The Bible verse in 2 Corinthians, “For we live by faith, not by sight,” rings true in every aspect of Irina Griffin’s life.
It’s the verse she quotes if she’s ever discouraged by her visual impairment, though that doesn’t happen often. The freshman at Brenau University is legally blind, but she isn’t letting that stop her as she pursues her childhood dreams of being a dancer.
“I was always a very active child,” Griffin, 18, said. “My mom just put me in creative movement, and that's what started it all. And I never wanted to stop.”
She couldn't see well even as a child. She wore glasses and her eye doctors simply thought she was nearsighted. But as she grew older, her vision kept getting worse.
“I always kind of knew subconsciously that there was something not right. But I didn't really know how to explain it, because I had always lived like that,” Griffin said. “I just thought that was how everyone saw.”
As she was about to start high school at Georgia Cyber Academy, she landed with a new optometrist, Dr. Kelley Dasinger, who noticed something was wrong.
Dasinger couldn’t get Griffin’s vision corrected with a phoropter — that classic eye-doctor machine covered in lenses that operates to the call of “one and two, better or worse” — so she knew it wasn’t just nearsightedness. She sent Griffin off to Emory Eye Center where Dr. Nieraj Jain diagnosed her with macular retinal dystrophy, which causes deterioration of the central retina, affecting Griffin’s central vision.
“When we discovered it and we started talking about it more, Irina never knew that she couldn't see or that she was supposed to see our face before she was two feet away,” said Maribeth Griffin, Irina’s mother. “That's just kind of the way she had always seen.”
Irina said she was most likely born with the eye disease, but it’s progressed over the years. Most things she sees are blurry and almost impossible to make out. She can’t see detail. Eyes just look like dark spots and she just assumes people have a nose. If you have facial hair, it just looks like a different skin tone to her.
“And the further away it is, the less I can see,” Irina said.
She still has the first pair of glasses she was given — pink Vera Bradley’s — tucked away somewhere, and they remind her of all the times she’d sit close to the TV at home because she couldn’t see it.
She’d feel the static coming from the screen on her face.
“She wouldn't sit through a whole movie,” Maribeth said. “And the reason was, everybody else would be sitting on the sofa all comfy and stuff, but she couldn't see it so she would want to get up close and we would tell her to get away because we didn't realize it's because she couldn't see.”
Though she couldn’t see well, she continued to dance. It was one thing she could count on, and she didn’t necessarily have to see. She could listen. She could feel.
“It was just like a connection I had with it,” Irina said. “I've always loved it, and I've always grown up with it … It's like dance stole my heart and never gave it back to me.”
She primarily does ballet, though she’s dabbled in just about every other type of dance.
And just like in her everyday life, she’s had to make accomodations for herself in dance. But it’s something her father, Walt, said comes naturally to her.
“She's using her imagination to fill in the gaps,” Walt said. “She somehow has an intuition of knowing where to step next, or a movement or motion. I guess that makes her who she is as far as a dancer goes.”
John Streit, assistant professor of dance at Brenau, sees that intuition, too. He said dancing at a young age, as Irina was, is when sight is most important. But as you get older, it’s less important. It’s more about the feeling.
“Once you kind of understand the basic fundamentals of technique, then it’s about the feeling and musicality,” Streit said. “It’s really about listening.”
He’s been most impressed with Irina’s attitude during class. He said she’s never negative when she struggles and is always “totally ready to go.”
“I feel like some people can get down when there’s something that’s causing them hardships, but she doesn't do that,” Streit said. “She doesn’t let the emotions rule her. So, I super appreciate that, and it’s really helped her get along well at school.”
Even if she can’t see what Streit’s feet are doing when he wears black socks on the black marley dance floor, she makes things work. She’ll oftentimes get low to the ground to see the light between the bottom of his feet and the floor.
“I'm always listening,” Irina said. “Even if I don't see, I'm hearing it, and luckily I’ve got a pretty good ballet vocabulary.”
She’s learned those tricks over the years, but when she moved to college, living on her own, she had to learn new tricks on how to simply get through the day.
A white cane helps, and she spent plenty of time on and around campus before starting the school year to help familiarize herself with it.
It’s the more simple things, like using the washer and dryer, that made for some challenges.
“I can't see the buttons for start, stop and all that stuff,” Irina said. “So I have all these little bump dots I can put on a surface … because before, I was literally crawling on top of the dryer to get close enough to see the buttons.”
Going shopping is a challenge, too. Someone has to drive her, but even when she’s there, she has trouble seeing the labels on different items. Still, she makes it happen
And putting on makeup, she rarely wears it unless she has to for an occasion.
“When I didn't know what she was dealing with, she'd make a mess of putting mascara on,” Maribeth said. “That Christmas after we found out what was going on, I got her this big, magnified mirror and she came downstairs and was like, ‘I can see my eyes!’ For the longest time, she wouldn't wear makeup because she didn't want to deal with it and even now, there are days she won’t even put anything on.”
A lot of people may see those challenges as disadvantages, but not Irina. She’s dealt with this her entire life and hasn’t let it stop her from doing the things she loves — something her father cherishes.
“She's always got a positive attitude more than anybody I could ever imagine,” Walt said. “When the doctor was telling her what she had, she was just as strong as could be. She doesn’t think anything negative. She's very much an optimist, and she's got a positive outlook.”
Irina’s outlook is so positive that she even thinks there are perks to having a vision disability.
When she’s at the airport, she said she feels “like royalty.” And when she’s using her white cane in a crowd, “They part like the Red Sea.”
“Yeah, there are downsides to having a disability, but I feel like there are way more upsides, personally,” Irina said. “I feel like there's a lot we can do, we just do it a little differently than sighted people.”
And that's what impresses her mother the most.
“She's always told me, she goes, 'I can do anything anybody else can do,’” Maribeth said, her voice breaking as she teared up. “‘I just have to do it in a different way.’ And that's what she does. She knows what she's got to do. She knows the easiest way may be what somebody else does, but that's not how she can do it. So, she always finds a way.”
Irina finds a way each day to lean on that Bible verse in 2 Corinthians, too, encouraging her to live her life with her faith in front of her. Maribeth said Irina is always telling her, “God's got this Mama. I know he's in control.”
And through it all — through her faith — she remembers God gave her more than just one way to see.
“You have five senses for a reason,” Irina said. “So, don't just use the one.”