Walnut and talk to her.

“I have to tell them not to do that,” Barbara explained. It is Walnut’s job to keep Barbara safe, and engaging Walnut distracts her from that responsibility.”

Others with better intentions still often do more harm than good.

“Sometimes when I’m crossing the street someone will offer help, and then they’ll grab my cane and pull me!”

“People don’t understand, my cane is like my eyes too… Don’t drag me across the street by my eyes.”

Barbara has learned to let people know what she needs, because letting them guess can lead to trouble.

“People want to help but they don’t know what to do. Tell them, educate them! People are supportive. No one has ever told me no.”

Barbara only has one regret. She was always focused on studying, so much so that she pushed people away, including potential partners.

“I wanted to prove to the world that I can do well even if I’m blind. If they can find someone that’s fine, but I knew what I had to do.”

And so Barbara didn’t let herself get close to anyone. She pushed men away to focus on herself. She wishes now she had a companion, but Barbara doesn’t let that keep her from staying strong. Ultimately, she still feels life is good.

“But actually I have almost everything. The only thing I want is my sight, but I can’t do anything about that.”

“I have to accept my blindness, otherwise I can’t be happy. I had spent so much time being sad, thinking of what I couldn’t do. But now I’m a lot happier, and my faith in God keeps me going.”

In 2015, Barbara retired Walnut. After ten years of loving service, Barbara brought Walnut to a foster home for retired guide dogs.

Barbara wrote a letter to Walnut's new owners, explaining Walnut's personality, her past, and her great significance to Barbara. Barbara confessed that she truly believed Walnut was sent to her by God, to ease the passing of her mom and to help Barbara live well on her own.

Now Barbara has a new guide dog, a black lab named Cactus. Barbara notices big differences in personality, as Cactus is much higher energy, seeking Barbara's attention and affection more so than Walnut had. 

At first Barbara was treating Cactus like she treated Walnut. But Barbara realized that Cactus was much different than Walnut. They would not have the same bond as Barbara had with Walnut, but they would have a new bond.

Now Barbara is happy with Cactus, but she will always miss Walnut.

"I think of Walnut whenever I have a great moment with Cactus. You just never forget your first." 


To learn more about Barbara's condition, continue here