Olivia Durant is a project manager, producer for tech innovation and immersive theater, inspirational speaker, and athlete living in Los Angeles. She lived her entire life legally blind until 2016, when, after an extensive round of eye surgeries, she gained sight for the very first time.
Recently, Olivia decided to bring her unique story to TikTok, where she started answering questions AMA style. Her responses have opened up a conversation about the experience of blindness and how jarring it can be to experience sight later in life:
BuzzFeed reached out to Olivia, who described her journey with blindness as "lonely and difficult. In addition to being born legally blind, I have ligament laxity, which means that it’s hard for me to walk, and my joints painfully dislocate. I didn’t walk until I was 4 years old and was always the last person picked in gym class. I got bullied a lot and didn’t have access to any sort of accommodation because I grew up very poor."
Though a name for her condition is unknown, Olivia shared that she was born with eyes shaped liked a football, which resulted in her vision being similar to that of a microscopic lens.
"I also had floaters, flashers, and a weird flame effect over [the] top of my field of vision," she said. "So I could see the tiny threads in the carpet if I pressed my eyes up to it, and the fibers in the paper where words were printed, but not anything in life past my nose."
She explained, "People really don’t understand what being blind actually is. You can be blind for any number of reasons — injury, genetics, disease, etc. — so of course, a person’s own experience being blind will be different than someone else's. It could mean ultra-low vision, obstructed vision...basically, anything that prevents you from living what is considered a normal life. Blindness is a spectrum. Very few blind people have a simple black field, as it’s portrayed in the movies."
This general lack of understanding made things even harder for Olivia growing up. "I was relentlessly scolded and humiliated by adults who were trying to correct me for using a coping mechanism they didn’t understand. They meant well, but it goes back to sighted people not understanding what 'blind' or 'legally blind' means, and how serious both can be."
Then, in 2016, Olivia began the process of gaining sight at age 36. It involved four eye surgeries between January and October of that year, all performed at the Eye Center of New York. "They do one eye at a time, and you have to recover for a couple months in between. I needed to wear an eye patch, goggles, and temporary glasses while it healed. It was awful and terrifying beforehand, but really, the surgery wasn’t painful or difficult. I was just scared that I’d have a retina issue, because my retina is very delicate and that was a risk for me. They replaced my natural lenses with injectable lenses and did two laser surgeries after that."
From there, Olivia had to adjust to living a sighted life for the first time, which included revelations about color, size and scope, body language, and even her own appearance. "I shocked myself. I had trouble recognizing my own reflection in the mirror, and I had to deal with the fact that I looked differently than what the bullies in my life had told me. My life changed in pretty much every way, including a move from New Jersey to Los Angeles. I’m still adjusting. I felt sort of adjusted to my new life at the beginning of 2020 and was prepared to explore my new city, but we all know what happened that year."
Although the last few years have been a major adjustment, Olivia is loving the community she's created on TikTok and hopes others see her story as a reason to keep going. "If someone is telling you that you can’t go for your dream, it’s just not true. Before my eye surgery, I blasted past what other people told me I could do. I think that’s a very human thing, people telling others what they supposedly can and can’t do. Sometimes they mean well, but I feel like the best things happen when you try something that someone else thinks is impossible. Even if you fail, you get data that helps you win the next time."
And when asked if there was anything else she'd like to add to this interview, Olivia told BuzzFeed, "Just because you might have a disability, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. You’re perfect as you are."
She added, "And for people who know somebody in their community that may have a disability and might be shut in, especially during the pandemic, maybe check on them and say hello. You know that feeling of loneliness you experienced during the pandemic? Some disabled folks and elderly folks experience that all the time. What can you do in your community to help alleviate that?"