May 25, 2011
Kirstyn Smith is just like a lot of very busy moms. She’s a city resident, the mother of two active boys, runs the parents’ association for their Catholic school, loves yoga, kickboxing and swimming and is a voracious reader who participates in a number of book clubs. Kirstyn is also blind. Here’s her story.
Thirty one years ago, at the age of eight, Kirstyn was complaining that she couldn’t see the board at school. It was at that time that she was diagnosed with Uveitis, a degenerative, inflammatory disease of the eyes. As a result, she had many surgeries and drug treatments throughout her youth.
Although legally blind since then, she was able to maintain some vision for many years. It wasn’t until the birth of her second son eight years ago that she lost a significant amount of her remaining vision. She doesn’t perceive light or color now.
Since then, she started using the white cane. “Unfortunately, people don’t notice my beautiful hair so much anymore,” she says jokingly. “Instead, the focal point is the cane. Using it was a big hurdle for me to overcome, but I needed the help.”
Before her diagnosis, Kirstyn was a gymnast. Even after her diagnosis, she insisted on getting back on the bars. “I was very stubborn,” she adds. “My parents were always great and so supportive. I think back now on all the things they encouraged me to do and how hard that must have been for them.”
Kirstyn went to Cornell University, and even spent a year of undergraduate school in London. She graduated with an English degree and for many years taught high school English. But as her vision continued to decline teaching became more and more taxing. “It’s a very visually-intensive job,” she says. “I loved it, though. I was born to teach.”
In 1998, a fellow teacher introduced Kirstyn to the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI). A social worker opened a case for her and she started receiving low vision services. In the process, she learned of a job as a volunteer coordinator at ABVI. “I applied for that job, but ended up being hired to run the adaptive technology center and develop call center training curriculum,” she says.
This was Kirstyn’s opportunity to reinvent her teaching experience at ABVI versus in a traditional classroom. It also began her long tenure at ABVI serving in a variety of roles.
Although officially a stay-at-home mom now, Kirstyn does conduct sensitivity to blindness training for the agency about once a month. She instructs new employees, medical residents at Strong and Highland hospitals, volunteers, and anyone else in the public who wants to learn about visual impairment and being sensitive to those who face these challenges. She also serves on ABVI’s Consumer Advisory Board.
When asked about common misperceptions sighted people have about people who are blind, Kirstyn says “I’m not a spokesperson for all blind people. But we aren’t all Helen Kellers. My solutions to everyday living may not be the same as the next person’s.” It’s a good reminder of how different each person is, sighted or not.
Reading is a huge part of Kirstyn’s life. She participates in several book clubs. One is with moms in her neighborhood. Another is called the Bluestockings Moms book club, a group formed by women associated with Mercy High School.
The third club – Pageturners – is unique. Each month, six to 12 people attend, all of whom are blind or visually impaired. “We try to select our books with lots of lead time,” says Kirstyn. “Books can be hard to find depending on someone’s access, so we need time to make sure everyone can find the book in the format (s)he needs to read it.”
Pageturners reads all sorts of books from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote to William Safire’s Full Disclosure. “We don’t generally read books about blindness though,” she adds. “We do relate parts of our lives and experiences to the text and sometimes it does connect to blindness. Support comes from interacting with people who are blind or visually impaired. We are just living regular lives and negotiating space differently than others do.”
“I’m an educator in life versus in the classroom now. I’m grateful for my husband of 16 years and for my children, who are growing up with a beautiful sense of compassion in how they interact with people.”