Sweet Bravery: Meet Sweet Ann
When Sweet Ann first noticed she couldn’t see anything below her chin, she was in college in her home country, the Philippines. A sense of dread overtook her, as she recognized the telltale symptom of retinitis pigmentosa, better known as RP. She had already seen her mother go through it. Yet it was not until two years ago at age 33 that Sweet Ann finally received an official diagnosis.
“I was afraid to go to the doctor,” Sweet Ann said. “It felt like confirmation from a doctor would make me feel more blind.”
As her vision declined, Sweet Ann tried to ignore the symptoms. She became a dental assistant, got married, had a baby and moved to the United States. She would look up at the night sky and no longer be able to see stars. She began tripping more, and noticed she could no longer see things next to her.
“My anxiety was heightened, and even though I was in a state of denial, I had so many questions running through my head,” Sweet Ann said. “I worried about my family. At the time, being blind felt like a death sentence and the end of the world.”
As Sweet Ann was grieving the loss of her vision, she also was grieving the loss of loved ones. Her brother passed away, causing her mother to go into depression. Two years later, her mother had a heart attack and passed away. A few years later, her father died.
“I already felt like I had lost everything, and then I had to finally face that I was losing my vision too,” Sweet Ann said.
She had watched her mom fall into depression when she was diagnosed with RP during Sweet Ann’s childhood. Her mom was very open about not being able to see, but there were no resources and support near her.
One day, Sweet Ann saw a YouTube video where a woman who was blind was talking about traveling by herself.
“It was a wakeup call for me,” Sweet Ann said. “I knew I had to face my fears. I wanted to show my daughter that despite any challenges life throws at me, nothing will stop me from living. I wanted to be a good model for her.”
She contacted an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed her with RP and determined she had only 10 degrees of peripheral vision left in her eyes. She was then referred to the Department of Rehabilitation who referred her to Society for the Blind.
While receiving care in our Low Vision Clinic, Sweet Ann signed up for our Core classes, including Orientation and Mobility, Independent Living Skills, Assistive Technology and Braille. She began with Orientation and Mobility in April 2023 and has learned to use a white cane to travel around town.
“When I would go to a place that was unfamiliar, I would always ask if there were stairs and what the lighting was like because I was so scared to walk around,” Sweet Ann said. “Now it’s not a big deal. I have the skills – they’re not perfect yet, but I’m getting there. I even rode the Light Rail by myself, which I had never done even when I had better vision. I’m so proud of myself.”
Meanwhile, during the pandemic as her eyesight declined, Sweet Ann changed careers. Her dental office was temporarily closed, and her family needed the income, so she accepted a job at Amazon to pack orders. She did not disclose her condition and ensured she still met her quota of 100 packages an hour. But 10-hour days five days a week with low vision left her exhausted.
One day she bravely asked for accommodations for her low vision, and her supervisors were happy to help. In fact, she now supervises packages going through the conveyor and no longer has to meet a quota. She is proud to work for a company that is good to people with disabilities, including her coworker who is deaf.
She also is grateful that Amazon was willing to change her schedule to accommodate her when she began taking classes at Society for the Blind, a place she says has changed her life.
“I found my worth at Society for the Blind and don’t feel alone in the world anymore,” Sweet Ann said. “I found my people, and seeing their accomplishments has inspired me. I always tell my instructors, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up.’”
She plans to continue classes at Society for the Blind to learn to be more independent in case she loses all her vision – and she hopes to one day be able to help people with vision loss in the Philippines. In the meantime, she wants to make sure her daughter, now age 12, will be able to live her life to the fullest if she inherits RP like her mother and grandmother.
“People may see me as a disabled person, but I now know I am more than that, and my daughter knows that too,” Sweet Ann said. “I have a diagnosis, but it does not define who I am as a person. I feel like having this diagnosis has given me more confidence in myself, and I’ve become more brave and independent. A person with a life-altering diagnosis like this may feel hopeless or dead inside, but I’ve never felt so alive from all the support and skills I’ve received. I’m a risk taker now!”