Shafonda Oliver stands on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue in Ridgewood, New York, intently listening to the flow of traffic. As cars whizz by, she patiently waits to hear a lull in the traffic, which is an indicator that the stoplight has turned red. Once she hears the traffic begin to surge in the opposite lane, Shafonda knows it’s safe to walk and slowly crosses the avenue with her long cane in hand.
Shafonda, 28, is legally blind and learning how to live independently. While crossing the street may seem commonplace, it’s actually a vital element in her orientation and mobility training.
Earlier this year, the Queens resident lost most of her vision after suffering a retinal detachment in her right eye. Since the age of two, she’s had no vision in her left eye. When she was 10-years-old, she started having retinal detachments in her right eye due to glaucoma and myopia. The last detachment, her fourth, cost Shafonda most of her remaining vision. “It was trying at first,” she admits. “My biggest fear was crossing the streets [and] learning how not to be fearful of going outside and traveling around my neighborhood.”
In need of help, Shafonda enrolled in the orientation and mobility program at Lighthouse International, which teaches visually impaired clients how to be self-reliant. “Before my vision loss, I was very independent,” said Shafonda. “I was able to travel everywhere and I really wanted to be able to do that again.”
Determined not to let her vision loss deter her, Shafonda began working with Karen Kramer, an orientation and mobility specialist at the Lighthouse. “The first time I met Shafonda, we talked about the fact that she would benefit from using a long cane,” Karen remembers. “But it was difficult for her at first.”
Motivated and determined to be as independent as she was before her vision loss, Shafonda practiced crossing the streets and navigating through her neighborhood every day. “Karen showed me the right techniques … and it has really empowered me,” she said. “I don’t know where I would be or who I would turn to without the Lighthouse.”
After a few months of training, Shafonda is now brimming with confidence. She has learned how to travel with a long cane, safely cook at home, and use the computer with the aid of accessible technology. She will also be attending Hunter College this fall in pursuit of her master’s in mental health counseling. “You have to learn how to manage what new challenges come your way,” said Shafonda. “It doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the things you love to do in your life.”
When she first started her orientation and mobility training, simply mustering up the courage to cross Wyckoff Avenue was hard enough. Now, Shafonda is traveling all over New York City. “It feels good because I’m doing it by myself,” she said.
Shafonda still has more obstacles to overcome, such as learning how to travel at night. But with the help of Lighthouse International, she remains undaunted by the challenges ahead of her. “I’m not going to hold myself back for anything, regardless of what has recently occurred in my life,” she said. “I got to keep going.”
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