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    It's 1986, and Jane Neglia's first day of high school. For the other freshmen, starting at a new school is a little overwhelming but thrilling. This school is huge. She wonders how she is going to fit in. After a while, the new freshmen see their friends from middle school and everything starts to fall into place, but not for Jane. She can't see very well, so her parents decided it is best for her to attend Fountain Valley High School. All her friends from middle school now attend Mater Dei, the private Catholic school six miles away. She doesn't know anyone at Fountain Valley High School. She is alone. Her vision hinders her enough to where she needs help, but she doesn't want the kids at school to know that. It's the first day of school, and she doesn't want to be perceived as weird.


    At 8 years old, Jane was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. It's a rare condition that affects the retina causing the loss of peripheral vision, also known as tunnel vision. It's like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Every year her vision gets worse. It's suspected that she will lose all her vision by the time she's 60. That tunnel she sees through gets smaller with age.


"She put a smile on her face. It was a fake smile. She grimaced through the thought that everyone was looking at her."

    While in elementary school, Jane could see well enough that she didn't need many special accommodations. She read text in print larger than the other children, but not much else was different. She was comfortable at St. John's. She mixed it up with kids on the playground. Her friends helped if she had problems with her vision. At St. John's there were no bad memories. There, Jane was just like any other kid — she had dirt on her face and grass stains on her jeans.


    Her vision was worse at Fountain Valley High School. The school provided her with video magnification and note takers. However, she still had to attend classes, and she still had to walk the halls. She always thought there was a red bulls-eye painted on her back.


    She would become tense. Her heart raced. "Everybody is looking at me! Everybody is looking at me! Everybody is looking at me!"


    She didn't want to interact with anyone. In class, she hid in the corner praying that the teacher wouldn't call on her. She became that shy weird kid that no one knew about — the very person she didn't want to become.


    After high school and more vision loss, she went to Golden West College for her associate's degree. Then Cal Poly San Luis Obispo beckoned. It was the first time she left her family, but she felt it was time to be independent. But, like any college student, she called home every night, saddened by homesickness.


    It was at Cal Poly when things became easier. She met new friends whom she could count on. It was at Cal Poly where she met Doris, her guide dog. The yellow Labrador went everywhere with Jane. She could get around more without bumping into things and looking bunglesome; Doris made life easier for Jane. In 1999, she graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Recreation Administration.


    In 2001, after volunteering at the Braille Institute in Orange County, she was hired by the Dayle McIntosh Center to help elderly people with limited eyesight like herself. With a college degree and a new career underway, life looked pretty good. But there was something that Jane was still battling — the thought that people were always looking at her — the same stares she was afraid of when she was in high school. She always felt uncomfortable.


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    She didn't look people in the eye. She didn't want people to know she couldn't see. She tried to hide. People didn't know what to do when they saw her. They didn't know how to act. Jane didn't look blind or fit the stereotype of a person walking around with a white cane.


She avoided the outdoors because she didn't want people to know about her disability. When she was out in public, she panicked inside. "Everybody is looking at me! Everybody is looking at me! Everybody is looking at me!"


    After Doris passed away, Jane was alone again. She had no guide dog to lead her in the right direction. She relied on friends and family to take her places. Besides the dog, there was one other option: the white cane. She hated it. She didn't want anyone to see her with it. She didn't want people to know she was blind. It was a bulls-eye that told people something was wrong with her. She wanted to be perceived as normal. She liked having the dog when she went out. A dog she could relate to. The Labrador was soft, kind and fun to be around. She couldn't relate to a stick.


    Jane eventually gave up and began using a cane. The stares hurt her. She felt that people thought she was weird. She couldn't deal with thinking that way for the rest of her life. She needed to change. She decided to join a women's gym in Irvine. She was going to force herself to do this. She put the stick out there.


    She walked around the gym sweeping the stick from side to side. She swept in between all the exercise machines, weights, benches and the women working out. She put a smile on her face. It was a fake smile. She grimaced through the thought that everyone was looking at her. Again, all she could think about was the feeling that everyone was looking at her.


"She didn't look people in the eye. She didn't want people to know she couldn't see. She tried to hide."

    She pretended to be OK. She walked around the gym acting like everything was fine and eventually the charade worked. She started to talk to people and they reciprocated. She faked the fact that she was completely comfortable and like nothing was wrong. It became so normal and after a while it was OK. She didn't worry about going to the supermarket by herself. She didn't care if people stared at her. She walked the streets without feeling like she was being judged. People were comfortable around her because she was comfortable. She found out that she could be herself in the company of others without people ridiculing her.


    Jane worked so well that she was promoted to program supervisor at the Dayle McIntosh Center. Her job involves supervising elderly people with vision loss. The people she helps go through the same uncomfortable experiences she once did. Jane shows them the way. She goes into their homes and organizes their pills, closets and refrigerators. Every appliance has a special sticker for identification. She shows them the new gadgets that are available, like a scanner that tells what food is in a person's hand. She has become the tech-geek for the elderly. At the independent living center she fell in love with the seniors.


    Her love of the elderly prompted her to return to school to obtain a Master's Degree in Gerontology at Cal State Fullerton. She has met new friends in the gerontology program who help her out. They form study groups, go over questions and help her post comments on the class website. They even give her rides home.


    But sometimes Jane gets lost in her walks across campus with her new dog, Ayna, who likes to walk aimlessly around. However, it doesn't bother Jane to ask a stranger for directions. Not anymore.


 
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