Isolation has been hard for all of us to combat within the past year. Most forms of communication have for the most part turned virtual, making phone calls, text messages and Zoom meetings the primary way of being able to reach one another.
For some groups in society, these methods of online communication, such as texting or video chatting, may just not be as practical. Individuals with visual impairments may find it difficult to adapt to having all of their courses online, for which some websites and software may not offer certain accessibilities for people with disabilities.
Observing these limitations, high school junior Anjal Jain was driven to found Eye Matter, a club at the Orange County School of the Arts. Jain has always empathized with people who have visual impairments, because she’s seen it first-hand herself. Twelve years ago, one of her family members opened up to her about his retinitis pigmentosa, which is the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.
“Throughout my childhood, any science projects that I had, I always based it on ophthalmology, which is the study of visual impairments,” said Jain, as she recounted quickly becoming fascinated with learning about various eye disorders.
She noticed early on that her family member did not want many people to know about his condition. It wasn’t until she was older that she realized that many visually impaired individuals struggle with social isolation due to the fear of others being unable to understand the hardships they face. Now in the era of coronavirus, most physical group meetups are no longer allowed to take place. Jain saw how lonely her family member was feeling now that he couldn’t connect with his community.
This is what inspired her to establish Eye Matter, which aims to create a safe online space for individuals with visual impairments to connect with and bond with one another. With the help of her talented peers and instructors, Jain is creating various projects to encourage people to get involved in the arts and meet others with the same day-to-day obstacles.
Over the course of the past five weeks, Eye Matter has been hosting free, international art classes covering several disciplines including dance, voice, film, acting and musical theater. Through these art classes, individuals are able to grow confidence, express themselves creatively, build a resume, develop passions and build strong connections. Jain liked the idea of giving visually impaired individuals a platform to pursue the arts, while at the same time showing everyone that art has no barriers.
Despite visual impairments such as limited depth perception or vision loss, these individuals are still just as capable of learning disciplines such as dance or film. However, Cecelia Fanelli, vice president of the Eye Matter club, says that she has seen very minimal effort to make the arts accessible to visually impaired individuals in Orange County, let alone the broader nation. The issue at hand is that many art programs fail to provide instructional methods and flexibility towards individuals with any type of special need.
“If a visually impaired individual were to take an art class meant for seeing, they would have to work to accommodate to the seeing instructors or peers standards and instructions, rather than the seeing instructor and peers accommodating to them which is just a problem in itself,” Fanneli said.
Jain argues that if instructors are only using visual techniques to teach students music notes or dance pieces, then someone who is visually challenged may quickly fall behind. Because of this, many of these individuals may feel left out and incapable of pursuing something they are truly passionate about.
Patrice Maginnis, director of the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Santa Cruz, recently spoke to Jain on the first episode of Eye Matter’s podcast about this very issue. Maginnis was born with the same condition as Jain’s family member, retinitis pigmentosa.
“At the beginning, my teachers were resistant and told me if I couldn’t sight read I couldn’t be a musician and I said, ‘Well there are a lot of blind musicians,’ ” said Maginnis, reflecting on when she first started learning classical music.
Maginnis knew that she would have to find her own ways to sight read and do everything else her peers could more readily do, but that didn’t mean it was impossible. Eye Matter aims to minimize this stress on the students, by adapting teaching techniques in order to make it easier for those with visual impairments to confidently learn art disciplines.
The art classes hosted by Eye Matter have successfully attracted visually impaired individuals beyond even just Orange County, reaching inspired students as far as the United Kingdom, Australia and even Egypt. Jain and Fanelli both said they were impressed with the artistic abilities of all their students, despite any visual impairments. In a safe and welcoming learning environment, students thrived and grew in confidence as the weeks went by.
“Students began to engage more, unmuting themselves, talking about their progress, showing the class and myself their projects, and asking questions when needed,” said Fanelli about the positive mindset shifts amongst students.
All students will complete a final art project within their respective disciplines, which will then be presented at the end of the month in Eye Matter’s International Art Showcase. There will be a multitude of guest speakers as well, including professors like Sophia Wang, an ophthalmologist from Stanford University. Approximately 40 students of all ages will be displaying their artistic performance, which you can watch for free live on Sunday, Feb. 28 from 2:30-4 p.m. PST.
Crystal Henriquez is an intern for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org