Dubai: Paleri Kunhiraman has been in the UAE for 41 years, a witness to its steady growth. Today, an eye ailment has robbed him of the chance to see the continuing changes, but he considers it a privilege to live in a country where his visual impairment is not a deterrent to leading a normal life.
“There is something about Dubai. I get help everywhere. It is truly a city that cares. I experience that every day,” he says.
Kunhiraman, 68, landed in Abu Dhabi in 1982 and moved to Dubai in July 1991. He worked with leading hotels in both emirates for more than two decades.
In 2008, Kunhiraman realised that he had a problem with his eye. “I could not see things in front of me or next to me. It happened suddenly and I started banging into things.”
Doctors said it was a field vision disability and advised further tests. A trip to an ophthalmologist in Hyderabad confirmed that he had retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic disease that would eventually rob him of his eyesight.
“I prepared myself for what lay ahead, as there was no treatment for it,” Kunhiraman says.
“When I come back I listen to a few devotional messages on the iPad.
“My wife does the cooking at home and keeps breakfast for me before she heads to work. I am able to find the food in the kitchen and make tea for myself.
“My family never treats me like a VIP (visually impaired person). So I don’t feel like a disabled person.
“Sometimes I go out in the evenings, using the shuttle bus and the metro.
“On other days I go out for a swim in the pool opposite our home. There is a person who helps me into the pool and keeps an eye on me, so I feel safe. I also get to meet and talk to other people when I am out of the house”.
“I have many friends. Some people show sympathy, but I am not comfortable with that.”
“In March 2018, I realised that I could not read any more. Doctors told me the condition could get worse. As I lost vision gradually, I was able to handle it. I always had the confidence that I could manage, maybe because I trust God and I know that He will be able to take me along.”
Kunhiraman lives in Dubai's Damac Hills with his wife Molly, son Rahul and daughter Nejla.
So what does it feel like to lose one’s vision?
“There are issues,” he says, “but I feel I am still living a normal life. When I started losing my vision, I realised that my senses – my hearing and sense of smell - had become very strong. That made me do things easier.”
But he is quick to add that the place one lives in make a big difference.
“I feel so safe in Dubai I never feel I am disabled. People recognise even my small movements and are there to help.
“I thank God for this place and for putting me here. What a blessing it is to be in this country!”
In fact, Kunhiraman says he is enjoying life more than before. “No one noticed me when I had normal vision. Now on the metro, many people recognise me, the inspectors come over and speak to me. I take it as a privilege.”
“When I travel, I use the shuttle service near my home. At Mall of the Emirates I ask for help to take the metro. The RTA staff are very helpful, they help me sit in the metro, call my destination and ensure that someone is waiting for me there.”
People go out of their way to ensure that a fellow traveller is taken care of. “Once while taking the metro, I did not realise that my shoe lace was undone. One man stooped down and tied it, despite my protestations. These little things make me practice gratitude to God and the people he has put in front of me in this country.”
Losing his vision has prompted Kunhiraman to look inwards and see others from a different perspective.
“I realise that there are so many people who want someone to talk to. When I talk to people, they pour their hearts out.”
Moving around Dubai for many years has helped Kunhiraman record images of places in his mind. “I know these places because I have been going there for many years. It’s just that I cannot see now.
“I take the metro to go to BurJuman and spend time with my friends, I go alone to see my doctor in Deira.
“Yes, there are times when I am disappointed, but that is part of life.”
“In the early years I had a lot of accidents – bumping into poles and hitting my head on walls. Things are much better today.
“I was a simple, normal person earlier. This place made me a real human being. It taught me three things – to be caring, to be compassionate, and the importance of humility.”
Since RP is a group of disorders, the visual changes vary among different people. Most people with RP have low vision, and some people go blind.
A lot of advances have been made in recent years in the field of RP and IRDs, including the introduction of gene therapy.
Ways to manage RP include using low vision aids and assistive devices. There are a range of magnifiers and technology that can identify things or people that the wearer points to. Using sunglasses and other methods to avoid exposure to too much light is another way of managing RP.