Victoria Nolan wanted to be a teacher ever since she was five. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) at 18, she went on to obtain a Master's in Child Study and Education and became a special education teacher in 1999. She has faced many challenges because of her RP, but it has never deterred her from succeeding in her career ― or at the Paralympics.
Inspiring by example
Victoria Nolan teaches Special Education students in Grades 2 through 6 at Gledhill Public School in east Toronto, and she has a tough assignment. The classes are small ― from eight to 12 students ― and many of the kids are dealing with issues that range from just struggling with their schoolwork to coping with Attention Deficit Disorder.
The children, some of whom feel stigmatized for being in Special Ed, find a positive role model in Nolan. “I think my impairment helps them. They see that if I can overcome my problems so can they,” she says.
The students also respond very positively to Nolan’s dog, Vegas. “I’m one of the few legally blind teachers in the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) and I think the only one with a guide dog,” she says. “When he’s out of his harness they’re allowed to pet him and brush him in class, which they take turns doing.”
Accommodation on the job
Although Nolan has only about three per cent vision, and none peripherally (RP is a genetic eye condition that can progressively lead to tunnel vision and total blindness), she is able to succeed in her job thanks to several accommodation tactics. Nolan has “an incredible” sighted assistant in the class, and she also uses a closed circuit television to enlarge printed materials so she can read them.
The one task she is no longer able to take on is supervisory yard duty.
“I have pinhole vision and I simply can’t be responsible for the kids when they’re running around,” she says.
Nolan’s vision deteriorated dramatically after the birth of her two children (her son is six and her daughter is four). To her shock, the school where she worked at the time was less than accommodating as her vision worsened. Nolan, now 34, had assumed the school (which she prefers not to name) would have done everything it could to support a teacher with RP.
“The principal didn’t think I could handle the job,” she says. “He said the parents would complain that someone like me was teaching their children.”
Strength and determination
True to her competitive nature – Nolan is a competitive rower – she didn’t allow one person’s negative attitude to defeat her. She began to look for another position and arrived at Gledhill in 2007, which embraced Nolan’s ability to handle a classroom despite her vision loss. “They saw me as someone who could inspire students,” she says.
Gledhill has also championed her participation in rowing, which she had taken up to counteract the depression caused by her near blindness following her second child’s birth. Nolan won a place on the national adaptive four-person rowing team that won a bronze in the 2007 World Championships and came sixth at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
When Nolan returned to Gledhill School following her Beijing experience the principal wrote in the school newsletter: “We are bursting with pride for her. Ms. Nolan is a fine example of making use of one’s strengths to excel even when limited in other areas.”
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