Chrissy’s push to break down barriers
A year of change celebrated with first Guide Dog
As Christmas trees are decorated and festive songs are sung, Chrissy Antonopoulos is carefully planning the perfect present for the newest addition to her family, her Guide Dog, Lacey.
After receiving Lacey from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, the leading supplier of Guide Dogs and other services that enable people with impaired vision to get around their communities safely and independently, about seven months ago the pair have developed a close bond.
“I’m so excited for Christmas, I already have a little Santa outfit for Lacey and I am planning to get her some soft toys with squeakers inside and some Christmas treats,” Chrissy said.
The last few years have been a whirlwind of emotions for Chrissy, who is more determined than ever to break down barriers for people living with impaired vision along with stereotypes about what vision loss looks like.
The Carlton resident has even started her own charity to assist those who have vision loss with meaningful education and career opportunities. She also engages the community on social media and a blog by sharing her experiences and providing information and resources.
Six years ago in her final year of university study, Chrissy started to notice the white board during her lectures was a becoming difficult to read and she was having trouble when driving at night.
“I was 24 at the time and my friends noticed I was looking above their foreheads when I was speaking with them. This was how I was reading also. I initially thought I had taught myself to read in a different way and had somehow ruined my eyesight,” Chrissy said.
What she was actually doing was using her peripheral vision to compensate for the slow loss of her central vision.
Soon after, Chrissy was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, also known as fundus flavimaculatus, an inherited retinal disease. It was a complete surprise as she is unaware of any family history of the condition.
“When the specialist told me what I had it sounded like she was speaking Harry Potter language. I went home and Googled the disease and started reading as much information as I could,” she said.
“My eye sight deteriorated quite quickly after that.”
Starting a support network
As Chrissy grappled with what was happening with her sight, she started the See Through My Eyes blog anonymously and began to chronicle her journey. Soon other people who also had Stargardt’s Disease around the world started to reach out to her.
Without meaning to, Chrissy had started a support network, which continues to grow and she no longer writes anonymously.
Around this time, she contacted Guide Dogs for orientation and mobility training in how to use a long cane. “I had a love hate relationship with my cane,” Chrissy said. Despite this it took her a number of years to apply for a Guide Dog.
“I didn’t think I would qualify to receive a Guide Dog as I was not completely blind so I put off undertaking the assessment for two years,” Chrissy said.
A Guide Dog proved to be exactly what she needed and earlier this year a beautiful yellow Labrador walked into Chrissy’s life.
“The transition from the cane to a Guide Dog was great and navigating with a Lacey has been so much easier,” she said. “I’m still getting used to it and we have bonded very well. I know that she trusts me 100 per cent and I am working on trusting her as well. I would say I’m about 90 per cent there.”
Dealing with the loss of her sight and adjusting to life with a Guide Dog has been difficult enough for Chrissy, who also has had to grapple with the public perception of her.
“People will often stop me and ask if I’m Lacey’s trainer and when I respond no, they say ‘but you don’t look blind’,” she said. “I really want the community to understand what vision impairment looks like. Your eyes do not have to look a particular way.” A waiter at a local restaurant even questioned Chrissy about whether she needed a Guide Dog.
“I still get embarrassed sometimes about my vision loss but I need to tell myself this is now my normal,” Chrissy said. “I need to keep doing what I am and work through it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and I’m starting to care less about what other people think of me.”
Chrissy said Lacey sometimes helps her remember this mantra, particularly when she is feeling anxious. “I think she can sense when I’m about to have a panic attack and she will stop so I can bend down and give her a big hug. She is just so calming,” she said.
Plans for 2017 underway
Looking ahead to the future, Chrissy said she will continue to build on her relationship with Lacey.
She will also finish her psychology degree next year and has plans to run a counselling service, which Lacey will be a part of.
“I’m also hoping to move to go on a holiday with Lacey and perhaps my family. I haven’t been able to take a holiday since I developed anxiety,” she explained. “I’m starting to feel more excited about the future.”
It costs $35,000 to breed, raise and train a Guide Dog like Lacey. As the organisation receives less than 2 per cent of its funding needs from the government, it relies on the generosity of the people of NSW and ACT to help deliver services to those who are blind or vision impaired.
Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind.