During a trip across Europe last year, one of the most ‘powerful’ places Dr Brian Thornton says he visited was Berlin. He still remembers tracing the remnants of the rebar and rust filings of the Berlin Wall with his fingers, sliding his foot along the raised bronze marker that still stands where the wall once stood. ‘I felt overwhelmed,’ says Brian. ‘I was actually feeling pieces of history instead of being told about them.’
His tactile descriptors have an added depth of meaning; in many instances, Brian needs to touch an object to ‘see’ it, because of a visual impairment called macular degeneration that affected him 23 years ago, severely affecting his vision. MD makes it difficult for him to see objects clearly, recognise faces, drive or read. There are two forms of macular degeneration; one that causes protein buildup on the macula (central area of the retina) and the other that causes the macular tiles to die. Unfortunately for Brian, he has both, which makes long-term treatment difficult.
But when meeting him in person, it is difficult to notice that he has a visual condition – he has trained himself to make eye contact. And more importantly, MD has not stopped him from going on faraway solo trips, or capturing his travels on camera, or blogging about it.
Photography, incidentally, is his passion, not profession – that one is teaching. This associate professor of English at the Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, captivates his class with slice-of-life poetry. Like this one called The Paradox of Peripheral Vision:
I’m not really sure about your eyes,
but your ears look lovely in this light.
Your smile, I’m told, could make a blind man see.
While teaching comes easy to the 42-year-old, what he struggles with is everyday tasks such as reading a menu card at a restaurant or watching a movie.
But he says this does not really make him feel helpless or disheartened. ‘I have evolved into working around my disability to lead the most productive life I can. The main challenge is the lack of understanding for many people about the spectrum of visual disability,’ he says.
This lack of understanding has led to many embarrassing moments for Brian. Like the time when authorities at a certain airport insisted that he use a wheelchair, convinced that he was completely blind, or when he is perceived as stupid when he seeks help in public places.
The ordeal started at 17, when he began losing his vision, and by 19 he was declared legally blind. ‘I was no longer able to drive or even read a book. Learning to cope with this at such a young age was quite devastating. I was angry and afraid. I was accepted into medical school only a few months prior and I had to completely reevaluate my life and what I thought I was capable of,’ he recalls.
His parents Gary and Glenda Thornton, as well as many extended family members and friends, all offered to assist him in dealing with the condition — from suggesting names of expert ophthalmologists to herbal remedies and alternative medicines that promised to help cure MD. Sadly, nothing seemed to work. Since Brian had been adopted by the Thorntons and had no connection with his biological parents, it was difficult to determine if the problem ran in the family.
But the stubborn streak in him made him pursue medical studies, until one chemistry class changed the course of his life.
As part of an experiment, he was working with pure sodium, an element that has to be stabilised in kerosene. Unfortunately, he was unable to notice the difference in the beakers holding the stabiliser and distilled water. ‘As a result of the mix up, a minor explosion occurred and a few shards of glass landed on my face,’ he says.
‘Following the incident, my professor asked me why I wanted to be a doctor. I said it was to help people. Then he told me something that would reshape my life.
‘He said “If you want to help one person become a doctor; if you want to help many people, become a teacher”.’
Brian took his professor’s advice to heart.
Quitting medical school, he tried out several majors, unable to decide what he wanted to teach. He had a flair for arts, music and photography, but there was no technology available back then for people with visual condition to pursue these passions.
In 1998, he participated in an art project where blind individuals were invited to write poems about their visual condition. These poems were then translated into Braille and superimposed over fine art photographic representations of the poems, creating a visual and tactile experience.
The project toured the US for two years and Brian’s contributions were well appreciated. ‘This made me realise I had a knack for writing, and I decided to embrace the idea as a career.’
His first teaching post was in Texas Tech University, where he immediately fell in love with the classroom. ‘For me teaching is like acting. It is a chance to both entertain and educate. If the students are laughing, they are learning.
‘One of the reasons I didn’t leave Texas until I was almost 30 years old was because I had a good support structure with all of my friends and family. Honestly, I was quite terrified to leave,’ says Brian.
In 2006, he had an opportunity to study abroad in Seville, Spain, and he mustered the courage to venture far from home. ‘That trip gave me the confidence I needed to begin my world travels. I knew Spanish, so language was less of an issue. I was able to find and rent my own apartment and after getting lost several times. I soon realised that getting lost was half the fun of travel and just leaned into it.’
Since then, he has been to Mexico, Canada, Bahamas, Jamaica, Belize, St Lucia, Virgin Islands, Spain, England, Portugal, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to name a few countries.
But travel was not the only thing he was doing – he also earned a PhD from Texas Tech. After teaching assignments in Iraq and China, he joined Zayed University of Abu Dhabi in 2015.
Brian uses e-books and online journals for his teaching assignments. However, in the rare instances when he does need a traditional text read, Nikoah has always been there to help.
‘For 20 years this is how we live,’ explains his wife Nikoah, whom Brian met in elementary school. ‘I do the driving, read subtitles in movies and help him see things when needed. In the house we try to keep things in the same spot, especially in the kitchen. This makes it easier for Brian to find stuff. I realised this after I tried to put myself in his shoes and realised how frustrating it would be if I had to search for something with no idea where to start looking.’
Their daughter Keturah, 14, and son Jude, 10, are aware that their dad is suffering from a genetic condition, and the parents have told them of signs to look out for. ‘So far they don’t have any vision issues. When they think about possibly losing their sight it scares Jude a little. Keturah’s only real concern is that it may affect her art. However, if something happens, she says she will find her way around it just as her dad found a way around photography,’ says Nikoah.
As a teacher, Brian describes himself as a catalyst for students to generate their own ideas and philosophies. Using the theme of ‘art as argumentation’ his students are urged to understand two main concepts – aesthetics and intention. These concepts can be implemented through paintings, photography, music, film, graffiti, and even video games and food.
In the classroom, he splits work, between engaging lecture and group work. He also communicates with students through Backchannel Chat, an online tool designed to facilitate real-time discussions.
He has worked as an educational technology liaison for companies like Intel and Nvidia to help create new visual applications for the classroom, and is part of the Apple Distinguished Educator programme.
Two years back, he wrote a book of poems based on his experiences titled Places We Were Never Meant To See.
‘I have met several people with a wide range of visual impairments during my travels. Most of them are self-conscious because we often don’t know where we are actually looking. Several people are also still trying to come to terms with the psychological issues. This creates a deep state of depression and isolation. I was no exception. It took several years for me to become as comfortable as I am now with my disability. I joke about it, which can, sometimes, manage to break the ice but otherwise, it just makes people even more uncomfortable.’
Nikoah, an optimist, likes to think of the present and how beautiful one can make it. ‘We live the life we have been given. I choose not to think about what could be, because I love the life we have built together. Thinking about what could have been means we miss out on what is,’ she says.
Brian has not let his disability stop him from incorporating gadgets in his life. The text-to-speech feature on his phone, tablet and computer helps him with communication. He uses a Sony A7R3 with face and eye detection features to pursue his hobby of photography. ‘I mainly shoot in black and white, but am experimenting with colour. Since I am partly colour blind, I don’t get the correct saturation, but am working my way around it,’ he says.
In June, Brian went on his first solo adventure; a trek across the wilderness of Estonia, which took some unexpected turns. ‘I was able to complete 250km of the trek but had to turn back due to forest fires. I felt a bit defeated, but in retrospect, I feel that 250km of a 375km total trek is hardly a failure.
‘I ended up taking a bus to the Latvia borderland and spent the next two months backpacking across Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France all by bus and train.’
This proved more challenging than the hike, he says, adding it required a lot more interaction with people and circumstances that required him to find new ways to work around his visual impairment. ‘It took a lot of patience on my part as well as those who were willing to help. Different countries treat people with disabilities differently.’
In the Balkans (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) there was a genuine curiosity and helpfulness without being condescending. In several countries, people refused to believe he was disabled and ‘thought I was trying to take advantage of them.
‘Germany was the most accessible place I have ever been, especially Berlin. I met and interviewed several blind people who were out and about quite successfully throughout the city,’ he says.
Brian is now in the process of developing a YouTube channel from his in-house studio, to raise awareness of people with visual disabilities. Combining his love for travel, poetry and photography, he has envisaged a project titled ‘Blind not Broken’, which will take audiences through his travels and the experiences and setbacks he undergoes.
For a person with vague vision, he is very clear of his objectives with the project.
As part of Blind not Broken, Brian is planning a documentary next summer on his travels, with a six-member crew.
‘If you told me 20 years ago that I would be able to travel the world or teach such amazing students, I would not have believed it. My sense of empowerment comes from not having to feel empowered any longer. Instead, I feel a true sense of accomplishment when I am able to expand the understanding of visual disabilities beyond the understanding of stereotype,’ he says.
For more information, visit imageimmacula.com/blind-not-broken