Legally blind 52-year-old student celebrates after graduating as health care assistant

Huge milestone for student

A 52-year-old student at Okanagan College who is legally blind is celebrating after graduating as a health care assistant. 

Jacquie Thom was born with an eye condition called coloboma causing blurry vision, which she describes as like looking through a tunnel. 

Despite being blind, Thom wanted to pursue a career in caring for elderly people, after caring for her parents when they were palliative.

“Supporting my parents showed me that it is such an honour to help someone through that period of time just before death. It’s just as important and honourable as birth,” she says. 

“To be there in a loving and supportive way. Even though it’s a very sad time it’s a very joyful time as well.”

At first, Thom was nervous to start a career that was so physical as being a health care assistant carries a variety of roles including moving seniors from their beds to their wheelchairs, or being responsible for their personal care. 

However Thom trusted herself and knew she wouldn't do anything she wasn't confident in. Because of having low vision, she uses her other senses to help her carry out work tasks. Most students would look for the brake release on a wheelchair but Thom has learned to feel for it.

Okanagan College Health Care Assistant instructor Cathy Farrow says Thom's dedication to learning was the reason for her strong success. Thom met all course standards with only minor modifications to the instructional practices. This included giving Thom the reading in advance, ensuring proper lighting in the classroom and adding touch when instructing. 

“Jacquie is a dedicated learner and true professional,” says Farrow.

“Things those of us with vision take for granted, Jacquie has to put so much more effort into doing, and yet she never complains. She is adaptable, determined, and solution-focused. It has been an absolute pleasure working with Jacquie.”

One-in-four Canadians develop irreversible loss of vision by the age of 75 so Thom also brings experience and empathy to this issue, which can be very difficult for seniors.

“I’m very understanding of the trials and tribulations of having low vision,” says Thom, adding for many people losing their sight is a grieving process.

“I can show them options to help, from using tech that is accommodating to a cane when walking and audiobooks instead of reading paperbacks. You can still do the things you love to do, you just do things differently.”

Thom is now looking forward to her new part-time position working at a local long-term care and assisted living home.

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