Profile — 01 September 2017

The story of one student’s struggle losing his vision

Christopher Hartwell

@Silienceseen

When the term “legally blind” is used, most tend to think of someone wearing dark glasses with a white cane. For Joseph Aguiar, being legally blind adds limitations, but it does not stop him from being a hard-working student, holding a regular job and playing video games in his free time.

Aguiar was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. As the light sensitive cells called cones and rods break down in his eyes, his vision gets progressively worse.

In most eyes, these structures may slowly thin over time, but for Aguiar, they “are just like little strings.”

This disease, passed down genetically, makes life progressively more difficult.

Aguiar hasn’t always known about his condition. As a child, he often felt slower than other kids, since he wasn’t as good at many activities, which was due to his vision impairment.

It wasn’t until later in life that Aguiar found out about his genetic predisposition for retinitis pigmentosa passed down to him through his mother. These days, without a guide, his mother cannot go out and do most shopping or even get around different places effectively. Yet, despite these issues, she is still able bodied.

Aguiar said, “My mom, she’s pretty much blind. She can’t tell if the lights on or off in the room, but she still does things. She still sees. She still cooks. She still does everything.”

While he may one day end up in the same position as his mom, he stays positive. Aguiar said, “some people go blind, and some people don’t. Everyone is different.” For him, his vision is a part of his normal life.

“It slowly takes away your vision over time. Like, I really don’t have peripheral vision, but my center vision is fine. I may see your face, but I don’t see your shirt.”

In addition to his impaired peripheral vision, Aguiar also has limited depth perception and difficulties with seeing in low-light environments. This can make it difficult or impossible to make out images on large screens, like at movie theaters if the scene is too dark or actors move outside of his field of vision as they zip quickly across the screen.

On smaller screens that fit inside of his central vision, Aguiar has no difficulties and also doesn’t need to worry about moving around in a dark theater, which is a large concern for him since he cannot see in the dark.

Aguiar says that walking at night is “like trying to walk around with your eyes closed,” and sudden light changes have the same effect.

“In the 2400 building, once you go up the stairs into that building, because the light transition is so major, I can’t see in that hallway. So, I just walk and hope I don’t run into anybody. That’s literally every time I go into that building.” Aguiar said.

Major light changes cause him to not see chairs or people in many other buildings including the cafeteria.

Computer screens, however, do not often cause Aguiar issues with his vision. In his past, he used this work around in his vision to gain an advantage. After joining a professional team playing “Counter-Strike,” an online multiplayer first person shooter, he was paid advertising revenue for saying that he used certain products.

He soon found that the income and work environment was better than his day job. Towards the end of his professional gaming career, Aguiar was making more money playing games at home than what he made working full time at a Nation’s restaurant.

Additionally, the benefits could be intense. Aguiar once had a time in his gaming life where his computer crashed after the graphics card in his PC died. It meant he wouldn’t be able to play any more video games, but his sponsors decided they wanted him to stay on the team, and paid for the overnight shipment of the newest and the best parts from Nvidia directly to his house.

Yet, the difficulties of maintaining such a career added up. Aguiar said, “when you have a job like that you don’t get days off. It’s an every day thing. I had a lot of friends that would go out and do stuff, but I’d be home playing video games because that was a source of my income.”

Eventually the stress built up too much and Aguiar left his gaming career. Even as he had decided to hang up the notion of professional gaming, he still loved video games and played some recreationally.

Aguiar devoted himself to other genres of gaming, including the worldwide phenomenon known as “World of Warcraft.” This was the game that led to the unlikely and fortunate events to his next career opportunity.

After helping some strangers that were in his group chat online during his playtime in “World of Warcraft,” he was offered an application for an internship position, which Aguiar immediately sent his résumé to. Soon though, he was surprised to find out that the position he had just applied to was at the Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

When he accepted the position, he was flown out to begin a new life.

“When I moved for Amazon, it was a $9-an-hour internship, and I don’t know anyone that lives in Washington. To me though, that $9-an-hour job could turn into something bigger. There was nothing guaranteed, but it turned into a position,” Aguiar said.

It wasn’t easy, but after a little over a month, Aguiar was offered a position to help write the tutorial and help pages for the upcoming Kindle Fire, among other responsibilities which he cannot talk about due to the non-disclosure agreement he signed.

“The job started at $88,000, and went up from there, but for a month and a half I paid rent at $9-an-hour. I had to buy food and I had an unfurnished apartment for three months.”

As time wore on, Aguiar started to find that he did not enjoy his work since he was limited in his capabilities. After 11 months of working at Amazon, he decided he needed to move back to California to further develop himself.

“A lot of people said I was stupid to leave such a high paying job at 21, because I was 21 or 22 at the time. At the same time, I didn’t have any responsibilities. I had an apartment, so I wasn’t paying a mortgage or anything, so I just moved back to California. Then, I couldn’t find a job for a year and a half because all the jobs I would apply to would be around here and weren’t meaningful because my résumé says I made more than their boss makes, and they were uncomfortable with that kind of thing.”

After all his successes, Aguiar still finds certain undertakings rather difficult because of his degenerative disease.

These problems with his vision present themselves daily, making some tasks more difficult for him than they are for other people.

For example, Aguiar said, “Some of the stairs I can’t see at school, so I have to memorize where they are. On the 2400 building, there are no clear markings on the stairs, so I just have to imagine where they are.

“I know they are there, but I can’t tell where to exactly put my foot, so I memorize a spot, and I constantly go on that spot. My depth perception is pretty bad.”

These issues don’t tend to bother him, and he has a way to survive each and every difficulty he is faced with.

When asked whether he considers himself brave, he said he doesn’t see himself that way. “I’ve never really thought that it makes it harder or easier, it’s just a part of my life. To me, it’s my normal.”

While his version of normal may be different, it brings the point that while all humans are created equal, our daily issues are all different.

For his girlfriend and fellow student, Emma Fuller, she sees Aguiar as proof that nothing is impossible.

Fuller said, “We all have struggles. There are some with disabilities. Yet despite the disabilities and struggles, people can succeed in life. Your goals are achievable no matter the condition.”

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