Sharon Kanhai-Johnston, from Toronto, was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of vision loss in Canadians under 50, in 2004. An estimated 265,000 Ontarians live with the eye disease that results in elevated blood glucose levels that cause blood vessels in the retina to swell and leak. Without treatment, diabetic retinopathy can advance to permanent vision loss.
“One day, as I was working on my computer at home, I saw a big flash,” says Kanhai-Johnston. “When I tried to focus on my work, it looked like someone had taken a big black sticker and placed it on my eye.”
The black mark in her vision was the result of blood. Kanhai-Johnston underwent laser treatments once a week for a year and she had three surgeries in an effort to preserve her vision, but they were unsuccessful – she was legally blind.
At the time, she was working as a paralegal.
“I was working as a proof-reader; reading legal documents,” says Kanhai-Johnston. “I thought, ‘How was I going to do that?’”
Neither Kanhai-Johnston, nor her employer, were sure how to proceed. She took an extended medical leave that ended with her leaving the position.
It was at this point that one of her doctors suggested CNIB. Upon receiving the doctor’s referral, CNIB staff attempted to get in touch with Kanhai-Johnston but she refused to answer the phone.
“I was still hoping some of my vision would return,” she says. “I was not ready to admit that I was blind.”
CNIB’s persistence resulted in Kanhai-Johnston agreeing to an in-home assessment.
“Two people came to my house. During our discussion, I heard something clicking,” recalls Kanhai-Johnston. “When I asked about the noise, I was told that one of the staff members was using a brailler to take notes. Something in me clicked. ‘Are you blind?’ I asked. That made me realize I was not limited in my abilities. I could still work and live an independent life.”
Shortly thereafter, Kanhai-Johnston signed up for CNIB’s Intensive Rehabilitation program where she learned orientation and mobility skills, such as how to navigate with a white cane, as well as independent living skills to help her with day-to-day activities.
Her newfound confidence led her to return to school. She received her diploma in social work from George Brown College in 2011 and began to look for a job in this new field.
Kanhai-Johnston decided to be upfront about her vision loss during the job search. The first few places she contacted for a placement were unsure how to interact and never offered her an interview. It wasn’t until she approached The Learning Enrichment Foundation in person that she was given a chance.
“The hiring manager admitted that she didn’t know what I would be able to do, but she admired my bravery and confidence and was open to having a discussion about the possibilities,” says Kanhai-Johnston.
Kanhai-Johnston was hired by The Learning Enrichment Foundation. This initial foot-in-the-door was helpful in her subsequent applications, as she could now point to concrete experience working in the field.
Kanhai-Johnston currently works for Fred Victor’s Housing Access and Support Services program where she helps individuals find affordable housing.
Despite her success in the field, she still faces obstacles and stigma about working as an individual with vision loss.
“When I am out with clients, I often have to correct landlords who believe that I must be the one receiving help,” says Kanhai-Johnston. “I feel like I am doing double duty. I have to advocate for my client and for myself. It can be frustrating, but you have to be able to sell yourself. It is important that individuals with vision loss are armed with the knowledge and confidence to help people see past their misconceptions.”
Hear Kanhai-Johnston share her story with Kelly & Co. on AMI-audio!