Posted on November 25, 2011 by Linda Ruiter

Augustana student Mandy Bailey describes living and coping with a disability.

By Linda Ruiter

For as long as she can remember, Mandy Bailey struggled with visual distortion, fatigue and migraines. There didn’t seem to be a cause for her troubles.

Visits to the optometrist were futile and frustrating. As reading and studying demands increased in high school and university, so did the symptoms. Highly motivated, Mandy nevertheless learned how to adapt. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree and embarked on a career as a Cranio Sacral and Massage Therapist. In the fall, Mandy came back to the Augustana Campus as an Open Studies student. This time, however, her experience is radically different.

In the fall of 2010, she heard about Irlen Syndrome and decided to get checked out at the Irlen Centre in Edmonton. Test results revealed a visual perception processing disorder known as Irlen Syndrome. Treatment consisted of a few simple technical aids, a pair of dark shades and an Irlen Coloured Overlay.

The difference was dramatic and a tremendous relief. Finally, words on the page were in order and the world in general became much more accessible.

Irlen Syndrome was first recognized and documented in the 1980s by educational psychologist Helen Irlen. While the specific cause of Irlen remains unknown, current research shows it to be a visual-perceptual problem originating in the retina of the eye or in the visual cortex of the brain.

For someone with Irlen Syndrome, words on a page can simply appear blurry. They may also seem to jump around, float, or form strange patterns like waves or concentric circles. The effort required by the brain to decode images, especially over an extended period, results in eye strain, muscle tension, headaches, and physical exhaustion.

“I used to say to my Dad, it looks like someone took an eraser and erased lines down the page.” Many didn’t know it then, but she was describing what is dubbed “Rivers” in the Irlen world.

She saw words bunched together and, as it was hard to separate the foreground from the background, her tendency was to focus on the white spaces.

“I read to understand the words first and then to understand the content,” says Mandy. “My brain works several times harder than the average person’s to accomplish simple tasks.” Due to light sensitivity, the computer screen and fluorescent lights provide additional challenges.

I also have difficulty tracking items and I don’t have the best depth perception.” She recalls a time when she was about 8 years old and her family enjoyed playing baseball together. Catching or swinging at the ball was hopeless. Again and again, her Dad would callout encouragingly, “Keep your eye on the ball Mandy.” Easier said than done when you can’t see the moving ball to be able to follow it; only no one knew this was what was happening, least of all Mandy herself.

The glasses Mandy wears are made of filters that sift out specific light frequencies. Using her filter glasses and grey coloured overlays, reading is more comfortable and allows her greater efficiency. “I look like I’m wearing sunglasses, but when I look through them I see things fairly normally. Some people wear coloured lenses but mine are dark. It’s impossible to get rid of all of the distortions I see or the symptoms I experience, but my glasses reduce their effect to a tolerable level.”

Armed with recently acquired knowledge about her visual perception disorder, Mandy registered with Specialized Support & Disability Services. After presenting her documentation and discussing possible accommodations, SSDS agreed to provide exam accommodations, providing Mandy a space to write her exam with natural light, materials printed on blue paper, and extra time.

“This makes a huge difference,” she says, “I look back and am amazed that I even finished high school, let alone got my B.Sc.! I always struggled to finish exams on time and often did not receive marks that I knew I was capable of. Having accommodations this time is a blessing.”

Mandy talks about her disability freely, figuring that it might help someone else discover that they have Irlen Syndrome. She has this advice to give university students: “University can be challenging, emotionally and physically. Make sure you have fun and enjoy this time in your life. If you need help, ask for it. Having a disability isn’t something that I can control, but, how much I allow myself to be “disabled” by it, or because of it, is something I can control. Use your resources!”

Mandy attributes her “can do” attitude to her parents. “They’ve always supported me in my adventures and taught us we can accomplish anything if we just set our minds to it. It may take longer than expected, but that’s okay!”

Along with her positive outlook, Mandy stays healthy by running, cycling, jamming with friends and getting out on the road with her motorcycle. She admits to a preference for “crazy” socks, enjoying a bit of fun, and she declares that she eats “Paleolithically”, consuming great quantities of fresh veggies, meat, and eggs.

After finals, Mandy is off on yet another adventure: she is heading south to the temperate climate of Arizona where she’ll be studying Naturopathic Medicine!

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