Thursday 27 April 2017

'I'm blind but I don't see it as a tragedy' – A day in the life of a woman without sight

Christina McCarthy and her dog Cosy Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Christina McCarthy and her dog Cosy Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Christina says her positive attitude is down to her parents Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Christina's brail operated computer
The brail typewriter which Christina's mother used to type her books
Amy Molloy and Christina McCarthy in brail
Amy Molloy

Amy Molloy

WHEN Christina McCarthy was 16-years-old, she received a Christmas present that would change her life.

It was a phone which read messages aloud and enabled her to send texts and make calls through speech.

This was the first time she would be able to communicate by technology without someone else doing it for her.

Up until then, she had relied on another person to dial the phone or send the text message.

Christina says her positive attitude is down to her parents
Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Christina says her positive attitude is down to her parents Photo: Douglas O’Connor

Christina was born with Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) - a disease that occurs in premature babies.

She arrived three months earlier than expected and weighed just over 1lb.

ROP causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina, which can result in the retina detaching from the back of the eye, leading to blindness.

In spite of her lack of sight, she is able to do most things just like everybody else.

Christina's brail operated computer
Christina's brail operated computer

“I couldn’t send my own messages without someone proofreading it, so I had no privacy really, couldn’t be sending anything controversial,” she laughs.

“Suddenly, when I got the phone, I could send my own text messages, I could make my own phone calls and I just had the same independence as everyone else; I was the same as my peers”.

Christmas 2016 will be the second one that her and her father will spend without Christina’s mother, who passed away after suffering a heart attack last year.

The influence Christina’s mother had on her daughter’s life is evident.

The brail typewriter which Christina's mother used to type her books
The brail typewriter which Christina's mother used to type her books

The warmness and confidence she exudes is that of a person who is loved dearly by those around her.

With an honours degree in French and Spanish from Trinity College, and from just ten minutes of speaking with her, it’s easy to gauge Christina’s intelligence.

Part of that, she says, is down to her mother.

“She was great. When I was small she used to hand write my books.

“She sat down with what was a manual typewriter and she would literally handwrite my books. I have pages and pages of stuff that she did.

“My parents are fantastic, she was fantastic. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have the attitude that I do.”

Christina went to a mainstream school near her Rathfarnham home in Dublin.

While some kids experience a difficult time growing up, she says her time in school was really enjoyable.

“I was never bullied, I was never teased, it was just normal, it was just who I was and I am very used to being the only blind person in a situation, I’m okay with that. I’m glad I went to a mainstream school.”

One of the frustrating things for Christina is when people patronise her or make condescending remarks.

While it annoys her, she thinks it’s a very Irish thing.

“I have an issue when you’ve spoken about it [being blind] and they turn around and go ‘Oh, isn’t she great.’ It’s that ‘Oh, you poor crater’ syndrome, which is very Irish.

“I think society is more accepting than it ever was though.”

While she goes about her business like any normal person, walking her dog Cosy, going to the cinema or for a few drinks, one thing she admits she dislikes doing is Christmas shopping.

“I would never even attempt Christmas shopping on my own. Some people I know who are blind do, but I’m not one of them. I don’t have the patience for it. Some people walk so slow too!”

As someone who was blind from birth, I ask her how she imagines Santa Claus to look.

“It’s difficult to explain,” she says (proceeding to explain it perfectly).

“Because I have no visual memory, for me, if I want to imagine what something is in its entirety, in a split second, I shrink it to the size of a toy, so I can imagine what it may feel like in my hands.

“I don’t imagine a man in a red suit because red doesn’t mean anything to me.

“I imagine a big guy in a furry kind of suit that I happen to know to be red because someone has told me. I also know his beard is long and fluffy. The texture is more important to me.

“I’ll give you an example, my mam passed away over a year ago. I can imagine her hair, I knew what length it was, I can imagine her voice, her height and the way she’s built, but if you ask me what she looked like, I can’t tell you.

“I can still speak in a visual way because you grow up with the same fairytale as everyone else.”

She jokingly then points out how Christmas shopping was a lot easier for her parents.

“I’ve to be careful how I word this, but when I was shopping with my mam, things might have been going into the trolley that came from someone else who comes down a chimney, and I wouldn’t have known, so it was a lot easier for them.”

For a young woman, she has achieved quite a lot in 27 years.

She has volunteered in India and lived in Paris.

On the kitchen table is a Christmas card from the Indian child she sponsors.

She went there when she was just 17 and is eager to get back.

Her favourite hobby is reading and some of the movies she adores include the Shawshank Redemption and Home Alone.

Somehow, I manage to steer the conversation to a Love/Hate reference, and I ask her if she’s ever seen it.

“See how you asked me have I seen it, that’s the right thing to say. Some people don’t get that.

“When I’m saying goodbye to someone, I don’t say ‘Feel you later’, I say ‘See you later’.

“I’m blind but I can still imagine things, I can still see in my head.”

Aside from the odd bit of yoga and walking the dog, she admits she hates exercise.

“It’s not because I’m blind, it’s just because I’m not very athletic,” she laughs.

Her boyfriend Kevin, who lost his sight when he was 14, loves playing football.

They’ve been together five years and their ‘how did you meet each other’ story would rival anyone’s.

Christina agreed to do a documentary with a journalist, who took it upon herself to introduce the pair.

Who needs Tinder, eh?

“I actually met his guide dog Myles before I met him. I remember feeling his face and realising he was a guide dog, and thinking, please don’t tell me she’s trying to match me with someone.

“The first thing I ever heard Kevin say was ‘Myles, stop sniffing the lady’.

“Then, his dog vomited all over the cream carpet of the café we were in and he had to go to the vet.

“He asked for my number though and we went for dinner the following Saturday.”

2017 bodes well for Christina.

She’s due to start a paid internship with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, having completed a diploma in PR, and is positive about the future.

 “My dad always says you’re a person first and foremost, you’re just a person that happens to be blind.

“I’m blind but I don’t see it as a tragedy, it’s just part of who I am. It’s all I’ve ever known”.

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