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January 6, 2003

Sisters adapt to disabilities

From: Topeka Capital Journal, KS - 06 Jan 2003

Siblings: Premature twins learn to cope with hearing and visual losses

By Keri Renner and J. R. Mendoza
The Capital-Journal

The hustle and bustle of students rushing to class is soon to be a memory for recent Washburn University graduates Karly Prinds and Kelley Diggs.

The 23-year-old identical twins who live in Topeka spent many days walking across campus. But Prinds, who is blind, never saw the changing seasons, and Diggs, who has a hearing loss, never heard the conversations of her fellow classmates.

Prinds is easily identified among other students because of the cane she uses to help her navigate her way. She is one of the few blind students on Washburn's campus this year.

The sisters were born three months premature. After her birth, Prinds was placed in an incubator at the hospital and given oxygen. The excess oxygen burned her eyes. She also was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which sometimes occurs in babies born at or before 28 weeks of pregnancy. As the immature retina continues to develop after premature birth, abnormal blood vessels can grow around its edges.

Diggs' eyesight wasn't affected by her premature birth. Instead, she is hearing impaired. Prinds and Diggs also have a younger sister, Holly.

Diggs, who is married, said Prinds is a "very independent person." She is both protective and proud of her sister.

"We have a very good relationship," said Diggs, a graphic design student.

Prinds, a business administration major, knows she was born with a severe handicap, but said she is glad to be alive.

"When I was born, the hospitals didn't have the technology that they do today, and often premature babies were fortunate to live," she said.

Although she is legally blind, Prinds can see shadows. She can distinguish if a person has light or dark hair or if they are short or tall. She also is able to differentiate between the grass and the street, which helps when she is commuting on foot. She has used a cane since she was 6 or 7 years old.

"I used the cane at school, but I would never use it at home," Prinds said. "When I'd go out with my parents, I hated it. I didn't like it and didn't like to be seen with it. I was a little embarrassed by it because no one else was using one."

Still, she preferred using the cane over a guide dog.

Accepting reality

Diggs said she also was self-conscious about being different because of the hearing aids she wore in her ears, although for the most part her friends and teachers didn't treat her differently. But in high school, she quit wearing her hearing aids because "it just wasn't cool," she said.

"I couldn't wear my hair up because I didn't want anyone to see that I wore hearing aids," Diggs said. "When someone did see them, I would get one of those twisted-face type looks, like I had some awful disease, and I hated it."

But she realized she needed to wear the hearing aids.

"I think I got tired of saying 'What?' all the time and having to ask people to repeat themselves when they talked to me," she said.

Diggs' parents didn't realize she had a hearing loss until she was 3.

"My speech was fine so they didn't notice it right away," she said.

When she doesn't wear her hearing aids, Diggs can still hear most sounds, although they aren't clear. When someone talks to her, it sounds as if they are mumbling.

"If you met me and didn't know that I had a hearing loss, you would never know," Diggs said.

Prinds began her education by attending a preschool for the blind. She was first taught different shapes. Then the shapes gradually would become smaller until the instructors would form words in Braille with the tiny circles.

She attended public schools during the regular academic year, and in the summer went to a day camp with other blind students. Prinds said her parents wanted her to be accustomed to the sighted world. Attending a school specifically for the blind would have provided little diversity in her education.

"Even when people would make fun of Karly growing up, she would never get down," Diggs said. "Sure, she would get her feelings hurt, but she always remained strong. Many people have commented that she would never succeed in the sighted world, but she is obviously doing it."

Dressed in a fashionable sweater, black leather jacket and blue jeans, Prinds said she has help choosing her clothes. Her mother, sister or friends help mark each clothing item with a tag written in Braille.

Nightmarish experience

Prinds said one of the things that frustrates her is not being able to hop in her own car to go where she would like.

"Transportation is a problem sometimes. I have to walk or get a ride, or take a cab when I want to go some place. That's the inconvenient thing about it," she said. "But the upside to that is that I never wanted a new car as soon as I was 16."

On Oct. 13, 1999, every parent's nightmare occurred. While walking home from class, Prinds was struck by a car driven by another student.

The student turned too wide into the parking lot as Prinds stepped up on the curb.

"It was pretty scary. I just thought he was turning, but he ended up turning too sharp and he hit my right leg," she said. "It felt as if my leg was ripping in half."

Prinds was taken to the hospital with a broken leg. The doctors hesitated to put her in a cast because it was difficult for her to walk on crutches and use her cane. So a brace was put on her leg, and she used a wheelchair the rest of the semester to get around campus.

Diggs said her sister is persistent and, in her opinion, stands up to adversity better than most people do.

"I admire her willingness to never give up on anything. And her patience. Things we take for granted are much more difficult for her, yet she never gives up," she said. "She won't use her blindness as an excuse to not do something. It may take her longer to do something because she can't see, but she stays right with it."

Getting along

At Washburn, Prinds takes notes in her classes by using a small Braille and Speak computer. She also has a special computer that reads her e-mail and assignments to her.

Diggs, on the other hand, said she learned some sign language while she attended The University of Kansas, where she graduated in May 2001 with a degree in speech language/hearing.

"My hearing is good enough to where I have never had to use sign language," Diggs said.

The twins graduated from Washburn on Dec. 14. Prinds intends to seek a management position in the Kansas City area. She has been a member of the Americans with Disabilities Act committee on Washburn's campus and serves on the Dean's Advisory Board for the business department.

Diggs said she and her husband are moving to the Kansas City area in August, and she plans to find a job at a design company there.

Diggs said Prinds is open with others about being blind. Prinds likes to talk about her blindness because she feels it helps someone else understand that blind people aren't abnormal.

"The family will crack jokes with Karly about her blindness, and she will crack jokes back," Diggs said. "She has fun and we have fun with her. She doesn't take her blindness too serious, because she doesn't consider it out of the ordinary like some people view it. It is just something she has to adjust for."

Prinds wants people to know she is not helpless and can take care of herself. She said often people who don’t know her try to help but sometimes are offensive with their behavior.

"I'll walk somewhere and know exactly where I'm going, and someone will say to me, 'Go that way.' I want to say to them, 'how do you know where I'm going?'"

She said she doesn't mind when people come up and ask her if she needs help, but she doesn't appreciate it when a person approaches her and just grabs her arm and leads her.

Prinds said one of the advantages to being blind is when her friends don't want to see something, such as blood or a movie scene, Prinds doesn't have to cover her eyes.

She chooses to look at her situation in a positive manner and not be bitter about it.

"I do get annoyed when others use their handicap to use other people. I'm kind of the first one to judge what I'm like, 'you can do it for yourself.'"

On one of her excursions to summer camp in Denver, Colo., she experienced a true test of her will.

"All the students were dropped off in the middle of Denver and had to take a bus to get back," she said. "We were only allowed to ask one question. I was freaked out about the traveling, but I made it back in less than an hour and didn't ask any questions."

Prinds said it was stressful experience, but she fared well and learned something in the process.

Prinds is happy with her life and she said if she weren't blind, she wouldn't be who she is and have the friends that she has.

"I hate being labeled. Being blind isn't something bad or something good, it's just me."

Diggs said there is one disadvantage with her hearing loss.

"I often have to ask people to repeat themselves when they talk if they aren't looking right at me," she said. "I read lips, so as long as you are facing me, then I do pretty good. If you turn around and talk away from me, forget it, I won't hear anything but garble."

Diggs said there seemed to be a lack of respect for others who are different.

"Just because someone may have a mental or physical abnormality," she said, "it doesn't mean that they don't have the same goals, ideals, ambition or even feelings that everyone else has."

© Copyright 2003 Morris Digital Works and The Topeka Capital-Journal.