Going Blind & Catching Up with Andrea Yu: Joe Lovett

By May 21, 2021Joe Lovett, Updates

Going Blind & Catching Up with ANDREA YU:
An Interview with JOE LOVETT
May 21, 2021

A year after the start of a global pandemic, Andrea Yu, who is a student with City Access New York interning with A Closer Look Inc., spearheaded a series of interviews with characters from Going Blind (2010) to find out how they fared through a year of COVID-19 lockdown and where they are now in their sight-loss journeys.

Up first, Andrea spoke with Director Joe Lovett, who reflects on his life and vision and offers a glimpse into the lives of the characters you’ll hear from in the coming weeks.

To listen to the interview, visit A Closer Look Inc.’s Soundcloud by clicking here.

To view the film, Going Blind, click here.

ANDREA YU: Hello everyone. I’m Andrea Yu, an intern at A Closer Look. I interviewed Joe about the making of the film. We discussed the decisions he made in selecting the characters and settings, how this experience taught him more about adaptation to low vision, and the effect of COVID-19 on him and other glaucoma patients.

Going Blind premiered 11 years ago. What does this time mean to you and how have you viewed progress, both in terms of stigma and treatment, since the film came out? 

JOE LOVETT: That’s a very good question, Andrea. I think there’s more awareness about sight loss than there used to be. I think there is a growing willingness to talk about it, which there hadn’t been when we started the film. 

In terms of glaucoma, I think there’s still a tremendous amount of ignorance about it and unfortunately, research has not gotten into the clinical trials that we would like to see in terms of restoring damaged optic nerves and things like that. It’s slow, but I think one of the problems is that we haven’t had a very engaged patient population. 

I think the patient population with glaucoma for the most part has been rather passive and it is often kept in the dark about how the disease progresses and we’re trying to change that.

AY: So, why is it kept in the dark? 

JL: Well I think there’s a general discomfort with the idea of sight loss and I think people who’re sighted are terrified with the aspect of losing their vision and anyone else losing their vision. And I think that that fear comes from ignorance and myth. I mean, very few sighted people actually know anyone who has “successfully” lost their vision.

And making the film Going Blind, I was able to meet people who have made the adjustment from sighted to unsighted, and were able to continue their work and their relationships with the tools that are available, which are many. And I think that that makes a huge difference. 

But also, I think physicians are very uncomfortable with the idea of any of their patients losing their vision. Many doctors see it as their own personal failure, and are reluctant to. talk about what may happen in a patient’s life. If they lose their vision, how they would make the adjustment so that people are prepared for it as well as they could be.

AY: Right. So then you yourself being a glaucoma patient undergoing vision loss, how did interviews with the characters in Going Blind influence you and your awareness of your low vision experiences?

JL: Oh, it was tremendously helpful to me. I had no idea when I started the film that this would be such a help for me. Role modeling is so important in our lives. Seeing people that do things and achieve things, or be a certain way, whether it’s about achievement or acceptance or points of view. The way that different people handle their lives you know, are examples for us as we get to know more and more people. We can choose how we want to go about it and get people’s help that have gone- done things before us. 

And in this situation, I had the opportunity to meet people who had gone through what I was going through, which was vision loss. Some gradually, like I did, like I am. And some very quickly, dramatically. And I got to learn how they went through it. what their emotional journey was, what their medical journey was, what their rehabilitation journey was.

And you know, I met extraordinary people. You know, Jessica Jones, who teaches blind and visually impaired children. and multiply disabled children and she’s sort of fantastic at what she’s able to do and Jessica’s lost all of her sight to diabetic retinopathy.

Ray Cornman, who helps so many people at the Seeing Eye become adjusted. and he has slowly lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa. Steve Baskis, who lost his vision immediately in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq, is now climbing mountains. These are people who showed me that you know, this is all doable. That it’s difficult, that it’s a challenge. But you can learn skills and adjust and live your life and that’s very very very important, I think for all of us.

AY: How did you meet these characters in the film? What was it like to get them to open up about these intimate aspects of their lives? 

JL: Well, actually it was pretty natural. I started talking to people on the street. My doctors were unwilling to talk to me at the time about the potential of further sight loss. And so I searched and talked to people on the street. I talked to people with dogs and canes. I always offered somebody my arm, you know, at the crosswalk. I had to ask if they needed any help going across the street. And this time, I would ask them if they did, or if they didn’t, I’d say “do you mind if I asked you some questions for sight loss, because I’m losing my vision.” 

And people were incredibly generous, Andrea, with their stories and they took me into a secret world, really. A world that I’ve been walking past on the street, you know all my life when I would see some people, their dog, or a cane. But I’d never known what they were really going through. And it was just so generous of these strangers.

So, Jessica, I met on the street when she was picking up her dog’s poop one day. She lived down the corner from me and we started to talk and I said “Gee, would you be in this film I’m making?” And she said, “Of course!” 

And then I met different people from different referrals and doctors recommended me to certain people. The Blind Veterans Association introduced me to Steve Baskis. As a reporter, a journalist you get to reach out and people come back to you with ideas and I chose our cast from a large group of people that I had met. 

I chose them, because they had interesting stories, they were interesting people, they were people that you would want to spend time with. And you know, that’s how the thing about casting in a documentary. You want to talk to people that you would want to have dinner with or be your friend. And that’s how it worked out.

AY: Yeah, so how did you come to the decisions about the locations you chose to interview the cast, because that’s quite important, too. The atmosphere? 

JL: Oh, very good question. Jessica, it was very important for me to see her on the street, because It’s just in New York City and she was so capable on the street with her dog. And getting on the subway and although she was afraid of it, she was very adept at it and I thought it was very important to make it clear that this is not easy and it’s anxiety-provoking, but you can do it. And that is Jessica. 

It was also very important for me to show her working with children. She was great and unfortunately, the school she was working with at the time did not want us to film for various reasons. And so, the Metropolitan Museum of Art arranged to do a class with her on art and she’s an astounding teacher and has breakthrough moments with the kids. Really extraordinary scene. 

Steve, I met when he was in rehab at the Blind Rehabilitation Center in Chicago veteran’s site. We filmed him going through his rehab, what that was like. Then we chose to come back to him a few months later when he was living independently to see how he was doing, and to see what’s the difference between being in the institutional setting, where you have people helping you and you have other people going through the same thing. So, what’s the difference between that and living on your own by yourself and trying to make things happen? It was very very different. We left Steve there. We didn’t follow up with him, because I knew he would adjust well. I wanted people to understand that this is tough and we’re leaving Steve on the tough part of his journey. When the film was finished, he wasn’t able to attend our premiere because he was climbing mountains. That’s the progress that this guy made. He’s absolutely remarkable.

Peter D’Elia, who’s an architect. We showed him working on drawings, we showed him playing golf, and still want to see within his life. 

Pat Williams, her work at the veterans’ administration and the difficulties she had, and how she was trying to overcome them. 

Everybody was just so honest about their feelings, it’s like a breath of fresh air, you know? I can’t tell you how many people who’ve seen the film felt so relieved hearing people being honest about their feelings and carrying on with what they were doing. It was very inspiring for so many people who are losing their vision or afraid of losing their vision.

Andrea: This is all very inspiring. 

Joe: Oh, I find it inspiring. I mean, I went through a period after an operation not too long ago when I had a bleed during the process and I lost all my vision. It was scary, but far less scary than had I not done this film, because I knew that if indeed my vision didn’t come back, and I was quite sure it would, and I was reassured that it would, but still you’d wonder. You know, I knew that I could handle this. But I wouldn’t want to have to do it. I wouldn’t choose to lose my vision. But I could certainly handle it. It would be difficult, but I could do it. I think that’s very very important, because most people think they can’t do it or how would I do it. “It’s impossible.” I learned from the people that I met that you can do it. It’s difficult, but you can do it.

AY: Right. There are many obstacles that come along with vision loss. 

JL: For sure. It’s not the preferred choice [Laughs].

Andrea: Right. Speaking of which, with COVID-19 impacting in-person access to medical help, how has the past year affected your vision? How are you adjusting to the changes in your vision?

Joe: Because of the shutdown, my activities have been limited to my home and my office, which is also at home for the most part. And as a result, I’m pretty comfortable, because I have partial vision and it works pretty well. Quite well, actually. On the outside, I have to be careful, but I function quite well. Inside, I don’t have to be as careful, because I know my way around, so it’s been quite comfortable for me. In terms of follow-up with medicine, I haven’t seen my doctors as much as I would normally. Normally, I would go every three months. During Covid, there are long periods that I did not see them. 6 months, 9 months, perhaps. 6 months was the longest. 

When I did go in, we made an arrangement for me to go first thing in the morning so I wouldn’t be exposed to other people. It’s triage in a situation like this. My ophthalmologists were volunteering in COVID units. So you have to be in touch with the seriousness of your problem. My progressive glaucoma is not quite as serious as someone having a heart attack or cancer, whatever. It’s a triage kind of situation, but now we’re going back to regular treatments. 

Andrea: How has COVID-19 affected some of the characters in Going Blind? Have you been in contact with them?

Joe: Yeah, well some of them. Jesica has been working from home and it’s been difficult because of some of the settings on the school’s computer and things like that. They could really use an upgrade. But she’s been doing it. I think for everybody, it’s been very difficult. She’s the only person I’ve been in touch with specifically about COVID. I spoke to Pat Williams, but she’s retired now. I haven’t recently been in touch with Peter or Ray. 

Andrea: Oh, that’s okay, because we will get an update on them soon! 

Joe: That’s great. 

Andrea: So it was nice speaking with you today, Joe. 

Joe: Well thank you very much, Andrea. Thank you for your very well-put questions and it’s a pleasure to work with you. You’re so terrific.