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Elizabeth Myska turns loss into a gain

Barry Chin/Globe staff

Who

Elizabeth Myska

What

Myska, a Worcester attorney who is losing her vision to retinitis pigmentosa, took a self-defense course for the blind and has become a coach who trains other visually impaired people to defend themselves against assault. She recently went to England to meet with her teacher, Stephen Nicholls, who created the self-defense technique for the blind.

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Q. What is retinitis pigmentosa, and when were you diagnosed?

A. I was diagnosed in December 2005 at Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary. It was surprising; there is usually a family history, and it’s a much earlier onset. I have no family history, and I was 50 years old. RP is a retinal disease resulting in loss of peripheral vision.

Q. What vision do you have?

A. I still have central vision, so I can still read if the lighting is perfect and it’s a white page with black letters. But I have blind spots in each of my eyes. I can be looking at something and then it disappears. I can no longer see a movie screen or a flat-screen TV; my eyes won’t take all of that in. And I’m losing colors as well. In 2008 my driver’s license was revoked because I am legally blind.

Q. What changes have you had to make to accommodate your vision?

‘Being vision impaired has opened so many doors for me. . . . I’m not saying it’s not daunting, it’s not scary, that I don’t struggle.’

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A. My husband and I moved into a building in Worcester that’s absolutely fabulous. Our unit is all on one level. It is within walking distance of everything. In 2008 I started learning how to use a cane. The state Commission for the Blind gave me mobility training. It’s a bitter pill to swallow because I’m not as independent as I was, but I know I needed it.

Q. What exactly is mobility training?

A. My teacher would take me to various indoor and outdoor venues and blindfold me, which is really, really scary. He taught me to listen to the traffic. In bad weather, we’d go to a church and he would put up obstacles and I would have to get around them. Even in the snow, he took me out.

Q. How has all of this affected your legal career?

A. This whole journey of losing my vision has expanded what I do both professionally and socially. I am in solo practice and I work from home, and I would go to clients’ homes or businesses at all times of the day, evenings and weekends. I wondered how I was going to work if I couldn’t drive. For the past five years, I have been an associate with a real estate firm in Worcester, owned by a friend of mine. I represent buyers and sellers.

Q. How have you expanded professionally?

A. I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people. After I was diagnosed, I did an elder law internship and found I had an affinity for it. I found an online program through Western New England College, now University, for a master’s of law. I am currently in my last year of a three-year program. Last semester, I took special needs law, which I loved. I can now combine elder law and estate planning with a concentration on special needs law. Who better than me?

Q. You don’t sound bitter. How do you keep a positive outlook?

A. Being vision impaired has opened so many doors for me. I “see things” – in quotation marks – differently. It’s possible for someone who confronts an obstacle to utilize it to their advantage and to help others. I have had so many awesome people put in my path. I’m not saying it’s not daunting, it’s not scary, that I don’t struggle.

Q. How did the self-defense course come about?

A. I went to a convention for the National Federation of the Blind in Dallas in July 2010. I took a workshop on self defense. The teacher was a martial arts instructor from England. It’s learning body mechanics and putting pressure on certain joints so that the attacker is going to end up on his knees. It doesn’t involve physical strength.

Q. How did you get to be a self-defense trainer?

A. Stephen [Nicholls] can’t go around the world teaching this personally, so he trains coaches. He came to Boston last August and did a training session. There were nine of us, seven totally blind. After that, we were on probation for six months, doing demonstrations and getting others interested. Last February, I held a session at Mass. Eye and Ear and we created three more coaches there. We are going to start a program at the Worcester YWCA and hopefully some of them will become coaches.

Q. Can you defend yourself?

A. Yes. Bella English

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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