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May 13, 2024

Stuart and Ali: Paying it Forward and Back

Ali Usman and Stuart Matan Lithwick
Ali Usman (L) and Stuart Matan Lithwick

Volunteering often has a ripple effect, touching people in profound ways and motivating them to act in ways that benefit their local communities and beyond. This is the case with Stuart Matan Lithwick, Ph.D., and Ali Usman.

In 2019, Ali left his family to move to Canada by himself. When he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) shortly afterwards, he felt very much on his own. He thought about quitting university where he was studying science. It was recommended that he use a white cane, but he felt it would further stigmatize and isolate him.

“Following my diagnosis, I embarked on learning accessible lifestyle techniques,” Ali said. “However, from the early stages of my vision loss, a persistent fear loomed — the fear of appearing visibly disabled to those around me. The white cane represented a tangible symbol of my disability, and my concerns were rooted in how others might perceive and interact with me.”

All this changed when he attended a Young Leaders event hosted by Fighting Blindness Canada. When Ali saw the freedom and mobility that the white cane gave his peers, he felt empowered to get the training he needed to embrace his independence.

“The inclusion of a white cane in my daily life has been transformative, especially in travel and busy settings,” Ali said. “It allows me to navigate confidently and enhances my limited vision. Crucially, it has altered people’s reactions, fostering increased consideration in crowded spaces,”

Ali had the opportunity to meet Stuart through the Young Leaders Mentorship Program. Working with Stuart, a fellow scientist living with RP, Ali found the courage to continue his studies and to advocate for increased accessibility in his graduate program. In particular, Ali met with his dean to discuss accessibility, and this meeting yielded a commitment to create a new annual scholarship to support students with disabilities, something that would now impact students for generations.

In turn, Ali inspired Stuart, who has continued his role as a mentor and continues to give back to the Young Leaders community in many ways.

“Working with Ali was a match made in heaven,” said Stuart, who is currently studying depression in the elderly at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “I actually left academia earlier than planned when I first got diagnosed. Not knowing of any scientists with a visual impairment, I did not think a further career in science would still be a possibility for me. I had to go on a 10-year journey of self-discovery before ultimately returning to pursue PhD studies.

Ali and Stuart are prime examples of how volunteering and connecting with others who are experiencing similar challenges can forever transform people’s lives.

“The word that comes to me over and over and over again, when I think of the Young Leaders program is impact, straight up impact in a real way,” Stuart said.

He was inspired by how Ali worked to help others achieve their dreams through the establishment of the scholarship.

“It just really proved to me that you don’t need a big crowd, you just need a single person who is passionate about what they want to change. And this is what the Young Leaders program does more than just about anything else I’ve ever experienced.”

Visit FBC’s Young Leaders page to learn more about how you can get involved.

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