Spotlight Story Program: Meet Asia-Jorden Alexander-Smith

Even one simple tweet can add such a level of flavor and dimension in your life. That’s something that we learned from our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer, British graphic designer, Asia-Jorden Alexander-Smith when we saw her viral tweet about ASOS using a model with a hearing aid on their store. Since then, Asia continues to use her voice sharing her journey living with Usher Syndrome and raising awareness for the hearing loss and visual impairment communities, while also just living her life as an awesome young adult. In her feature, Asia shares her health journey and how she conquers her world by finding what makes her confident leading with honesty. Plus, learn how surrounding yourself with a dynamic support network makes you a legend and Asia’s five pieces of life advice as a self-confessed non-expert. We are here for it!

Hi! There’s a very good chance you have no idea who I am, so let me introduce myself – My name’s Asia. I’m a 23 year old graphic designer from the lovely county of South Yorkshire, England. I have two older brothers, 11 tattoos, and a cat called Harvey. Oh, and a condition called Usher Syndrome.

Back in 1998, newborn hearing checks didn’t happen so it wasn’t until my 7-month check that doctors noticed something was awry with my hearing. I failed my follow-up auditory brainstem response test, leading to the diagnosis of a severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. I was given two hearing aids at 11 months old and pretty much sent on my merry way to get on with my life as the only deaf person in my family.

Until I was 19, things were relatively straight-forward with my health – routine hospital appointments, hearing tests, new ear-molds, rinse and repeat. It was by no means easy, but it was a level of stability that I’d adapted to and accepted as a part of my life, a huge factor of the very foundation of who “Asia” was.

One weekend, I thought I’d got some dust in my eyes as I started to notice a bit of shadowing – almost like a cobweb – in the centre of my vision in my right eye. After leaving it for a few days, I was sent to A&E by my doctor to get it checked out. I was eventually dismissed by an A&E doctor and told that I had posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), which apparently was nothing to worry about and I should only be concerned if the floaters seemed to suddenly get worse.

Which, of course, they did.

I can’t lie, the testing process was grim. I’m a person who had never had eye drops before in my life and suddenly I was having ten sets of various eye drops within the space of a week and a half. I’m claustrophobic, and I had to stick my head in a little box and stare at a bunch of flashing lights whilst having electrodes literally touching my eyeballs so the doctor could measure my brain activity (an electroretinogram and visual field test). I felt like some kind of lab rat being poked and prodded and honestly, it sucked.

After countless trips back and forth to various hospitals to see various ophthalmologists, I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type 2, a genetic disorder characterised by deafness accompanied by Retinitis Pigmentosa. RP is a progressive eye condition which causes night-blindness, tunnel vision and, in advanced cases, loss of central and colour vision.

I remember being sat in the consultation room with my mum and my oldest brother and my heart just broke. I was told I’d never be able to drive because the minimum peripheral vision requirement was 120°. I had 10° of peripheral vision left, and I hadn’t even realised I was losing it.

I was 19 years old and forced to grow up so much faster than everybody else around me. For my whole life, I’d chased a career in graphic design and now I was being handed a visual impairment certificate, which felt very much like my dream career was over before it started. I thought I’d learned how to deal with my deafness but this? This was completely unfamiliar territory for me.

It left me questioning everything I thought I had figured out, my deafness included. I was starting to notice that I was now an adult, sitting in hearing clinics where I was the youngest person by decades, being seen by audiologists who didn’t seem to know how to deal with me with the same compassion I’d experienced in the children’s clinics.

However, as difficult and life-changing as the diagnosis was, it also came with a strange sense of relief and clarity; I wasn’t just clumsy, I literally couldn’t see the things I was bumping into because they were outside my field of vision. I wasn’t just a bit of a wuss for being scared of the dark; part of RP is night-blindness and let me tell you, being unable to see or hear in the dark can be pretty scary.

At some point after my diagnosis, I completely changed my mindset. I truly wish I could remember the exact moment but all I recall is a newfound appreciation for my life, the experiences I was having and the people around me.

My family and friends were so incredibly loving and supportive. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I didn’t have the amazing support network that I have around me. The support and help I have from those who love me mean that I still love going to gigs, and on days or nights out.

I go to the cinema. I go on holidays to places I’ve never been, because I know that not only is there someone there to support me along the way, but I’m confident enough in myself to ask for help if something isn’t accessible enough for me.

That support network only grew as I delved more into the world of social media. I’d never really been part of a deaf community growing up, so when I posted a little tweet about a deaf ASOS model that I’d noticed, I definitely didn’t expect the incredible reaction it received.

People were messaging me to thank me for bringing it to their attention and for increasing public awareness. People were coming to me with self-esteem and confidence issues around their own disabilities and asking for advice.

photo from info.trendwatching website and copyright belongs to them and original photo from ASOS

Now, I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination but just knowing that I potentially helped even one or two people within their own lives as disabled individuals? It’s truly humbling.

There are so many amazing little communities on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – whatever your social platform of choice is. You might have the most supportive family and friends in the world but sometimes you need people who know how it feels to be in your position.

While we’re all different, even with an identical diagnosis, there are countless people who just… understand.

I’m now an auntie to six nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom has the same hearing loss as me. I want him to grow up feeling supported and completely unstoppable, regardless of his hearing.

So, my advice as a self-confessed non-expert?

  1. Stand your ground. A doctor can tell you technical stuff from a medical perspective but ultimately? They’ve read about it. You’re living it.
  2. Surround yourself with supportive people. You are never alone. I can’t promise that you won’t encounter people who don’t understand, or are perhaps just downright ignorant, but for every one ignorant individual, there are countless others who want to support and empower you.
  3. Be honest. Be honest with your doctors if you feel like something isn’t right, or if you don’t understand all the technical jargon that’s being hurled your way. Be honest with your friends or family if you’re just too drained to do that thing you were supposed to do. Be honest with yourself and those around you if you need a bit of help and support.
  4. If you need something, ask. Don’t feel bad about asking for something to be made more accessible for you. You’re entitled to the same experience and level of service as anybody else!
  5. Be proud. There’s only one of you in the world and that makes you more special than you’ll ever know.

Who am I today?

My name is Asia, and I’m 23 years old. I’m still a Graphic Designer. I laugh at things that I probably shouldn’t. I cry, a lot (usually at films!). I’m a resilient, occasionally funny, incredibly sarcastic young woman. I have Usher Syndrome Type 2, and you best believe I’m proud.

InvisiEvents Returns in Full Swing to Start off 2019 in Three American Cities

January 15, 2019 

This year, the InvisiYouth Charity team decided to bring back one of its most popular (and original) programs…the InvisiEvents! These are not just the events that we support our Global Brand Leaders hosting all over the United States, Canada and now Australia. And they’re not only our FUNdraiser events either—where groups ranging in all sizes bring donations to collect at their hangouts for InvisiYouth, whether that’s a dinner party, movie night, TV premiere or hangout.  We still want more of these to happen in 2019 and beyond…but we’ll tell you about that in a bit.

It was a mission for InvisiYouth that we would provide official InvisiYouth events for FREE regularly during the year. A huge goal for us is to allow young adults with any chronic illnesses/disabilities—both physical and mental—the opportunities to build community and be more empowered in social gatherings. For InvisiYouth, these are hangouts or meetups, so the traditional formula for charity events and fundraising is out the door!

We want you and your friends (both in and out of the chronic illness community) to do things you enjoy WHILE giving back!

What we also want to do is host more of our own hangouts with you at the helm of our creativity. And a way to go one step further is to partner up with other nonprofits and businesses. We are all about community and partnership so when we can collaborate with other like-minded charities/businesses, and build an even larger network of young adults, the better we can be.

At the start of the year, we partnered up with one of our longtime nonprofit friends, Suffering the Silence. They are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that use artistic projects such as photography campaigns (our founder has been featured in one photoshoot campaign too!!), documentaries, galleries, story nights and retreats to share the power of listening and sharing illness stories to generate the healing force of open and honest storytelling. They hope to build awareness and reform perception and treatment of the often silences—the chronic disease community.

And since they not only work across the USA, but also have badass female founders, Allie Cashel and Erica Lupinacci, it was a perfect fit! We wanted to start the year building all that self-care and community to provide fun hangouts. And our THREE gatherings went from coast to coast, so we could connect, relax and enjoy some food and coffee!

In Hoboken, New Jersey, our founder Dominique Viel and STS cofounder Allie Cashel, hosted a fun brunch—provided by the lovely Wicked Wolf Hoboken—with great food, good views of the NYC skyline and awesome hospitality.

In the Windy City of Chicago, Illinois, our Global Brad Leader-All Star and STS Ambassador, Effie Koliopoulos, held down the fort on our super cozy coffee house hangout. And with delicious pastries provided by Beatrix Chicago and a modern atmosphere of Tri-Door Chicago hosting, who wouldn’t love it!

And last, but certainly not least, the other wonderful cofounder of STS, Erica Luppinacci, led our Los Angeles, California coffee house meetup at the chill Madison Park and Coffee with lots of conversation!

If you want to help us bring these events to life, it’s simple—contact us on our website, or DM us on social media by FacebookTwitter or Instagram! We always answer and we want you to join the InvisiYouth family!

Illness Isn’t A Crutch: Why It’s So Hard For Health People To Learn Illness Isn’t An Excuse

April 28, 2017

“Why are you bailing again last minute?”

“Are you sure you’re gonna come, or are you gonna flake last minute?”

“What’s up? You’ve been MIA for days?”

If you ask any teen or young adult with chronic illness, they can probably share hundreds or more quotes like this. Hundreds of times when they have had to put their health first and change or cancel plans with friends or family. Countless times when they’re suddenly dropped out of a group text, or given the generic “I’m busy” response without warning or a true explanation.

But what I’ve learned from my own health struggles, and I’ve learned from our youth supporters, is the guilt, stress, and anxiety that comes from the feeling your peers equate your illness as making excuses. We can wait anxiously to see if our friends understand why we may “disappear” or believe it’s just another excuse.

What we need to address here is the basic fact for our healthy circle of friends: illness is not a crutch (metaphorically speaking, because sometimes it’s needed literally) and it is not used as an excuse.   

Does that friend of yours with an illness want to cancel on plans? Not really!

Does that youth desire to be so misunderstood when it’s simply their health? Absolutely not!

So the true goal here is to lay out the truth. To give the basics of really understanding that illness is not a “hall pass” to get out of events or be distant, illness is simply that…illness. It is confusing, and unpredictable, and can take over life in the blink of an eye.  And we need to empower the youth with chronic illness to be confident in the fact that they might not always do the “popular” thing, but they are always doing what’s right. Yet again, sometimes what makes the most sense, is often forgotten in our daily practices, so we need a bit of a reminder.

Reminder #1: Most chronic illnesses don’t have a schedule

While PT sessions, doctor’s appointments, and medication treatments all fall into a schedule, the nitty gritty of having an illness each day definitely does not. You cannot plan when you’ll have a flare-up, side effect or an episode…it just happens.  It’s the main explanation for why many of your friends living with chronic illness have to bail out last minute.  I remember times when I was getting ready to hang out with friends and suddenly my RSD symptoms would spike, and I had no energy to move without excruciating pain, so I would cancel last minute.  It was a sudden change in my plans because of the sudden change in my health.

These moments when illness and injury take over are never planned, they are spontaneous, and in reality, it is not what any young person wants to happen in that moment, or ever!  Youth still want to be teenagers, and young adults, hanging out with friends, going out, and living life to that ‘normal social standard.’ But when you add illness into the mix, you have to become comfortable with the notion that your schedule is often dictated by your illness, not your desire.  And that’s not only a reality that our spoonies need to understand, but there friends and family as well.  Our inner circle, need to be aware of this fact. This allows them to gain an insight into our world and to better understand that when you don’t show up, your illness is a valid reason, and never an excuse. There is no way to say “your using your illness as an excuse” because newsflash, if you have to bail out on friends because you’re not feeling well, that’s as valid of a reason as you can have.

Quick Tip: Come up with your own weekly calendar and map out your PT, your medications, your doctor visits. This way, you can see when your body might be too exhausted, or your certain treatments might take too long/have side effects, and that allows you to plan ahead with friends.  Now, this isn’t fool proof, we cannot see the future, but it give you that ‘educated guess’ on whether or not you’ll genuinely be able to get out with your friends.

Reminder #2: It’s just as annoying to spoonies to have to pull the “health card” as it is to hear it

What people need to understand is frustration is felt on both sides of what I call “pulling the health card.” Yes, I can understand where friends come from when they get annoyed that you might keep bailing out, or you completely ghost temporarily.  It is frustrating that you make plans and suddenly a friend keeps pulling out, saying something happened or you’re not feeling well.  You begin to assume that your friend just doesn’t want to hang out with you and wonder if every time they say it’s a health problem, if that’s true for each case. And the only reason I know this is because when I was a teen living with RSD in its prime, I didn’t have any friends that dealt with illness. A party of one in the spoonie community! I was forced to be around all healthy youth and find my way to get this community to not just adapt to my new normal, but to better understand why I felt their ignorance to my illness.

But what many healthy friends do not understand is that the frustration is equally felt on your spoonie friends, even more so to be completely honest.  It is annoying to be stuck in a body or mind that does not function at 100% all the time and hinders you from doing everything you want. It is agonizing to know that when your illness completely builds into a ‘bad day’ you need to change your plans in order get through the hours you have left. Most teens and young adults with chronic illnesses do not want cancel plans, they don’t want this to change, but they need to do what is best for your health. This is not a one-sided annoyance, because really think about it: would you want to be getting ready to go out, and suddenly your illness symptoms spike, or you’re exhausted with fatigue, or you have bad reaction to medications/treatments…and then you have to send that text that you’re not able to hang any longer?  The main answer is absolutely not! If you put the shoe on the other foot, your friends will realize that you need the blatant understanding, because it’s frustrating to all involved.

Quick Tip: Try to be the host of your friend hangouts.  It’s a simple fix, really because this lets you be in complete control.  You get to choose the activities and your extremely comfy clothes. You would be able to have every one of your medical needs at the ready for you, whether it’s IV treatments, medications, heating pads, ice packs, bandages and wraps and more.  With friends that would want to learn more about your illness, or want to be as open or understanding as possible, they would be able to adapt your hangouts to your needs.

Reminder #3: Sometimes generic replies are easier than explaining the reality, so accept them

Let’s be real, many teen spoonies don’t really want to share all the little details of their illness with their friends. And especially if they feel self-conscious about their illness and the way their friends perceive it, they will not want to give up the true details.  If you feel your friends are going to judge the truth of your illness, or think you’re making up an excuse, you begin to hide their realities of your illness.  Why share and be judged, when you can just deal with the backlash of bailing or going MIA? I’ve had youth tell us that they would even send photos of themselves to their friends just as proof that their illness has changed their plans…and that should not be the case! No youth should feel they need to justify their illness and prove their reasoning for canceling plans!

That is why so many times, youth with chronic illness decide to just send these generic, nonspecific replies when they need to cancel plans.  It can be so much easier to just say “something came up” one time, than say “family plans last minute” another time, and then finally explaining the real medical reasons on other occasions.  The nonspecific texts are not meant to be rude or not descriptive, but rather a way to protect a very personal health struggle. And it does help to truly avoid that inner feeling that youth with illness can feel about some of their friends believing their illness is being used as an excuse.

So…at the end of all of this, what’s the takeaway?  What’s the moral of this story? Friends and family: remember that we cannot control when our health takes a front seat in our day. When we sometimes back out, or disappear with our generic explanations, it’s because we really don’t want to pull out the health card or have to explain every detail.  And spoonies: remember to be honest with what you need, and know that sometimes, while it’s not always what we want, you have to do what’s best for your health.  You need to find that inner confidence in understanding that there will be moments when friends will feel like outsiders in your life, just like you may feel external to your social life.  And this is okay!  It’s all about being confident in the ride of your social life, in the peaks and falls of participation as I like to call it.

The moral of this story: ILLNESS IS NOT EQUIVALENT TO AN EXCUSE, IT’S A REASON FOR ACTIONS, AND THIS STEREOTYPE NEEDS TO CHANGE.

It’s alright to be the completely involved friend, and sometimes drop the ball…the point is that your friends and family support your health journey unconditionally and allow you to pick up that ball whenever you’re ready.

~Dominique

Spotlight Story Program: Katy’s Story

Meet Katy Baker

Since before she can remember, Katy has been part of the healthcare system dealing with a congenital heart defect called Scimitar Syndrome. But what has defined her medical life has not defined Katy’s personal life.  She’s a university student, on a competitive trampoline team, and rare disease activist that’s using her voice to make a positive difference.

At 3 months old, I was diagnosed with Scimitar Syndrome, a congenital heart defect which also means I only have one functioning lung.

Since then, I have had lots of tests, consultations and been under the care of different hospitals all which I continue to go all through this today.

As I became a young adult in the hospital system, I have now moved to a different hospital, had a new consultant and had more emergency hospital visits which meant needing more tests and observations.

I first moved to a different hospital when I transitioned from pediatric to adult hospital services. I had to get used to knowing my way round a new hospital, the new tests I had to do and get to know my new doctors. And my health still correlated with my life as a young person. 

When I moved to University, this meant signing up to a new general physician surgery where they did not know what my condition was, and even experience going to the emergency room in a hospital I did not know.

From my perspective, being a child or teen in pediatric medical care means that you normally have the same hospital consultant over the period of about 16 or 17 years, or whenever you transition to adult services.

In pediatrics, you are used to the same environment and over time you feel settled, not because you’re in a hospital but because it’s somewhere you’ve got to know and somewhere you know you’re going to be cared for. Being a teen in pediatric medical care is unique because you still have the support from your family and there is no pressure when it comes to whether they are there for your appointments or not. Teenagers who are chronically ill often have to grow up more quickly to understand everything that is going on but they are still children and still need support from others.

Being a teen patient to me is different than being a child patient or an adult patient because as a teenager, you are exposed to a lot more in your life but at the same time, you are going through some other transitions which teenagers can often find difficult.

However, when you’re a child, you are often more dependent on your family and they might not be aware what is going on which in a way is an advantage because as a teenager, you often have more awareness of what you are going through and your illness which can be really difficult not only for your physical but also mental health.

Having to be in hospital as a teenager can be really difficult because of everything else you are going through at the same time in your life outside of your health. But I think that one of the most important things to do is ask for support when you need. Whether the support is a family member, a friend or someone else, having support while in hospital or with a chronic illness can often be useful.

I think teenagers in hospital would benefit from introductions and more information earlier about the transition process into adult health services. Young people often move to adult services when they are from between 14-18 years old and so new environments can seem quite overwhelming. Therefore, introductions and information about the adult services should be in place.

Dealing with my health has been really challenging, however there have also been some benefits because it has shaped me in to who I am today. I created a film last year with a charity about how my condition does not stop me from being part of my University’s trampolining team. Since then, I was in two newspapers, on a local radio station and now being given lots of opportunities to spread my story. I was even invited to speak at a Rare Disease Day event this year, which was such a great experience.

I am also really excited to participate in the Superhero Series disability adaptive sport event this August in England as part of InvisiYouth’s Charity Friends team to show that people with disabilities or illnesses can still achieve like everyone else.

Dealing with my health has taught me to not take life for granted and to take every opportunity that comes my way. 

In the future, I want to complete my Childhood and Youth degree, do a master’s degree and have a career working with children and young people in a hospital.

For me, it’s as if my life will be going full circle from my personal experiences and professional future.