Redefining Vision: Renee’s Story

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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.”

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. 

45 Comments

  • Lois Penn says:

    great story and inspiration! Thank you for sharing and blessings to you Renee.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Thank you so much Lois for reading and viewing the video. I think the best way to bring awareness to blindness is to share your story and your vulnerability. Thank you for the kind words of encouragement!!!

  • Karen T. says:

    Thank you Renee for sharing your story and for your positive attitude! You are truly an inspiration to those of us who don’t have the same challenges as you. Congratulations to the VSP company for continuing to employ Renee and using her talents to help start new programs for people with blindness! That’s awesome! I volunteer with an organization called “Radio Talking Book Network” here in Minnesota. We read local daily and weekly regional newspaper stories and news every night except Sunday to vision-impaired listeners on a private radio station. I’ve been doing this once a month for over 20 years and love it, because I love to read and if I ever lost my vision, this is a service I would use. Thanks to VSP AND RENEE for all you are doing for sight-impaired individuals!

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Thank you Karen! I also use a radio talk service to listen to my local newspapers. I was a huge reader and that was one thing I took for granted when I had sight. The volunteering you do is priceless and has given me back the written word in audible form. I cannot thank you and organizations like yours do for the visually impaired and blind community. It is the simple things in life that truly brings joy and I thank you for providing this service to others. VSP is a great company to work for, and I am happy that the people are understanding that VSP is more than just an vision insurance company for glasses. They are going to make a difference and be innovative on so many platforms. You eyes are truly the windows to your soul and can expose many other health issues early for proactive treatment. I am grateful that I work for a company that understands the value of eye health, eye management, building relationships with providers and patients.

  • Irma says:

    Your story is inspiriting. I have two siblings that are blind with RP. I am their eyes and it’s very difficult for me, but mostly for them. Thank you Renee for sharing and Blessing to you Renee for the awareness.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Thank you Irma for your comment and kind thoughts. The unsung heros are our family and friends that support loved ones that are blind. It is a journey that both family and we go through together. I have many friends that have RP as well and what they have taught me on adapting to my surroundings have been invaluable!!!! Thank you for the blessings and I would love to here from your siblings on what they have learned along the way to make their life easier and also hear from you on what you have learned when it comes to being a family member helping your siblings through something like this.

  • Glenn From Iowa says:

    An inspiring story, and I’m sure there are many struggles, successes and sub-stories in-between the lines of this short interview. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose your sight. I tend to think of stories of blindness happening in childhood, but I suspect it’s much harder as an adult to adjust to losing your sight.

    My wife lost the center vision in one eye due to a choroidal neovascularization, and we had great support at the university hospital in a nearby city. But now, explaining to even some of the best local eye doctors that she can see in that eye, even though she can’t see the big E, is challenging. They want her to get a balance lens (meaning blank or no prescription) in that eye, but a prescription helps her to keep her physical balance by providing input from the peripheral vision in her bad eye as well. So we just have to guess at a good prescription strength. She’s lucky she has the one good eye and some limited vision in the other, but even with support at the university, it was completely scary going through that 10 years ago, and still provides challenges today. Her biggest fear is that something will happen to her good eye. I’m glad your company is working to provide more support for people going through things like that.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Hi Glenn,

      Thank you so much for sharing your wife’s struggles. I lived that struggle as well being visually impaired and not totally blind and trying to explain that perspective to family, friends, doctors and etc. I found out through this journey like yourself and your wife, that you have to be assertive on what helps you and make sure that you get what you need to ensure that you are able to live your life. Stories like yours give me inspiration on how not to give up and give me an example that I am not alone. Finding others going through a similar experience makes me feel part of a community and not so alone. Thank you so much again for commenting.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Glenn,
      Thank you for sharing your and your wife’s story. The hero in our lives are our family and friends that support and help us. Losing your vision and trying to make sure that you have what you need is sometimes hard. But I am happy to hear that you and your wife preserve and made sure that she got the glasses she needed and did not take no for a answer.

  • Dean Kelley says:

    I have Macular Dystrophy. Renee’s message regarding her experience was wonderful. I will watch the progress of The Shop at VSP. I hope there will be options as I lose my vision.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Hi Dean,

      Thank you for commenting on the Blog. I am excited and eager to move forward with some of the things VSP will be working on for the low vision, visually impaired and blind communities. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to listen to all the comments and respond to each and every one of them. The out pouring of support and sharing has made my commitment even stronger. Definitely, stay tuned, because it will only get better from here!

  • Caroline Burd says:

    My brother recently went blind from Leber’s disease. I am very interested in services and opportunities for him. Please keep me posted.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Hi Caroline,

      Thank you for reaching out and listening/reading my story. VSP will have more to share on this platform in the future that I feel will impact the blind communities lives on so many levels. I am happy to be part of the Project team and for the opportunity to work with VSP on this focus. Please share tuned.

  • Doris says:

    Renee, thank you so much for your inspiring story. What a service to everyone! I suffer from advanced glaucoma, which started at a younger age than most. Love your Vaseline analogy. So glad VSP has been supportive.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      Thank you so much Doris. I have learned to turn my visual memory of what things look like; and translating that into more of a descriptive language/dialogue. I try hard to explain what my other senses are processing in regards to my environment. That part has been fun…..moving away from a visual interpretation but hearing my vocabulary grow and listening to how I talk sounding like a story narrative. LOL, you sound hear me explain how I cook a can of soup….poetic:)

  • Sherri says:

    Awesome story, thank you for sharing this! Good luck Renee in all you do! I have a disease called Uveitis that acts like Glaucoma because it raises the pressures in your eyes immensely then I have trouble seeing clearly or sometimes not at all. I hope you will consider writing some articles on this eye disease also.

    • Renee Emmerson says:

      HI Sherri,

      Thank you for sharing your story and diagnosis. I think one of the misconceptions people have is that we do not like to talk about our eye disease, and I know that for me that I am eager to share what my eye disease is and what it does. I think sometimes fear of asking or crossing a line of privacy is imagined. I am learning so much about different eye diseases and researching and becoming aware just from what everyone is willing to share in comments on this blog and on social media. I believe awareness can gain traction by the willingness of us sharing what we go through.

  • Cynthia Prater says:

    Renee enjoyed your story be blessed.

  • Erin Willis says:

    Would love to learn more about Renee is doing. My daughter is blind as well…but with some residual vision. How can I learn more about her and the projects she is working on?

    • renee emmerson says:

      HI Erin,
      I am a part of the VSP family and we will be sharing and updating everyone on our progress. Please stay tuned and check out the VSP blog page for updates. 2017 is going to be an exciting year and cannot wait to share the next step on what VSP is doing in the Low Vision/Visually impaired space.

  • Dorene says:

    When I checked my email this morning for some strange reason I felt compelled to open this VSP one first and when I did my eyes zoomed right in to your story. My name is Dorene and I’ve been told by a vision center that I will be going blind because I too have macular degeneration. I have been referred to a specialist to see what can be done to at least slow down the process but all in all there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. I’m scared and I get depressed at times knowing that I may never get to see my children’s face or their children once they get married and started their family. Your story gave me a new found vision even in my soon to be darkness. I can see hope for the future now and I believe that you Renee and the VSP team will design something that will allow me the chance to continue to see my children and have the chance to see my grandchildren when that day shall come. Thank you for sharing your story and after reading this I looked out my window at the sky which seemed to get brighter and my heart filled with joy as if that was a sign telling me that help is on its way.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Doreen,
      Thank you…..it fills me up with joy to hear others like me going through the same thing. I still go through bouts of depression but the saving grace for me, is my faith and hope. To hear the words degenerative and no cure can take those away but my determination refuses to think that is the end of the line. Thank you for sharing your insight and know that even though physically we may not be able to see the faces of our loves ones now, that we have memory and our loved ones cannot be erased from that regardless if our eyes fail us. I am honored and happy to work for a company that is deep diving into solutions.

  • Diane V. says:

    I love this. My brother unexpectedly lost his sight at the age of 47. He was fortunate to have a great resource here in our town that we were able to reach out to get him help. Help for simple things like cooking and doing laundry so that he could remain self-sufficient. Training to use a computer again. How to just cross a street and how to get to a doctor’s appointment. Reading this and knowing that others in his circumstance will get the help they need is awesome. Go, Renee! You ARE a hero to those that you are empowering!

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Diane!

      Thank you for sharing your brothers story. I am also going through vocational rehab at this time and at the point of my training learning how to cook, clean and running the vacuum. Today, I just made my husband dinner for the first time of chicken and rice. This Thursday I am going to make a cake. It is the simple things that makes things easier to bear. I do not want to invite anything new nor am I a rocket scientist; I am a person that is trying to piece my life back together to have some level of normalcy. Thank you so much for sharing your story and letting me peek into your brothers successes.

  • Phyllis Anderson says:

    That is so inspiring to see an organation give you the opertunity to advance. My son is also blind he has a Masters in psychology and a Law Degree but no one will hire him. They won’t say its because he is blind but that he has no experance or he is too qualified. Good luck to you and thank you for the inspiration. Phyllis Anderson

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Phyllis,
      I am lucky to have a organization that believes in me and is eager to help me succeed. That is one of the platforms that I am very passionate about is employment of the blind beyond a customer service role. We, the blind community is an untapped resource for employers to engage. Fear is the biggest barrier usually but I am hoping that VSP within any of their new products can show through awareness that we are extremely capable, educated and able.

  • Susie DeVore says:

    Renee – what an inspiration you are to so many others who struggle who vision impairment. You have a never give up attitude toward life where many others would stop trying to achieve greatness, you forge on. Good for you. May many blessings continue to come your way as you are a blessing to many others.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Thank you so much Susie,
      It took me a moment to get there but decided to venture out of my house and find my purpose. I have tripped and stumbled along the way and still defining what my purpose is, but at least now I have an outline of what it could be. I heard someone say this …” I stumble to stay humble” and it is so true:) Many blessings to you as well.

  • Lisa says:

    As someone with a sibling who has lost most of his sight, it makes me very happy to know that Renee and others at VSP are working to help those in the low vision and blind communities. Keep up the good work.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Lisa,
      Thank you so much! Please share this story with your sibling and tell them that nothing is impossible, there is always a way and one thing I learned is that I have become very resourceful once I become blind to MacGyver any situation to work even with no sight.

  • Melanie says:

    What an inspiration. Life can really be tough at times, more for some than for others. To take what is thrown at you and work through it so that others can find hope is a true gift. Best of luck to you in all of your endeavors, Renee. VSP should be proud to have had you choose them for an employer.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Melanie:) I love it that you said that I choose VSP as an employer. You highlighted in that simple statement that just because you may have a disability does not mean you have to settle for anything:) That is one thing I would love to spread and make viral within the blind community is to know your worth:)

  • Gen says:

    May the God of our universe continue to bless and keep you! May He strengthen you and cause your endeavors to succeed!

  • Karen Robison says:

    Renee, you are a hero and so inspiring. It was a pleasure to work with you. People like you are why I miss working at VSP so much but am so proud to still be part of such a great organization by doing benefit fairs. You will influence the future and be part of great changes with VSP’s help and your own strength. I just know it. I wish you the very best in everything.

    • renee emmerson says:

      OMGoodness Karen!!!!!
      Hi:) You were the best trainer and I am so happy to have been taught by you and Naj during the infancy of my career at VSP. You both taught more than just policies and procedures but how to career path, develop my career and work on myself in order to be the best candidate for a promotion. I remember and took those skills and apply it repeatedly. Sometimes I worry that I am good enough, if I deserve the opportunities but than have to remember, hard work does not go unnoticed. Thank you so much for commenting. I had the biggest smile when I heard your name, you knew me when I was whole and not broken; you knew me when I had my vision and even with a disability to hear that you feel the same about me now as you did than, makes my heart full.

  • Rob Nevin says:

    Oh my goodness Renee ..yours is such a beautiful story, so carefully told. We know each other, but now, I feel like you have touched my hand. I’m glad to be part of this journey with you.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Rob,
      Thank you so much for commenting and during this journey with VSP, I was so happy to have gotten a chance to meet you “virtually” and also learn and use blind square. Apps and tools such as these helped me get out of the house and explore my environment and not be scared of the “outside” world. Your app helped me get out of my house and take the first steps in getting my life back.

  • Maria says:

    Your story helped me understand what a friend is going through with RP. He is at a very low point and feeling like a failure at 38 because he can’t continue with the job he has been doing for 17 years due to increasing loss of sight. I did not truly understand until reading the same things in your story. Thank you for sharing.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Hi Maria,
      Thank you so much for 1. being s support for your friend and 2. opening up your heart to understand. Sometimes the hardest thing for someone to do is ask for help and verbalize what they are feeling and what they are going through. I am so happy that you came across my story:)

  • Tiarnna says:

    You have a beautiful voice and it is wonderful that you and VSP are working on Gravity. VSP is my eyecare provider and it is so great to see them focusing on people who are low vision or blind. I sent this link to the National Federation for the Blind. It inspired me personally and in current my work. I wish you the best and that someday people who have lost their vision will have it restored. God bless you and VSP.

    • renee emmerson says:

      Thank you so much Tiarnna, for watching my story and sharing with NFB:) The NFB has been an cornerstone organization that have helped me with many resources and understanding my rights and how to get want I need. Thank you so much again!

  • Gregory Walker Jr. says:

    This is a very enlightening story! Thanks to you, Renee and VSP for sharing! I don’t normally read things like this but this makes me grateful for my vision and to take great care of it! A lot of times we really do take these things for granted.

    Thanks Again for sharing!

  • Michelle says:

    This is so inspiring and important. I gradually over the last 10 years have lost vision. I still have some but very little. I was Diagnosed with Macular Cone Dystrophy/Bullseye Maculopathy in 2005. I too was having issues at work. I worked in the Veterinary field for 20 years.2 1/2 years ago I was diagnosed legally blind, and have gotten worse since. I had to “retire” from a job I loved. It was my identity. It has taken 2 years to adjust to not working, not being able to drive. Being dependent on others for transportation etc. Last fall I started thinking about taking online college classes. I am 53 years old, I felt like I had to do something so my brain wouldn’t go to mush. I’ve started on an AA with emphasis in Psychology. I love it. I take classes from home. I work with the accessibility Department at our community college. Life IS NOT OVER when you loose your vision. I am so glad that this company is seeing the need for an “adjustment” phase for people with loss of vision. Thanks for all your doing. Your story is amazing. Thank you for sharing.

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