Visually impaired teenage superhero on mission

Visually impaired teenage superhero on mission
14-year-old Joel Gomez of Encinitas is raising money to supply other visually impaired kids like himself with electronic glasses to help them see. Photo by Shana Thompson

 

ENCINITAS — Step aside Batman, Superman and Aquaman — meet Joel Gomez, 14, a true “vision hero.”

When Joel was just 6 months old, he and his family moved to Encinitas, about the same time they were told he has a genetic vision condition which renders him legally blind. But that has ever stopped Joel from much of anything.

“I was never one to sit and play video games, especially because I couldn’t see them,” he said. “I don’t like to do nothing, I’m more comfortable doing something.”

In fact, the Canyon Crest Academy freshman is more than busy balancing his time between kicking off a GoFundMe campaign to help other visually impaired kids, teaching ukulele and running track.

“I have blue cone monochromacy, which is a rare genetic visual disorder,” he said. “Many people have experienced what it is like to walk out of a dark theater into the bright daylight.

“That day blindness is how my eyes are affected in even moderately bright light,” he explained. “I’m missing 98 percent of my cone receptors and I have a rare form of colorblindness. A big misconception is that glasses will help my visual acuity. That is not the case. So, I am legally blind with or without glasses.”

 

Hello, eSight

Last year, things changed for Joel when he was able to sport a sleek pair of electronic glasses from Toronto, Canada maker eSight that can zoom in and out 26 times. The glasses are costly (about $10,000) due to the technology involved, he said.

eSight is worn like a normal pair of glasses. It houses a high-speed, high-definition camera that captures everything the wearer is looking at. Advanced, medically validated algorithms optimize and enhance the footage; the footage is then presented on two, near-to-eye screens, in virtually real time and in stunning clarity. eSight’s ability to tilt up and down allows the wearer to always have access to their native peripheral vision enabling true mobility. eSight’s control allows visually impaired wearers to control everything — zoom (up to 24 times), contrast, focus, even taking photos and streaming content directly to their eSight.

Joel was able to get the eSight glasses last summer with a combination of his family’s personal funds and some generous donations, along with working with eSight’s Affordability Team.

While Joel is in class, the eSight glasses essentially magnify words on the board, so they are large enough for him to read; regular glasses do not help.

And even though the eSight glasses that “look like a pair of futuristic virtual gaming glasses” help immensely, he still pushes himself and is enjoying life to the fullest.

“From my perspective, my life is pretty normal,” Joel said. “It doesn’t really phase me that sometimes I must work harder to do things I love. My parents have taught me to be strong and advocate for myself in life. I played soccer for a while, and I had to sit on the bench when my vision was limited when trying to find the ball in the sunlight. I really didn’t like sitting on that bench and didn’t feel in my heart that that was where I was meant to be.

“Circumstances could have easily defeated me, but instead of letting them defeat me, I chose to get inspired to overcome them and break new barriers.”

 

Helping other kids

As for his GoFundMe campaign, Joel is hoping to raise funds for 13 visually impaired kids around the world, so they can acquire eSight electronic eyewear, too.

He said he understands all too well what kids who suffer from the same vision impairment are going through and that’s why he wants to help.

“I am visually impaired living in a world that caters to those who have normal eyesight,” he said. “Those with normal eyesight do not realize some of the difficulties faced by those who are visually impaired.”

“It is impossible for those of us with vision impairments to see facial expressions of friends or family, to see the hand or figure in the box at any street light that tells you when to cross or stop,” he said. He added that reading the transfer signs on the bus/train, reading any digital directional signs and seeing people wave at him from a few feet away are other obstacles.

He said he’s been gung-ho about the GoFundMe campaign because he feels like he personally knows the kids who will benefit from his efforts, like Gabriel in Romania who is around his same age who would appreciate eSight in math class because he can’t see the board.

“Because of the efforts of my parents, some generous donors and eSight’s Affordability Team, I am able to see in the classroom,” Joel said. “eSight would allow Gabriel the same opportunities as his fellow peers.”

To date, through his GoFundMe campaign he has raised about $65,000. The goal is to raise at least $130,000 to help even more kids who need eSight, he said.

“I do believe people who recognize how eSight can change the lives of those living with visual impairment will make an effort to donate and will make it happen with the help of spreading the word and people becoming aware of these incredible kids who just need a little help to achieve their full potential,” he said.

He added that many of the school district’s recommended technology devices have not helped him see in the classroom, prompting him to investigate eSight.

“In fact, these things they recommend have actually been very difficult for a visually impaired kid to even utilize,” Joel said. “That has always been very hard for me in the classroom, and I want that to change for any visually impaired kids who may come after me.

“I want all people to be aware that there is new and useful technology that really and honestly helps the visually impaired,” he said.

 

Sing, sing, sing

Joel said until there is a cure for various conditions affecting eyesight, those with visual impairments like himself need accommodations that really work.

“I have also used eSight to view various stages for performances,” he said. “I’m a musician and play four instruments. I play by ear, but if I need to learn a new song, I can use eSight to read the music.

“Before I had eSight, I would have to have the music enlarged to such a degree that the pages would become too large to place on the music stand. I would literally have to tape them to the wall and read the music from there.

“I am really encouraged to realize the generosity of people when they discover how someone with a visual disability can accomplish so much when they have some understanding and a little help,” he said in terms of those giving to the fund.

Mom Rynn Whitley-Gomez said she couldn’t be prouder of her son: “eSight has made a wonderful difference in his ability to see the board at Canyon Crest Academy, where he is a freshman in advanced math classes.

“Joel knows the struggle it was before and what these kids are experiencing without eSight, so he really wants to help anyway he can and he is,” she said. “We never put a label on him; his ophthalmologist said he is a vision hero, and that’s pretty much how we think of him, too.”

 

More superhero stuff

In between the GoFundMe campaign and everything else in his life Joel, also enjoys running.

“Running is a big part of my life, and a lot of my friends also run,” he said. “Coach Andrew Corman at Canyon Crest Academy has been so supportive and understanding, helping me become a better runner this year in cross country and track.”

He is also an Ambassador for Vision of Children, based in San Diego (visionofchildren.org). Vision of Children funds research for genetically caused blindness.

“What seemed like science fiction not long ago is now becoming reality in finding a cure for these diseases,” Joel said. “I perform and help to support many of their fundraising events to raise funds to help find a cure for genetically caused blindness. VOC is like family to me, so it is fun to participate with them at various charity events.”

And if that weren’t enough, he also has a YouTube channel, Joel G Music, which he works on with his music producer, Jason Brawner. He’s pretty good at ping pong, too, which he said is quite surprising.

As for what lies ahead, Joel said he’s just going to continue living his life to its fullest, impairment or no impairment.

“With my visual impairment, I’ve learned to look at opportunities, and not limitations, in life,” he said. “Having a visual impairment helps me experience life in a different way and not take things for granted. I have a competitive nature and I do feel that helps me find opportunities. There are always setbacks. I do recognize them, but then try to learn and keep on doing what I love.”

 

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