With a beautiful, confident stride, bouncing ponytail and fluorescent green socks, Lizzy Cappelli stands out in the pack at an October cross country meet at Granby Memorial High School. Another woman runs close beside her because Lizzy is blind. Shouts of encouragement, “Go Lizzy!” follow her. Later, chatting with teammates after the 5K race and cheering on the boys’ team, Lizzy very much blends in and is a part of normal high school life.
Lizzy has been blind since birth; she has no sight in her right eye and is legally blind in her left eye. Twenty-seven weeks into Anne Cappelli’s pregnancy, she went into labor. The doctors performed a C-section, and Lizzy was born to Anne and husband Tony Cappelli on Sept. 13, 2001 weighing one pound, two ounces.
Born with retinopathy of prematurity, a condition common in preemies that causes growth of abnormal blood vessels that can bleed into the eye, laser surgery had to be performed. It caused a pulled retina, resulting in Lizzy’s blindness. Steroids had to be used to help Lizzy breathe, but with the risk of severe side effects: cerebral palsy, a permanently hoarse voice, and more. Rather than bemoaning Lizzy’s blindness, Tony and Anne were grateful that worse had not happened.
Lizzy was discharged from Connecticut Children’s Medical Center at seven months, weighing little over five pounds, with numerous medical devices to ensure her survival. At home, big sister Angela, four years old, awaited. The Cappelli family met the challenges of blindness with positivism, curiosity and a view toward inclusion.
During summers and weekends over the years, Lizzy has attended programs through national and regional organizations supporting the blind. She trained in self-defense, marine biology, cooking, swam with Paralympian swimmers, trained with Amy Bower, an oceanographer who is blind and kayaked the Grand Canyon with a group led by Erik Weihenmayer, author of No Barriers, who also is blind.
Having a family member with a disability shapes a family. According to Nancy E. Reichman et al. on Medscape.com, “it is a unique shared experience… and can affect all aspects of family functioning–it can broaden horizons, increase family members’ awareness of their inner strength, enhance family cohesion…” It encouraged Tony to pursue two Master’s degrees—one in teaching the visually impaired and the other in orientation and mobility—and the profession of teacher (with Perkins School for the Blind).
The Cappellis raise a guide dog, Kiki, for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Kiki will live with them for 18 months to be socialized. Next year, when Lizzy is at college (this early in her senior year, she doesn’t know where yet), she plans to acclimate herself first to the campus and get a guide dog her sophomore year because she must train the dog to then guide her.
An intelligent, interesting, curious and vibrant young woman, Lizzy has lived her eighteen years in Granby, attending Granby Public Schools. She recently received the Superintendent’s Award for scholarship. Her favorite subjects are AP environmental science and Spanish. In college (and perhaps beyond) she may study to become a disability lawyer or an architect of barrier-free buildings.
Although Lizzy knows Braille, she uses other methods to read and write. Some are as simple as using large print books, holding books close to her face, writing bent over close to the page, memorizing the keyboard and using a monocular, a single eye device to help her see the whiteboard. Technology also assists: Lizzy listens to audio books, has the contrast inverted on her computer and uses ZoomText Magnifier/Reader and NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) screen reader software.
Encouraged by friends, in 9th grade, Lizzy went out for the cross country team. Now a senior, Lizzy is co-captain. She runs because “sports are a stress reliever.”An all-round student-athlete, Lizzy also swims on the swim team. Lizzy has played the fife with the Marquis of Granby junior ancient fife and drum corps for six years. In her spare time, she hangs out with friends or listens to audiobooks.
When asked if it is scary to run blind, Lizzy recounted that for three years she ran with no guide, and it was “super scary.” In one race, she cried the whole race. Very telling about Lizzy: She finished the whole race.
Running with Lizzy at the early October race was Krista Iwanicki (GMHS class of 2015), who volunteers with Achilles International. Achilles’ mission “is to empower people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events…” and “to bring hope, inspiration, and the joys of achievement to all” (source: website). At practices, Coach Kathy Lundin runs beside Lizzy.
This race day, Lizzy finishes the 5K in 28:36, bettering her previous score by over two minutes. One can see that Lizzy is on a path to continue to excel and reach beyond any limitations imposed by her blindness. Firmly grounded in a loving family, and with a community of supporters cheering her on, Lizzy is running toward her bright future.