Marlon Parieaho photographed at Rituals, Long Circular Mall. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in the Trinidad Express , January 11, 2018

I lived the first 31 years of my life as a sighted man. Heavily reliant on my vision to go about my day to day routines, it never occurred to me that I could lose the ability to do something that came naturally.

It is only now, after living the dark for six years, that I realized how much I took for granted the brilliant green that radiates from trees after rainfall or the vibrant shade of red that reflects from a new car and the look of unwavering trust in my wife’s eyes. Never paying a second thought to the privileges my eyes afforded, I pursued adulthood fervently.

I became a qualified potato roti eater, lost a game of ‘All 4s’ without falling apart; perfected last minute Christmas shopping and mastered the use of the renowned Trinbagonian term ‘eh’. I fell in love and married a woman who, God bless her soul, vowed to share her life with me and shortly after became the father of a beautiful baby girl.

I committed my life to the service of our nation and joined the ranks of those dedicated to protect and serve. An artist by trade, I performed the duties of Forensic Artist and focused my attention on working my way up the ranks. Life was great, things were looking up.

In 2011 life dealt me a massive curve ball, I battled with the blurriness that periodically limited my vision. Ignorantly, I shrugged it off as stress-related, lack of sleep, not eating on time and even lack of horizontal poker, but soon learnt that I suffered from the common, yet treatable eye disease – Glaucoma.

“Isn’t that what old people get?” I recall foolishly asking my optician. You see, somewhere along my 31 years of life, I was programmed to believe that certain illnesses, except for the common cold or flu, happened to people past the age of 60.

I purposefully visited every health and alternative medicine professional for a solution to my dilemma, but after much prayer and expense I was declared legally blind in April of 2011 and unceremoniously handed a referral letter to the Blind Welfare Association.

It would be an understatement to say that I was in denial, afraid, angry and as coherent as a starving mosquito through my tears. I was certain that my diagnosis was as devastating as a death sentence.

In my mind, the doctor informed me that I lost the job I loved, was doomed to a life of constructing wicker baskets, while my wife took care of my every need until she got frustrated enough to divorce me and left with my children, leaving me to beg for financial assistance from passersby in City Gate. My ego took a thorough thrashing.

For a year or so afterward I retreated to my designated black hole and although my home was full of voices and people, I felt completely alone. I convinced myself that no one understood how I felt or what I was going through.

I bumped into furniture and felt emasculated each time I made a spill during meals. I can honestly say that during that period of my life I was not the best of persons to be around but I’m grateful my wife stuck with me.

My journey to escaping the depressing doldrums of my disability began with an introduction to assistive technology. Assistive technology is any device or application that is used to improve or maintain the efficiency of persons with disabilities.

With the help of screen readers and a bunch of other nifty applications, I learned to type, operate a computer and navigate the internet. I’m up to date with the local and international happenings, just finished listening to a really great audiobook, currently attempting to beat the top score of Blind Fold Bowling and can accurately give you a blow by blow of the Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice movie.

Regaining my mobility was the scariest, most necessary step in my new found drive to independence. I decided to turn those ‘what ifs’ into ‘why nots’ and quickly realized that the fear in my mind was greater than what actually existed.

Within the six years of my blindness I’ve coordinated a money reader application for the visually impaired, won four gold medals in the National Power Lifting Championship, attained the rank of yellow belt in Martials Arts, created a blindness Kit for persons coping with visual impairment, personally instructed individuals in the use of assistive technology, coordinated a support group for persons living with vision loss, partnered with a corporation on assistive technology seminars, created a blog, podcast and given motivational speeches in advocacy of visual impairment and fathered two other daughters.

Ignorance is the enemy. There are people championing the cause and changing the conversation as it relates to persons with disabilities, but we need all hands on deck. There are many visually impaired individuals who are exceedingly qualified for positions of employment, but feel overlooked because their potential employer won’t look past their white cane. Many have resorted to traditional skills as a means of supplementing the meagre disability grant.

Our daily lives are challenging and it is only through determination, tenacity, or downright brazen-ness that we weather each storm. There are Disabilities Acts/legislation in other countries, that ensures employment and equal opportunities for the disabled community amongst other things.

Yet here in our beloved twin island republic, our impaired work twice as hard to be considered applicable and are still discriminated against. This needs to change. We do not need pity. Everyone is in pursuit of peace, joy, and equality of life. The disabled community merely wants to be given the same opportunities.

The production of the Lions segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of ten men in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation, Rituals Coffee House and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.