Student from Leeds found out she was losing her eyesight at routine optician's appointment

A Leeds woman who was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition while studying for a master's degree has overcome adversity and is now seeking to help others suffering from the same condition

By Mark Lavery
Tuesday, 28th December 2021, 4:45 am
Sonia Hunjan
Sonia Hunjan

Sonia Hunjan, 24, of Moortown, started suffering vision problems when she was a teenage student at Allerton Grange School.

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"I must have been overwhelmed because I went into denial about what was happening for about ten years," said Sonia.

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Sonia Hunjan

"I really struggled at school, since I stopped being able to see the board clearly, even with my glasses on.

"At about 13 I got out of a car on a chilly November night and realised that I could no longer see the stars in the sky.

"When I think about it now, I don’t regret the denial at all: I think it was a protective stage that helped me to come to terms with sight loss."

Sonia went on to earn a 2.1 degree. in English literature at Leeds Beckett University.

She then went to the University of York in September 2018 to study part-time for a master's degree in Global Literature and Culture.

It was while studying for her master’s degree that Sonia was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.

The degenerative eye condition has led to her being certified as severely sight impaired - legally blind.

Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare genetic and currently incurable disorder that affects night and peripheral vision.

Despite this life-changing news and the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Sonia was awarded the highest grade of Distinction for her MA in Global Literature and Culture.

"Now that I’m accepting of my retinitis pigmentosa, I want to show others what living well alongside sight loss looks like, and that it is possible," she said.

"I found out that I was losing my eyesight at a routine optician’s appointment.

"It was a stomach-turning experience. I remember asking him, “Am I going to need a guide dog?”

"I didn’t have much awareness of visual impairment at this point.

"On TV and in books, people with low vision often carry canes and wear sunglasses, and the presumption is that they just see blackness.

"My diagnosis was a learning curve. Now I understand differently, and that sight is a spectrum.

"Every year I'm having to make adaptations. Maybe 10 years ago I didn't have trouble getting out and about, but now I'm always bumping into things."

"I hope that my blog, The Blind Reader, will challenge assumptions like the ones I first made by educating readers on the varied nature of sensory impairment."

Sonia was recognised in the ‘Overcoming Life Obstacles’ award at last month's Yorkshire Asian Young Achiever Awards (YAYAs).

She was presented with her award in front of a live audience of 250 invited guests at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford.

The YAYAs, which launched in 2020, celebrate young people aged 16-30 of South Asian heritage who were born, or are living or working in Yorkshire.

The awards are run by QED UK, a social enterprise that seeks to improve the social and economic circumstances of disadvantaged communities in the UK and in Europe.

Sonia was nominated for the YAYA award byProfessor Claire Chambers, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts from the Department of English at York University.

She said: "‘Sonia is an inspiration to us all. From the moment she started the MA and especially after she received her diagnosis, I was struck by the quality of Sonia’s preparations for, and input into, our challenging seminars at York.

"Although she experienced several daunting setbacks during her master’s, she reacted to these with resilience and sensitivity.

"All of the academics who have taught her have been impressed by Sonia’s warmth and thoughtfulness. She is a creative writer of major talent, and will be a poet and novelist to watch for the future."

Sonia is currently working for Yorkshire-based charity IDAS, which supports and empowers victims of abuse.

She said: " Through my work with IDAS I use writing for social change.

"I have helped to establish a creative writing workshop for clients of the charity called 'Writing My Voice.'

"In my own life writing has empowered me. I hope others will feel the same, and that this work will have a felt impact within my local community."

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