As Katy Olsen observed her surroundings in a massive conference room in a massive conference hotel, halfway around the country from her hometown, a single dominating thought occupied her mind.
“I will never use a cane in my life.”
That was in 2015 at the National Federation of the Blind’s National Convention in Orlando. A college student at the time, Olsen was attending her first convention where the vast majority of attendees were blind.
But, Olsen didn’t count herself among them.
“My perspective was that I still had some vision and everyone else there was blind, so we weren’t the same,” she said.
To say things are different six years later would be an incredible understatement.
After swearing she would never use a cane, Olsen never goes anywhere without one. And, she even helps people learn how to use a cane. In fact, it’s her job. Olsen started at Alphapointe in September as the organization’s new certified Orientation and Mobility Instructor.
But, how did she go from anti-cane to teaching people how to use one?
Olsen was born with Knobloch Syndrome, a rare condition characterized by severe vision problems including macular degeneration, myopia and retinal detachment. It’s so rare, that there is inconclusive data about the number of people who have Knobloch Syndrome, but it’s believed to affect fewer than one in 1 million people.
Living in a small town outside of Des Moines, Iowa, Olsen didn’t really know anyone with low vision growing up with the exception of her sister, who also has Knobloch Syndrome. And, like most children, Olsen wanted nothing more than to fit in with her peers. And that meant trying as hard as she could to ignore her condition.
“I really tried to pass as a sighted kid,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to do with my disability. I wanted to be with my friends and pretend like it wasn’t a thing. I felt like I fit in socially because I didn’t read braille or use a cane. I didn’t really have positive blind role models in my life and I had stereotypes in my head. When I heard the word ‘blind’ I assumed that was somebody who is dependent or somebody who doesn’t work. I stayed as far away from it as I could. My biggest fear is that I would be excluded from things or have people view me differently. That was a terrible thought for me at the time.”
Olsen certainly fit in with her friends. She was active and was a member of a competitive cheerleading team for more than a decade. But, gradually, she realized that things weren’t quite right.
“It was super challenging for me because, on the inside, I knew I was struggling, but I didn’t want to do anything about it,” she said. “I was able to get around fine without a cane. But, what I realized is that I was very focused on watching my feet. I was anxious about all sorts of things like stairs and curbs and dark restaurants or theaters. There were so many situations where I felt like I didn’t have control.”
The first step was attending the NFB National Convention in 2015. Still, she was resolute in her refusal to acknowledge her condition. But, even if she didn’t outwardly express it, something clicked in her mind. She received a scholarship to attend the 2016 NFB National Convention.
And that’s when everything changed.
“I realized that being blind wasn’t what I thought it was,” Olsen said. “I met a lot of successful people – lawyers, business owners and teachers. I realized that they were doing everything that sighted people were doing. I realized that I had thought I was better than blind people because here were a bunch of people who were doing more than I was and they were a lot more confident than I was. They had their heads up and were talking to people as they were walking. I wasn’t able to do that, and I realized that they had something I did not have.
“I said to myself ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’”
She did. After researching and giving thought to what made those people different, Olsen realized they all had something in common.
“The people who were confident and had skills were people who attended training.”
After completing her first semester of her junior year of college, Olsen did something else she swore she would never do – she unenrolled. But, it wasn’t to dropout permanently. Instead, it was to do more things she always said she wouldn’t: learn how to use a cane, learn how to read braille, learn how to use adaptive technology.
Olsen packed her bags and headed to Ruston, La., the location of the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
“I learned a lot of skills,” Olsen said. “But, what I gained the most was confidence. For the first time, I knew I could go anywhere that I wanted to go. I knew I could live independently and could figure things out on my own. When I moved from training to real-life again, I felt free. I embraced my blindness and reframed the way I thought about blindness.”
Olsen majored in therapeutic recreation, pre-occupational therapy at the University of Iowa and was planning to then proceed toward a doctorate in occupational therapy, but the COVID pandemic developed. She didn’t want to take her occupational therapy courses online because it would have meant a loss of a substantial amount of hands-on training.
Olsen initially decided to postpone pursuing the doctorate until the pandemic subsided, so she applied to several in-person one-year orientation and mobility programs to enhance her resume. When it came time to choose the location, it really wasn’t much of a choice. Olsen went back to Ruston to attend Louisiana Tech University. As it turns out, life threw her another curveball.
“One of the first assignments students work on is being able to take the route to the nearby apartments,” she said. “I was working with a student and just seeing everything come together was amazing. When she put the basics together and was able to make it there by herself, I was able to see her gain her independence back. What she thought might not have been possible was now possible. It was so amazing to see that joy and her pride in accomplishing that.”
Olsen was hooked. By happenstance, she now knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. In a unique twist of fate, Olsen wanted to teach people how to use a cane – the thing she had avoided for the first 20 years of her life.
In less than a couple of months, Olsen’s choice has already been affirmed.
“I work with kids in schools as well as adults,” she said. “The youngest student is three and she hadn’t used a cane yet. During a session, I gave her a cane and she was so excited because it was her first cane. She was so happy and jumped out of her chair. She gave me a huge hug. For her to be excited about using a cane is so important. And, it’s special because she feels that way at such an early age.
“I think back and wish I had learned braille and to use a cane when I was younger,” Olsen said. “But, I’m okay with the way things have turned out. Being able to help people learn to use a cane – for children to gain confidence or to have adults regain their independence – it means so much to me.”