Imagine—you’re a healthy, 18-year old high school senior with graduation around the corner. You’ll soon be entering university and experiencing a world of new challenges, friends, and ideas on the path toward your first degree. You start to experience slight vision problems. Your doctor says it’s stress. You continue your studies, excited for the vast, exciting future ahead of you. Three months later, you’re declared legally blind.
That’s what happened to Tony Vega, founder and owner of Japankyo as well as host of the Japan Station podcast. Near the end of high school, symptoms of a rare degenerative disease called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) began to develop in Tony. His vision gradually became more cloudy and blurry, and, to this day, Tony’s ability to see is greatly reduced.
In this week’s episode, Anthony talks with Tony about his story and how Japan inspired him to overcome his self-doubts, accomplish more despite his disability, and fulfill his human potential far beyond anything he had expected.
Tony’s First Visit to Japan
Tokyo is undeniably overwhelming for first-time tourists. Aside from language barriers, the fast-paced, dense urban environments are enough to make one’s head spin. On top of this, Tony found that his vision challenges made it extremely difficult to communicate with locals due to his inability to make out important gestures and body language. Disappointed, Tony decided to commit more time and energy to studying Japanese, which led to him to studying abroad in Japan. This would come to be the first step toward Tony’s liberating transformation.
The Empowerment of Public Transportation
Japan’s transit system is consistently rated as one of the best in the world. While this may be simply a convenient perk for most, for Tony, it was the key to unlocking his confidence as a visually impaired person. Thanks to Japan’s accessible design features, Tony began to feel empowered by his newfound ability to move around freely and independently using busses and trains, something he could never do in his previous American, car-dependent life. This was more than easy access; he had finally rediscovered his autonomy and liberty as a free individual. Simply put, in his own words, “To me, Japan meant freedom.”
Tony started to adopt this mentality into other areas of his life. If he could conquer learning a new language and traveling freely in a foreign country despite being legally blind, what else could he accomplish? What’s stopping him from living the life he wants despite being unsighted? In his chat with Anthony, he reflects on this:
Overall, the time that I spent in Japan showed me that I can still do a vast majority of things that I had wanted to do, that at one point when I was diagnosed with this I thought I won’t be able to do. As long as I can figure out a way to get it done, I can still accomplish it.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have vision often take for granted our enormous potential as humans. For Tony, a life-devastating disability became a catalyst for proving that anything is possible.