A whole new world - How a blind social worker gets to see silhouettes again
She's Canada's history maker and a Caribbean girl. Bold, beautiful, blind and the first to officially wear the Argus glasses that help her to see silhouettes again.
"With these special glasses, I'm able to have a new visual perception of my older children, who I have seen before and also of my baby, who I have never seen ."
Meet Sandra Cassell, a mother of four and a senior social worker in Montreal's government disability service.
For many years, Cassell was that bubbly girl building her career in social services. But 17 years ago at the age of 26, while on vacation, she noticed a depletion in her vision. Her husband at the time and their three children including twins were also on the trip.
"That was really unusual for me," Cassell recalled, but although concerned, she opted to continue to observe the changes in her vision for the remainder of her vacation. Days later, when she returned home, she went to her optician to change the prescription for her far-sighted problem for which she had been wearing glasses.
It never worked and within a few months, Cassell was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that affects the retina. Before the diagnosis, however, she was doing her own research holding out hope that she would have been spared this incurable disease.
"Around the time of my diagnosis, I went back to McGill University to complete my bachelors degree which I had started a few years before and my vision was rapidly changing. I went from being able to read very large prints to having to have audio books," she said.
Now, life had taken a complete turn and Cassell had to learn to do everything again, but without sight.
"Taking care of three kids and being in university and taking care of my family, it was pretty overwhelming," she recounted. However, Cassell said that she received tremendous support from her family as well as the Montreal Association for the Blind where she had been working as a social worker.
In fact, she believes her skills as a social worker were vital in helping her to cope.
But that was not enough to complete the transition.
"It's hard," she said. "There is also that psychological component as well not literally seeing it." So now from checking text messages at home, to updating her files at work, technology is Cassell's best friend.
"It's not like when I could see and it's not like when I can't see. It's kind of in between," she said, noting that there were moments between seeing and not seeing when she was on the brink of giving up, however, she relied on her spiritually to help her cope and it worked.
Still, being a mother and blind still gets overwhelming for Cassell at times. "It bothers me that I can't see my children the way I could see. It bothers me that I can't see new people who have come into my life," she said.
But that did not stop Cassell from her first trip to Jamaica almost eight years ago, neither did it for the 12 other times that followed.
With her sight out, Cassell could only feel her Jamaican experiences: From the warmth of customer-service agents at Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport who would call her by name trip after trip, to the hospitality at north-coast resorts where she would stay.
"It's the most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my whole life, but my message to people who have been afflicted by blindness is to just hang in there and to just do the best that you can. Don't give up, just keep hope," she encouraged.
At home, organisation is the key to how Cassell functions especially in the kitchen and at work. She says the sky is the limit.