It’s likely you will see Jennifer Cleveland coming well before she sees you. With her proud black poodle Frank always by her side, Jennifer navigates life with confidence and more than a bit of sass, doing things that vibrant, active women like to do such as paddleboarding, yoga, dance lessons...there’s really nothing she’s not open to trying.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. Jennifer Cleveland is blind. Legally blind. Frank is her service dog.
“In my right eye, my vision is about 20/300, which means in good light what I can make out looks like if you smeared Vaseline across dark sunglasses,” she said.
If you’re wondering how a blind person can so accurately describe what lost sight “looks like,” it’s because things were not always this way for Jennifer.
In another life, Jennifer had full vision and held jobs as a paramedic for a local trauma center and as a personal trainer. Over a 10-year span starting in 1999, her vision started to fail because of a very rare condition: autoimmune retinopathy due to Celiac Disease.
According to information from the National Institutes of Health, “Autoimmune retinopathy (AIR) is a rare inflammatory condition that can lead to blindness, and while it has been studied for several years, it still remains under diagnosed.”
“I had suffered from headaches and brain fog, and also had bone pain and fuzzy vision,” but due to the lack of digestive issues (typically associated with Celiac Disease), the medical condition causing her vision to deteriorate was not identified.
“This just wasn’t on their radar back then,” not even at the best rated eye clinic in the country, she said.
Eventually, she came to understand that her vision loss and other symptoms were related to a severe gluten intolerance and once she removed the gluten from her diet, she began to feel better – physically – almost immediately.
The damage to her sight, however, was irreversible.
The next phase of her life was difficult and ushered in a dark period that left Jennifer feeling angry and hopeless.
“I experienced all the stages of grief in all their fullness. I never thought I’d have a normal life,” she said.
New Normal Not So Normal
Something clicked a few months later as Jennifer began to navigate the reality of her situation. Her mom, a social worker, helped identify a few organizations that could help such as the Brevard Association for the Advancement of the Blind and the Center for the Visually Impaired.
Everything changed when she began training for life as a visually impaired person.
“I started living life one accomplishment at a time,” she said. She also started on a path to reclaim her identity and independence.
“With every lesson, I learned something new about myself. That my life is worth living and that I have something to give back,” she said.
Jennifer took a deep dive into her own consciousness and began developing spiritual practices that offered comfort for her and hope to others.
Because Jennifer doesn’t “look blind,” and perhaps because she is so active, she is often misunderstood. She has piercing and inquisitive grey green eyes and a mane of hair that she styles in soft looping curls that frame her face. She is engaged, animated and wholly unapologetic for the person she has become.
Citing times when she was presumed to be bitchy because she was quiet, or others when people have assumed she’s a bit of a ditz because she can’t remember previously meeting them, she sighs in frustration.
She is none of those things, rest assured. She looks at your face when she speaks to you because she has the ability to make out hazy objects and can tell where the mouth is by using her heightened sense of hearing.
But she won’t remember a face. She just can’t.
“Sighted people really have no clue of what ‘blind’ looks or feels like,” she said, her southern accent rising up a bit on the word “clue.”
So, Jennifer has set out to show them.
After years of training, she became a yoga teacher in 2012, and also received level 2 training in Reiki, a healing technique based on the principle that energy can be channeled into a patient through touch. Jennifer also became a Thai yoga practitioner in 2014 and completed massage therapy school in February 2020, graduating valedictorian. In July, she passed the national test and became a licensed massage therapist.
She started a website, www.innersightliving, that offers tips on wellness, her yoga practice (she teaches yoga in group, park and private settings),her massage practice, public speaking engagements and a lot more.
If you follow her posts on Facebook, you might see her doing an inverted handstand atop a paddleboard on the river or participating in a pole dancing class. She video streams tango dance lessons from a vantage point inside her home and, other times, faces the camera head-on with revelations, frustrations and insights that unfold in her day to day activities.
She is a daily source of inspiration and reflection, reposting meaningful memes on individuality, kindness, spirituality, self-help, self-care and more. She is authentic in her straight talk about what it’s like to be visually impaired, how those who do not know can do better and in seeking input from her tribe of followers on matters of the soul, mind and heart.
Advocating for the Visually Impaired
As she has learned to adapt to her new reality, she has emerged as a focused advocate for the visually impaired. She calls for social awareness, environmental change and supports technological advancements that assist others in living their best life.
She uses adaptive technology including a GPS enabled walking cane and phone applications that help her navigate through life better.
The visually impaired might need help from time to time, she acknowledges, but “do not want others to do everything for us. And we do not want to feel like we are being protected or contained,” she said.
Her unambiguous messages are of retaining hope and conquering fears. She sets goals and
records the steps, keeping herself accountable and celebrating each success.
“We need the autonomy to pursue things at our own pace, so we can grow and learn”, she said.
One of the pages on her website states it best:
Be gentle with yourself. Celebrate small achievements!
Not everything will make sense to you or resonate with you, just like with everything else in life, take what you can use and leave the rest behind.
Find Jennifer’s Facebook page @innersightliving
Shawna Lucas (formerly Kelsch) has lived and worked in Brevard county for the past 20 years, serving in a variety of jobs and community service roles. She’s a former food and news reporter for Florida today, and was owner/operator of a marketing company that assisted clients and partners such as the Florida Healthcare Coalition, Blue Cross & Blue Shield Foundation for Florida, The Brevard Health Alliance, and Florida Tech to identify and solve pressing community health issues. She has she has dual bachelors degrees in Journalism and Sociology from the University of Miami, and was an inaugural fellow at the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.