Unblinded with Science: Technology to help Conway blind woman see

Heather Edwards reading with the smart glasses technology.
Heather Edwards reading with the smart glasses technology.

CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - A Conway woman is hoping to get a whole new look on life. Diagnosed with a rare eye condition that has left her legally blind, she recently heard about a new technology that is helping those who are low visually impaired, like her, and she believes it is the type of device to help her achieve her dreams.

For Heather Edwards, 26, of Conway, it's regular nine to five in the office on a Thursday afternoon. She is crunching numbers, as the finance administrator for First Baptist Church of Conway. She is looking for accuracy, but for Edwards it takes a different way of looking at those numbers. Edwards is legally blind. She was diagnosed with a rare eye disease called Cone Dystrophy. It is an ocular disorder characterized by the loss of cone cells, or the photoreceptor responsible for central and color vision.

"So I am left with no central vision, no color vision, very little depth perception, light sensitivity, and my vision without any correction is 2400," said Edwards.

She said the symptoms are similar to Macular Degeneration, a condition more commonly known as gradual vision loss, sensitivity to bright light and poor color vision. Except it's not age-related, because Edwards was born with the disease.

However, doctors at one point had difficulty diagnosing Edwards. With her condition, it is difficult to determine if her vision is getting worse, but she knows it is not getting better.

"They are still trying to debate if I actually have Cone Dystrophy or there's another thing called Achromatopsia which is very similar in the symptoms of Cone Dystrophy but Cone Dystrophy is degenerative and Achromatopsia is not," explained Edwards. "So if I have Achromatopsia I will stay this way for the rest of my life. With Cone Dystrophy I will progressively get worse throughout my life."

For most of her life she's learned to adjust, relying on her impeccable other senses to survive. Let's face it, accounting and finance is not considered one of the easier career choices, and many people who are not visually impaired can break a sweat with a simple math problem. So of course we wanted to know - how does she do it.

"I've adapted for the most part but I do have a lot of aides that I use at this point. I use like a dome magnifier for any papers that I use, and then on the computer I just use a standardized magnifier so I can zoom in 400 percent," she explained.

She also said she has very understanding employers, and a supportive family, but as you can imagine, getting to this type of independence has not been an easy journey.

"It's frustrating not being able to be independent because I am a very independent person, I don't like relying other people to do things for me," she added.

Since her early teen years, Edwards has been wearing amber red contacts, a special contact that helps minimize the light.

"I can't wear glasses because the light can come in through the sides. It can come through the bottom, it can come in through the top," she said.

She said when she first went to school she felt so excited because for her it meant she would no longer have to squint to see the board. She didn't have to ask the teacher to turn off the lights, but she quickly found her extreme sensitivity to light, would be the center of jokes among her peers.

"Being in high school, I'm sure you know how high schools kids are, it was not fun, not fun at all," Edwards said. "I had people say, 'Well, you're the devil,' or 'Shoot those lasers out of your eyes!'"

Edwards said even as an adult the taunting hasn't stopped.

"Even adults will say, 'Well that’s just weird, why are you wearing those?' But it's once again people making fun of what they don't understand," she said.

Edwards said she's missed so many things and moments in life, because she simply can't see.

"I don't know how many things I've missed. There have been so many times where people say, 'Look at that rainbow in the sky,' or 'Can you see the airplane flying?  Look at the pretty bird outside,' and I'm like, 'I don't know what you are talking about," said Edwards. "When you’re born with something I don’t know what everybody else sees. I don’t even know what you think is green, I don’t even know what that green is, because I’ve never seen that green before."

However, Edwards has discovered that there is so much more to her life, more to accomplish, and being visually impaired is not going to stop her.

"I've gotten past the feeling sorry for myself, and I'm more on the motivated path at this point" she said.

She said she's ready for a whole new look on life. WMBF News will be there when Heather has her first encounter with the smart glasses called NuEyes.

She said she first heard about the glasses from a friend. She began researching to learn more about the smart technology. She found Frank Beard, owner of Quintex Low Vision. Beard has been providing visual aides for low visually impaired people for North and South Carolina.

"It's not just a pair of glasses that take a picture, it's smart technology," said Beard.

Beard comes to Conway to give Edwards a demonstration of the smart technology, so she can understand how it works. Beard said NuEyes is just like having a mini computer right at your eyes. The technology can provide magnification. It's voice-activated and has text-to-speech capability. The glasses can even stream TV and movies. It is a full Android computer, the technology is the work of two military veterans. Edwards can use her voice or a remote control to zoom on images, take a picture or even magnify her screen. It's the kind of technology Edwards said she needs.

"I’ve always had to rely on a note taker a friend or a professor to give me copies of certain things," explained Edwards, who is currently working on her Associate's Degree in accounting. "In the future I do plan on getting my Bachelor's Degree in accounting now that I am about to finish my Associate's and I've never been able to see any kind of whiteboard, any kind of overhead."

But she said it's the pair of eyes she's wanted.

"Seeing someone at the end of the hall and being able to zoom in on their face instead of walking towards them - I can't tell you how many times I see people I know, they are talking to me but I have no idea who they are until I get this close to their face," she said.

For this young woman, a future that seemed so distant has never been more clear, she said. The new technology has her ready to take on higher heights, and help her rightfully take her place in this world to make a difference.

"Just because I'm 26, and visually impaired, I don't want to be the poor girl who is visually impaired and everybody feels sorry for her. I want to be the CEO. I want to be the president, I want to be the finance manager. I want to be everything else that everyone else can be."

Edwards said she is currently raising the money to purchase her own pair of glasses. The ODG NuEyes Pro Glasses cost more than $6,000. Edwards said her insurance does not cover the glasses, even with her eye condition. Edwards has set up a GoFundMe account to raise the money by this summer, if you would like to help Heather, click here.

Copyright 2017 WMBF News. All rights reserved.