Meet Renee Emmerson.
Renee began working for VSP Vision Care in 2010 as a customer care representative at our national call center in Columbus, Ohio.
Four years later, she was diagnosed with Basal Laminar Drusen, a condition that mimics macular degeneration and causes irreversible vision loss.
Today, at just 40 years old, Renee is blind.
But a loss of vision hasn’t dimmed her passion to innovate, explore and uncover new solutions.
Check out the video below and our Q&A to learn more about Renee, her journey, and how her new position with the VSP innovation lab—The Shop—has galvanized a movement to explore new ways to better support the blind and low vision community.
Q&A: Renee Emmerson
VSP Blog: So tell us a little about your career with VSP before and during your vision loss.
Renee: I started in customer service in 2010 and I loved it. I loved talking to people. I loved projecting that idea of empathy and helping someone over the phone. Eventually I was even promoted. I was very good at my job. But with my rapidly declining sight, it soon became a struggle to keep up and I had to take a step back in my responsibilities and work from home.
What was that like?
I realized that my life had changed. That I was no longer the same person. You’re at a certain level and you pride yourself at exceeding expectations and being part of projects—and then you have to step back. Stepping back for me at that time was an acceptance of failure. Because you knew what you did before. And you can’t do that the same way anymore. So you have to redefine what success is.
So how did you eventually join the VSP Global innovation lab, The Shop?
Our CEO, Jim McGrann, hosts regular focus groups with employees and I was able to participate in one here in Columbus. Prior to that, my supervisor brought my situation to Jim’s attention. But then he saw how engaged and passionate I was. And I think he saw in me an even greater opportunity.
What opportunity was that?
He saw in me an opportunity for VSP to examine and reach out and see what we can do to better help those individuals that, due to severe vision impairments, no longer need glasses. Are we doing enough for our low vision members? Not only members. But what are we doing to be a resource for the blind community and those just starting on this journey?
Is the current system complicated? Does it provide enough support and guidance?
The beginning of a journey with someone with low vision is very complicated and extremely disheartening. It’s complicated because for one, you feel like you’re getting a really quick bucket of ice water dumped over your head. It’s very challenging because you don’t have a team of people walking you through the process. There has to be a better way for us to connect the dots of our resources: from doctors to sight centers to vocational rehab to white cane training.
So where does The Shop come in?
The Shop was developed as an innovation space. It means personally to me the ability to work with people with great minds who are driven to explore beyond current systems and constraints and to not be afraid to disrupt in order to improve. Disruption is not stating that we’re trying to blow up the foundation. It’s about redesigning and reorganizing and rethinking how we do things. It’s taking something you already built and making it better.
So you’re with The Shop now?
Yes! I’m now an associate project manager, working out of the Columbus location of our innovation lab, which we call The Shop Midwest.
What are you working on?
“Project Gravity” is the umbrella name we’ve given to several projects and pilots we’re exploring to better serve the blind and low vision communities. And it’s our baby.
Why is it called Project Gravity?
I named it Gravity, because gravity has so much weight and power. And when you lose your sight, you lose your center. You lose your balance. You don’t know where you’re going. Like you no longer have the gravity to stay upright.
What does Project Gravity entail?
Well, we’re still very much in the early phases. So I can’t reveal too much. But essentially, we’re interested in exploring four main pillars: Strengthening relationships between patients and their providers; exploring cutting-edge assistive technology solutions; creating an online data base and resource bank; and finally, developing what we would like to call a “trusted adviser.”
When someone loses their sight, it not only affects them physically. It affects them emotionally, too. That’s where the empathy comes in. What if we had a person you could call to help you navigate through this new experience and make sure you got connected to the resources you need? But beyond that, someone who has already started this journey. Someone you could trust who would understand what you’re going through.
So what’s next and how do you feel?
We’re going to be kicking off some exciting pilots to test and learn what we can accomplish in this space. It’s overwhelming and it’s exciting. I think anything that’s new always seems impossible in the beginning. But once you break it down to pieces to its core, it’s just one step. Sometimes the hardest thing is starting.
So what’s your mission now?
My mission is just to be able to live like everybody else, regardless of what barriers or disabilities that I may have. My mission is to enjoy life. To enjoy my hobbies. To work. Just to be a vital part of my community, regardless of losing my sight.
Last question. Many within VSP might think of you as a hero. Do you see yourself as one?
When I think of a hero, I think of of someone who has superpowers. Who is mythological. I’m none of those things. I like the idea of being the sidekick. The one who makes the infeasible feasible. I’m not above anybody else. I think it’s more important to be part of the bigger organism that we call humanity. I’m so excited for the possibilities.
As more information emerges about Project Gravity in the coming months, we’ll share more details about Renee right here on the VSP Blog. And please feel free to leave comments and questions for Renee below.
Startups or organizations interested in working with The Shop on efforts in this space can contact The Shop at TalkShop@vsp.com.