Taking Vision Loss into His Own Hands: Meet Stuart

When Stuart realized he needed help with his declining vision, he didn’t wait for classes to start at Society for the Blind. He put a cover over his eyes at home and got to work.

“I’ve heard that some people fight vision loss tooth and nail and refuse to accept it,” Stuart said. “But acceptance is the first step. You accept it, go through it, and do the best you can. Because if not, then what? It just gets more difficult.”

Stuart was born with degenerative myopia – extreme nearsightedness – but his vision was correctable until recent years. When he was born, his eyes could see -10 and -14. Now both eyes see around -34.

In 2020, the year he turned 40, his left retina detached. Vision in his left eye was irreparable after several surgeries, and vision in his right eye was worsening each week. While Stuart knew his vision would eventually decline as he got older, he thought he had another decade of correctable eyesight. In fact, he had even prepared for the decline with a change in careers 11 years earlier.

Stuart was selling commercial insurance in 2009 when he decided he should consider working in an industry that would be easier if he lost his vision. He liked the idea of massage therapy because it was tactile, so two weeks later he enrolled in a course at the National Holistic Institute in San Francisco. He’s been a massage therapist ever since.

“When my left retina detached, I felt depressed, anxious and a little afraid of what was going to happen,” Stuart said. “I always expected this to happen, but when it finally did, I realized I needed to get help now.”

He reached out to Society for the Blind since he lives in Midtown and would often walk past our building. We referred him to the Department of Rehabilitation, and he was approved for an evaluation and classes at our facility.

In February 2022, Stuart had his evaluation at our office, but our classes were still waitlisted. He would have to wait until October 2022 to begin our Core program, so he took matters into his own hands and started to prepare.

“That spring I bought a cane and eye cover, and I started doing things around my house like cleaning with my eyes covered,” Stuart said.

When he started classes at Society for the Blind, he had a better idea of what to expect. He joined his fellow students in wearing learning shades – eye coverings that prevent people from using any remaining eyesight while learning new techniques so they can adapt to building non-visual skills.  

So far, his vision loss has not affected his job much, but he knows modifications will be necessary down the line. Society for the Blind has helped him learn how to read the clock to ensure appointments stay on time. He said he is lucky because he has been doing massage therapy so long that he is used to the space and has muscle memory.

Stuart is currently enrolled in our Orientation and Mobility class, which he said is one of the most nerve-wracking parts for him.

“Mobility is the most crucial because if you can’t leave your house, you’re kind of stuck,” he said. “I’m getting used to it, but covering my eyes and walking around the streets of Sacramento is something I had never considered doing.”

Stuart also is enrolled in Assistive Technology, Independent Living Skills and Braille classes and said he is understanding more with each class. Even though he gets frustrated at times, he enjoys all the classes and the learning process. Overall, the most important thing he has gained from his classes at Society for the Blind is confidence.

“Knowing that I can do this has given me more confidence in the rest of my life,” Stuart said. “People are showing me that they can get around and are doing these things. I’m walking around under learning shades a couple days a week now. It can be done and it’s not the end of the world. It’s just another thing you have to deal with and get through, but you can still have a fulfilling life.”

As Stuart continues to prepare in case he loses all his vision, he also knows there is only so much he can do in advance.

“I still don’t feel fully prepared because I still have some vision I can use in my day-to-day life,” Stuart said. “I don’t really know how I’ll feel when that’s gone. All I can do is prepare the best I can and reach out for help when needed. Just knowing Society is there helps. This is the foundation for the rest of my life, and I’m trying to just view this as a lifestyle change.”

As Stuart adapts to the changes in his vision, he appreciates being able to go to work every day at Massage Envy and focus on his clients.

“No matter how I’m feeling that day, even if I’m feeling really bad and depressed, as soon as I start working with someone on the table, I feel better,” Stuart said. “It’s almost therapeutic for me to focus solely on someone else and not worry about myself for that hour. It’s like a meditation on that person.”

He also regularly asks himself how he will do certain work tasks later if he has no vision. Then he works to modify his actions to perform the same service without using his vision. He has even been closing his eyes more during sessions.

“I feel like I have a slight luxury of still being able to see well enough to do things, but taking my vision out of the equation makes more sense,” Stuart said. “That’s why I like Society’s program: They prepare us for total vision loss, and they coach me into finding answers for myself so, no matter what, I’ll still be okay.”