A Vision for Life

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We periodically profile a young adult living with vision loss in North Dakota. Candace Rivinius has been blind since she was two years old due to Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, one of the most common causes of childhood blindness. Blindness has not stopped Candace from reaching her goals, and today she is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor at Corner Post Counseling PLLC. Find out how those goals took shape and her dreams for the future by reading on.

Candace Rivinius is used to making people turn their heads – though she can’t see them do that. By doing unexpected things –Candace stands smiling in Medora while hiking. shooting a gun, waterskiing, paddleboarding, jumping at a trampoline park, running a 5K – she is turning blindness on its head while turning heads. And at her day job as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor, Candace is helping people clear their heads and find hope and wellness after experiencing trauma or while suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other life stressors. “I like working with people to help them reach their goals,” she says. “It is fun to see people make the changes to improve their mental health, relationships, and overall well-being.” 

Candace has always had goals too, and she met one of them when she graduated from the University of Mary in Bismarck with both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. While she says she had a typical college experience, she did have to face a few extra challenges that are reserved just for the visually impaired. “I had some struggles getting textbooks on time,” she explains. Student Accessibility Services, the office that is responsible for making books available in an accessible format, was often slow to get her the necessary materials on time. Her instructors, however, were “very accommodating,” she says, “communicating with me to help me be successful in their class.” For tests and some assignments, instead of using paper and pen like her peers, she would type out and save her answers on a flash drive to turn in. She also discovered a few reliable tricks. Before each semester, she would walk through her routes to and from classes so she would feel comfortable traveling independently. Mealtimes were another challenge, as cafeterias and buffet lines are notoriously inaccessible. “I would intentionally plan ahead and ask peers or friends when they were eating and if I could eat with them,” she explains. But this perhaps strengthened her friendships in college. “Some of my best friends today are the friends I made while in college,” she says. 

Candace received services from NDVS/SB as a child. Occasionally an instructor would come to her home to work on technology or daily living skills. Her family attended some of the annual Family Weekend events, and as a teen, Candace attended a few program weeks at the school, including the summer programs. But it was the everyday vision services she received at her public school that had the greatest impact on her and kept her in line with her peers. “I completed all the same work as my peers and rarely was given exceptions where I didn’t have to do an assignment or skip something; my teachers almost always found a way to accommodate and modify the assignment so I could still do the work,” she explains. From Kindergarten to graduation, Candace worked with a vision resource teacher and an aid/braillist. “I met with one or both of them daily, depending on what was going on in my classes,” she explains. The pre-teaching that her vision teacher did – “going through maps, models, or describing things for math or science” – ensured she wasn’t lost when these concepts were introduced in class. 

Candace also credits technology with helping her succeed; while in high school, she used the screen-reader JAWS, a BrailleNote, and a talking calculator, items she still uses today. “I use JAWS on my computer to help me respond to emails, message clients through their portal account, and complete documentation and scheduling within our electronic health record system,” Candace explains. “I use a BrailleNote to take quick notes during sessions which I refer to when completing my documentation and treatment planning. Once I have the information I need, the notes are deleted from my BrailleNote to keep client information secure.” Learning how to navigate assistive technology as a student has made it easier for her to keep up with technology. Besides JAWS and a BrailleNote, she now also uses VoiceOver on her iPhone and the Seeing AI app to help her access and recognize text. “I use VoiceOver to navigate the internet, read and respond to emails and text messages, pay bills and monitor finances, use social media, and read,” she says. “I use Seeing AI to read things like cooking instructions on food packages.”

Now, as a successful working adult, Candace has advice for current students who are visually impaired. “My biggest piece of advice for college-age students is to advocate for yourself,” she advises. “Introduce yourself to instructors and keep an open line of communication. I would always email my instructors a week or so before each semester started to introduce myself, letting them know I am in their class and I’m blind, and general accommodation requests I have or which have worked well for me in the past.” Being up front about her visual impairment gave her instructors time to prepare and showed her initiative. “My instructors were often very appreciative of this and would then provide PowerPoint presentations, worksheets, and tests in an accessible electronic format,” Candace explains.

a profile of Candace holding her dog, Cooper, who is black and white.In her free time, Candace spends time with her family and friends, plays board games and card games, and watches movies. In the summer, she enjoys spending time outside, especially with her dog, Cooper. Even with her busy work and social life, Candace is still setting goals – she wants to continue to expand her therapy knowledge and skills, and change people’s minds about what people who have vision loss are capable of. While there have been a couple of instances where clients have doubted her ability to do her job because she is blind, there have been more occasions where people have come to prefer working with a blind therapist. Candace explains, “I do feel there are benefits to being a therapist with vision loss. Some have commented that they like not having the pressure to make eye contact all the time, and they feel less judged.” She also believes clients are “more honest,” she says. “I may pick up on subtle changes in voice or emotion that a therapist with full vision might miss because they’re not as used to being aware of it.” 

As a blind therapist, Candace believes there is a connection between vision loss and depression and anxiety. “This can be due to sudden vision loss, progressive vision loss, or isolation,” which is common in people who have lost their vision and don’t have reliable transportation. “We cannot just get in a car and go somewhere. Even those who have been blind their entire life, I feel there are extra anxieties that a sighted person may not have to worry about,” Candace says, including safety concerns (not being able to see the dangers), finding people in crowds, accessing materials, finding employment, dealing with stigmas and discrimination, and even “feeling worthless or hopeless if they are unable to do something.” But, as a mental health professional, she also knows what’s possible in terms of overcoming mental health issues and living with vision loss. “My advice is to reach out,” Candace says. “Reach out to a trusted friend or family member or to a therapist, to others who have vision loss, or to one of the organizations in the state such as NDAB or NFB who would be able to provide support and connect you to others with vision loss.” The power of connection is “probably the biggest factor in handling anxiety and depression, to work through struggles, and develop other healthy coping skills,” Candace explains. Start small, Candace advises, “by doing one activity per day that you would normally not do – call or text one friend or other support person, schedule one appointment, or do one household chore.” These small steps can add up to big changes.

Candace believes that having had to face challenges and overcome them throughout her life has made her a better therapist. “I have been able to relate to clients, being a minority, being stereotyped, or people not understanding their experiences or struggles,” Candace explains. She has even been told by clients, “if you can overcome all the challenges of being blind, I can overcome this.” To her clients and to all the people she meets, Candace is proving that the path to success and happiness is not dependent on vision but on having a vision for life.
 

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