Dr. Corinna Tanner is a teaching and research professor at the Brigham Young University College of Nursing. Her research is based on helping the blind and visually impaired. As a blind person herself, Corinna is particularly interested in this population. “I lost my eyesight very rapidly starting at 14,” Corinna recalled. “And since then, it’s continued to worsen, but slowly. I was significantly visually impaired by the time I was 15. I could only read the big ‘E’ on the eye chart.” Corinna was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a condition that metabolizes vitamin A in a way that damages the eye and leaves only a person’s peripheral vision. Corinna has been able to lead a full, meaningful life as a blind person and wants to help others do the same.
“A lot of my work revolves around designing curriculum for people new to blindness or vision loss or who haven’t had rehabilitation yet,” Corinna said. “I’ve done some work with LDS charities in Barbados. Specifically, I’ve taught home management. For example, cooking, cleaning, shopping, hair, makeup, and these things that we think are nothing are everything.” These small tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, are essential for maintaining cognitive ability. “To the degree that people withdraw from these activities that we sometimes think are nothing is the degree to which they experience cognitive decline,” Corinna explained. When people begin to withdraw from seemingly small activities, connections in the brain are lost, leading to cognitive impairment and even dementia.
Corinna has created a lab that is simply a kitchen to design an effective curriculum. It’s fully equipped with knives, an oven, a fridge, a microwave, measuring cups, pots, pans, etc. When practicing kitchen skills, Corinna’s students wear an eye cover. Even though 85% of people who are blind have some remaining vision, Corinna wants to teach those she helps to rely on non-visual skills. To demonstrate this, Corinna put on the eye mask and showed how a blind person would bake cookies. “It’s about the order of operations,” she stated. With the oven turned off, Corinna reached inside to find the racks and make sure there was nothing on them. “I had a roommate who used to store her tortillas on the oven rack,” Corinna remembered. Once the racks are in the right place, it’s time to preheat the oven. “You want to know where the cookie sheet is going,” Corinna said. With the blindfold on, she made sure the stove was unoccupied for the cookies to go when they were done. Then, she located oven mitts. Once she knew where everything was, Corinna put the cookie sheet in the oven, ready to set the timer. To tell when the cookies are done, Corinna explained that she uses her sense of smell, but sometimes to double-check, she breaks the rule all of our parents gave us and lightly touched the tops of the cookies to feel the texture. “I’ve never had a student get burned doing that,” she stated proudly.
There are systems that blind people can use to cook anything from hamburger meat to a Thanksgiving meal. Corinna even has a blind friend that likes to barbecue. But sometimes, teaching these interventions doesn’t go so smoothly. For example, Corinna recalled teaching a plumber who lost his eyesight as an adult. When he couldn’t find something in the fridge, he took his frustration out on the appliance and broke a drawer. When something like this happens, or a glass is dropped and breaks, Corinna takes this opportunity to teach that it’s okay when things aren’t perfect the first time. She also likes when things break so she can teach her students how to clean up broken glass.
Corinna’s goals with her lab are straightforward. “In the long-term, the kind of curriculum we want to create here in the lab is manuals and training videos that anybody could use anywhere.” This mainly includes developing countries. Corinna explained, “In poor, developing countries, blindness rates are higher because with poverty comes malnutrition, increased risk of injury, lack of access to treatment for common things that might be treatable like cataracts. So with poverty comes blindness, and also with poverty comes a lack of rehabilitation and training that can help make blindness better.”
While blind people can do anything, that doesn’t mean they should have to. “Blind people should do the things they want to do and live the life they want to have,” Corinna said. Corinna mentioned about the visually impaired is that their brains will fill in their vision with what they think they should be seeing. Recently, Corinna was feeling for her water bottle in the dark. When her fingers made contact with it, suddenly Corinna could see it. “I didn’t try to see it or imagine it; I saw it. My brain put it there.” In addition, Corinna has a friend who can see what she’s wearing by touching her mirror. But this ability can be misleading. Corinna’s friend, Ron, was driving in Provo when his brain misled him. “He drove through a crosswalk, and it looked clear to him,” Corinna recalled. “He could see that it was clear. But he mowed through a group of students who were crossing the crosswalk. No one was seriously hurt, but after that, he told me, ‘Corinna, don’t give up your license a day too late.’”
On a wall of Corinna’s lab is a picture of what looks like the inside of an eye, but it’s a photo of Pluto. The lab is called the New Horizons Laboratory after the mission that took the first pictures of the dwarf planet. A team of about 50 scientists with very little funding had to fly a spacecraft over one million miles a year. Many thought the task was impossible, but after eleven years, the pictures that came back were more beautiful than anyone could have imagined. Corinna said, “For blind people to get the life they want, it feels like they’re going to have to go to Pluto, like it’s going to be a million miles a year for 11 years with no mistakes. It almost feels like hope against hope. And then you find that you actually can do it, and it’s more beautiful than you ever imagined.”
Corinna said with conviction, “It’s respectable to be blind and blind people can do anything sighted people can do.” Then, after a pause, she added with a laugh, “except drive.”