Fort Lauderdale

Legally Blind South Florida Woman Sees With High-Tech Glasses

Joann Mathews has reason to believe a new type of eyeglasses will give her an independence she has never known.

Mathews, a 60-year-old mother of two, has been legally blind for 50 years. At age 10, Mathews was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a hereditary type of macular degeneration that causes progressive vision loss. Both she and a sister have it.

“In elementary school, it meant sitting in the front row and holding a book really close to read because we couldn’t read regular type,” Mathews said. “And maybe in my late 20s, it got to the point where I have to read with a magnifying glass to see regular type."

But a pair of high-tech glasses, known as eSight, is making it possible for her to see things she's never seen before, like her grandchildren.

“I see you with my magic glasses,” Mathews told her four-year-old grandson as he entered the house and walked toward Mathews shyly. “My magic glasses. Remember Mason?”

Recently, Mathews participated in a trial the Canada-based maker of eSight held in Fort Lauderdale.

"I went thinking that it might not help me and I really felt like I had nothing to lose,” Mathews said. “It did make a difference that I could read smaller numbers on the chart. It was overwhelming for me because I haven’t been able to do this since I was a little girl."

For 50 years, Mathews tried to live as normal a life as possible while her eyesight got worse with time. She could not cross a street on her own or drive, but she attended college long before there were laws requiring accommodations for the disabled. She worked in a doctor’s office as a medical assistant and an officer manager.

“At first you think, why it has to be me,” the Cooper City woman said.

She got married and raised two children. But it wasn’t easy.

“It has been hard for my children. When they were little, we walked to school. Other mothers drove their kids to school,” Mathews said as tears ran down her face. “Sometimes for after school activities, we couldn’t participate because I couldn’t get them there.”

Her husband, Raymond Mathews, helped as much as he could driving her to work and picking her up.

“My husband has been wonderful about doing a lot of the things like the grocery shopping,” Mathews said.

Mathews hopes the high-tech, electronic glasses will give her the independence she’s craved for decades. Elisa Luban, her only daughter, found eSight glasses online. They integrate sophisticated technology with a high-definition camera, allowing some legally blind people to see. But the price of sight is high: $15,000.

“When you hear the price at first, you go ‘Oh my goodness. Can I afford that?’” Mathews said. “But can I afford not to be able to see my grandchildren and their activities?”

Mathews has to build up wearing the glasses gradually while her brain adjusts.

“The initial recommendation is to wear them one hour in the morning,” she said.

Eventually, she will be able to wear them for longer periods.

"So with these electronic glasses, the way I understand it, they fill in some of the missing image that I have and send that signal to my brain,” Mathews said.

Images like those of her grandkids and her daughter.

“I couldn’t see details at all. I saw them kind of out of focus. Now I can even see the highlights in her hair,” Mathews said as she giggled. “Which I couldn’t see before.”

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