Emma Van Dyk baked a cake this week – because, for the first time ever, she was able to read a recipe card.
She can admire this year’s fall foliage like never before because she sees trees in high-definition colour, not as indistinct fuzzy forms.
And when Van Dyk studies, she can now read directly from a textbook without it first being projected in large print on a screen.
Van Dyk is the recipient of a CNIB Foundation scholarship for new high-tech goggles called eSight, which magnifies images to ‘correct’ her 20/200 vision to 20/20.
It has been life-changing. I am really, really grateful.” ~ nursing student Emma Van Dyk
At age six, Emma Van Dyk was diagnosed with Kjers optic atrophy, a degenerative eye disorder where the optic nerve deteriorates and the eye stops sending messages to the brain.
About two years ago, she was classified as legally blind.
That didn’t stop her from continuing to be a high achiever, with a part-time job at a pizza shop and a summer job as a leader at CNIB’s Lake Joe camp.
In high school, Van Dyk relied on a Prodigi electronic magnifier that enlarged printed type through a Bluetooth camera and tablet wherever she sat. Even with that, she often felt tired and frustrated from the effort.
Her high grades, along with encouragement from her parents Michelle and Jeremie and her sister Ava, earned her a spot in Western’s highly competitive nursing program.
Then, this summer, CNIB and eSight teamed up to offer five eSight goggles to students across Canada.
Resembling virtual reality goggles, the device enhances the wearer’s existing sight: a high-speed, high-resolution camera captures everything the wearer is looking at, while algorithms optimize and enhance the footage, which is relayed in real time to near-to-eye screens.
A remote control allows Van Dyk to zoom in or out, and it has the capability of taking photos of what she sees, or connecting to a computer screen.
The net effect is to provide her, and others who have low vision, with brilliant, portable sight.
When Van Dyk first began wearing the device, her sister Ava held up an eye chart at optometrist’s-office distance and Van Dyk could read every letter of every line.
“I started crying. I looked outside and could see other people’s yards. I saw pink flamingos in our backyard that I didn’t really know were there. I could see construction in front of our house that I couldn’t see before.”
While it doesn’t allow her to drive, the technology broadens her horizons in countless ways.
Sold on Western
Equally important, she has been able to soar academically as she is able to read from textbooks without growing tired and participates more confidently in group discussions with classmates. (All her first-semester classes are online and she has one in-person lab next semester).
Even before eSight was on the horizon, Van Dyk was sold on Western.
“Everyone has honestly been so awesome.”
Early on, she and her mother had a personal tour of the classrooms and labs – including an introduction to the nursing school’s world-class simulation lab – and her professors have provided her with large-font, accessible material.
Meeting a person like Emma is so exciting because there’s such passion and enthusiasm. Western welcomes the best and brightest and we really do work hard to make sure everyone feels they belong here.” ~ Nursing professor Vicki Smye.
“To us, accommodation is more than a legal requirement – it’s important that it is a legal requirement, but it’s also a relational commitment,” said Smye, director of the Arthur Labatt Family school of Nursing. “A person is entering a program and profession where relationships are an essential part of their work and these unique perspectives are what makes the program so rich.
“Accommodation is also about ability and finding the strengths in people. We build on their strengths and experiences – no one comes into the program as an empty vessel. For all of us, we recognize that differences among students aren’t about what they can’t do but about what they can bring to the profession.”
Van Dyk said her classmates have been as universally welcoming as faculty and staff.
Attending Western has made her more comfortable about explaining her vision loss and her abilities when the subject arises. She has encouraged classmates’ questions, whether it’s about her eSight goggles, whether she can read tiny numbers on a vial (with magnification, yes) and whether she can see emojis in an email (also yes).
“Before, I would be really, really reluctant to talk about it and if someone asked me about what I could and couldn’t see, I would change the subject. Now I welcome their questions.”