One look at the list of books on Jenny Schlup’s iPad tells you that being unable to consume books is not an option for the New Plymouth woman.
But for four years that’s what happened, as an eye disease called age-related macular degeneration slowly denied her the ability to read type in print.
Now, she has access to online audio books and devours them at a rate that would make any book-worm proud.
The four-year gap came after several years of gradual deterioration in her eyesight, to the point where she couldn’t drive, read, or recognise people’s faces.
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“I went into denial,” she said. “I didn’t want to join the Blind Foundation – it just didn’t seem like me. It took a while before I relented, and then of course I became aware of the wonderful array of services they have. I discovered this huge audio library.”
She had to overcome another barrier, as well – a reluctance to adopt digital technology, devices like the iPad that has since become a central feature of her life.
The former principal of Waitara Central School said she was always short-sighted, but more than a decade ago noticed she could no longer easily discern her pupils’ stories written in pencil. “I adopted a different approach for a while. I’d get them to read their work to me.”
An optometrist diagnosed macular degeneration, a condition that damages the macular, the small spot near the centre of the retina needed for sharp central vision and for looking at objects straight ahead. There are two versions – wet and dry – and Jenny has the latter.
Nothing could be done to treat it, but Jenny was told she could carry on with life in the meantime, maintaining her ability to drive, read and work for a few years. Her sight was destroyed little by little until she needed to retire in 2006, having led the school since 1991. Driving and reading printed books were out.
One of her greatest embarrassments was not recognising people she met in the street. “They must have thought I was the biggest snob. I didn’t look any different, so they couldn’t know that I no longer had a clear vision of their faces. I began to wish people would say something like ‘hi, my name is…’ when I came across them.”
She discovered a group called VIEW for women who are visually impaired, and agreed to this interview because she wants fellow MD sufferers to know that for the visually impaired and the blind, and their partners, life doesn’t end with such conditions.
She laughs when she thinks of how she answered her grandson when he asked what she would want if she was granted one wish. “I think he thought I would say getting my sight back, and he was almost right. But there’d be a condition – I would want it to come back slowly because there are still so many wonderful books in the audio library that I still haven’t read.”
Macular degeneration is the topic of a free Positive Ageing Trust forum at the Plymouth Hotel on Saturday, June 17, starting at 10am. The keynote speaker is leading ophthalmologist Kevin Taylor.