When Licia Prehn enters an unfamiliar store, she has to memorise the interior for future visits. Whether it involves a new city, shopping centre, store or even a bar, people with normal vision only have to read the signs to find their way around. But Prehn, who was born with a visual disability, has had to learn to rely on memory to make her way through the world.
“I navigate by memory. In a new place I have to learn the location of everything, and then I have to hope that nothing changes!” Prehn said, laughing.
Since birth, Prehn’s visual acuity has been at just two percent. In practice, that means that she can see – but only a little. For example, she can operate a phone if she holds it close enough to her eyes. She can also perceive motion and lights if they are close enough to her field of vision.
American-born and –raised Prehn has lived in Pori, western Finland for seven years. She learned her way around her new hometown after a single summer of intensive orientation.
“I learned to go from my home to the shopping centre, from my home to the pizza parlour, and so on. Then I learned how to move around between those different places,” she explained.
Bright colours, big landmarks as signposts
Prehn said that brightly-coloured structures and large landmarks that she can see from a distance are useful for helping her to find her way around. She can use them to position herself on a kind of mental map.
“Some people might say that buildings like that ruin the appearance of the old quarter of a town, but as someone who is visually-impaired, I need prominent landmarks so I know where I am.”
Story continues after photo
Walking through the Pori city centre is usually easy for Prehn and nowadays she is fully independent when she does so. However a major event can upend all that. For example, the SuomiAreena public talk shop and Pori Jazz attract large crowds that transform a familiar environment into something different. At times like this, Prehn said she avoids going out alone. Because she has no guide dog or walking cane, she does not stand out as someone with a disability – and that makes navigating through large crowds difficult.
“People think that I’m being rude or that I’m not paying attention to my surroundings,” Prehn noted.
Not all visually-impaired people use a guide dog, wear thick glasses or use a cane, Prehn pointed out. Few people defined as blind according to the law are completely unable to see, many can detect light or shapes. In Finland, a visually-impaired person is eligible for membership in the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired if the degree of disability related to their impairment is deemed to be over 50 percent. In Prehn’s case, it is 90 percent.
Limits to personal range
As a child, she tried to learn to use a cane, but having the object moving about in her field of vision proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. The same issue has prevented her from getting a guide dog.
“Because I can see some movement very close to me, I might disagree with what the dog wants me to do. I would have to learn to trust the dog completely instead of my own senses.”
In spite of her independence, a regular street intersection that has no traffic lights is impossible for Prehn to cross without assistance. That’s because it is difficult for her to estimate the speed of approaching vehicles. These kinds of situations limit her life, because she is unable to venture beyond the Pori city centre. If she must go out alone, she finds that her trips are prolonged as she spends time searching for traffic lights that give audible warning signals.
"Sometimes I wish that people around me would know that I'm blind," says Prehn. "I think that motorists or the other people on the street think I am a strange person or that I am drunk or something, or that's why I'm acting strangely or that's why I'm waiting so long or that's why I'm not sure if I should walk. Or in the shop maybe people think I am smelling the clothes or the vegetables when in reality I'm just trying to read the prices."
Prehn reckons Finns are probably more amenable to helping an American like her, especially now that she can speak some kind of Finnish.
"Sometimes it feels like they are expecting something 'more', maybe a stick or a guide dog or something, not a pink-haired girl that wants to know if the frozen pizza in her hand is vegan or not," says Prehn.
"Why wouldn't you employ me?"
When Prehn moved to Finland, she found it difficult to find work. She felt that she still had a lot to offer, but even so, getting a job with a Pori animation studio was a pleasant surprise.
"I love my job," says Prehn. "I would never have believed that I'd get a job in such a visual industry. I've always loved watching TV and animations, but from close up of course."
Her boss Teemu Erämaa says she was hired thanks to her characteristically American persistence. For her part, Prehn says she exaggerated her experience to persuade Erämaa to give her a chance. That went well, and Prehn has been working at the firm for more than two and a half years.
Prehn's visual impairment hasn't affected her work much.
"Maybe the biggest thing was that we needed a bigger monitor for her computer," says Erämaa. "Nowadays I don't even really notice her sight problems that much."
Tough job search
The job search was quite tough for a partially-sighted immigrant. In the interview the employer's prejudices can sneak through almost unnoticed. In Prehn's experience it's quite difficult for many people to know how to act around blind people. People worry that she won't be able to manage.
"Imagine that you're sitting in a job interview and the person on the other side of the table looks at you and they're scared—not of you, but of the situation," says Prehn. "They think that I am also scared because of my blindness. But I'm not scared in my life any more than any other millennial."
Employers can also be concerned that they don't quite know what they're getting into if they employ a blind person.
"They'd rather hire a Finnish-speaking, able-bodied person because they think that they'll then know better who they're hiring and what they can do," suggests Prehn. "But if I've made a CV and done okay in the interview, why wouldn't I manage in my job as well? Why wouldn't you hire me and give me a chance?"