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At 'Solo,' Lancaster boy celebrates his own science-fiction miracle

"Solo," the new "Star Wars" movie, is bound to be brimming with special effects. But at Dipson Flix Stadium 10 in Lancaster, when the movie opens May 25, the biggest visual miracle won't be on the movie screen.

That miracle will be in the crowd.

Ronan Christian, 12, will be watching the movie with his parents and 17-year-old brother, Aidan. Until just weeks ago, Ronan, a sixth grader at William Street School in Lancaster, had never seen a movie. Until recently, he could hardly see anything.

He was born with a barrage of obstacles that made vision nearly impossible. His mother, Kristin Planz-Christian, once looked through a pair of glasses designed to show her how the world looked to him. The image haunted her.

"It looked like somebody wiped Vaseline on your glasses," she said.

Ronan's eyes appeared hopeless.

"He's also incredibly light sensitive," said Planz-Christian, who works as a special ed teacher at Tonawanda High School. "He can't ever go outside without sunglasses. And even with sunglasses on, he does a lot of blinking.

"His pupils get bigger in the light rather than smaller. He is color blind on top of that. And he has nystagmus -- his eyeballs bounce around. A lot of people's eyes go back and forth. His go up and down. As he gets older, it's less pronounced. It only happens when he's tired. I always know he's tired when his eyes start bouncing all over the place."

The family accepted the reality and made sure Ronan did things all kids enjoy, from the Buffalo Zoo to Disney World. He just couldn't see what was right before his eyes, and his frustration built. Once, he went on a school field trip to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and came home upset, his mother recalled.

"Who takes a blind kid to the art museum? They can't even see the pictures," Ronan said.

Then, in the middle of a bleak Buffalo January, came a ray of light.

Planz-Christian got a call from her husband's brother, Michael, who lived in California. He told her of a device made by a company in Toronto, a pair of electronic glasses that could bring sight to the blind. She had heard about the glasses a few years back, but said she put them out of her mind because she knew the family couldn't afford the $15,000 cost.

But before long, vision became reality.

The price of an eSight headset fell to about $10,000. Her brother-in-law launched a fund-raising effort through eSight's in-house affordability team, which helps raise money for people who can't afford the device.

A social worker who had been working with Ronan because of his anger and frustration issues also pushed things forward. She alerted his family to an eSight rep who was visiting Buffalo.

"We tried them on," Planz-Christian said. "He put them on, and he said, 'Whoa!' He looked at a lady across the room, and he waved at her. Then he turned and looked at me, and went, 'Hi, Mom.' "

She gets misty repeating Ronan's initial observations.

"He said, 'Mom, I know people have eyebrows, but I never saw them before. I didn't know you had freckles.' "

The family tears up recalling the moment when Ronan beheld his brother, Aidan, for the first time. His mom filmed it with her camera.

The video shows Ronan grinning in his eye wear as he turns toward Aidan, who is sitting across the room. As he moves toward his big brother, the grin gives way to tears. He climbs onto the couch and into his brother's arms. There are no words.

Ronan, asked about that experience, grew uncharacteristically silent for a second.

Then he burst out: "It was awesome!"

Aidan, recalling the moment, becomes emotional.

"It was crazy," he said. "I was happy he was so happy. "At first I didn't, like, believe it. It was hard to wrap my head around it."

Anyone else would say the same thing, trying to grasp how the eye wear works.

As its manufacturers explain: "It houses a high-speed, high-definition camera that captures everything you are looking at, and then displays it on two near-to-eye displays. Advanced, medically validated algorithms optimize and enhance the footage so that your eyes can truly see it, and in real-time."

The glasses were born of necessity, said Laura Chau, eSight's marketing manager.

Their inventor, an electrical engineer named Conrad Lewis, founded eSight in 2006 in hopes of helping his two sisters who suffered from severe blindness. After years of research and development -- as Chau puts it, "tens of millions of dollars later" -- the device was launched in 2013. Four years later, Time magazine included it in its cover story "25 Best Inventions of 2017."

The technology is not perfect and not everyone is a candidate. For example, it will not work for someone who is totally blind.

But research continues. Meanwhile, the device can make a miraculous difference in the wearer's life.

"It provides complete mobility," Chau said. Wearers can use public transportation, she explained, and can move about with confidence. The glasses can be adjusted to suit individual needs.

"You can tilt the visor up ever so slightly, get a visual field of whatever you want to see. At the same time, you rely on natural vision to see your surroundings. It's not immersive technology, and that's what makes it so flexible so people can be mobile."

Because the cost can be prohibitive, eSight sponsors fundraisers. Ronan is involved in one fund-raising initiative taking place at Dipson Flix. Dubbed #TogetherWeSee, the initiative aims to provide 13 children around the world with eSight eyewear in time for Fathers Day.

On eSight's website, the description of the fundraiser introduces the children one by one. People are invited to contribute online or at Flix, where a special receptacle will permit audience members to make donations.

Chau said Ronan was eager to help.

"Ronan, because he knows what it's like, he wants us to help pay this forward," she said.

On a recent visit to the Buffalo Zoo, Ronan gamboled about like one of the fanciful creatures that surrounded him. The meerkats were his favorite. But the otters also fascinated him.

"They're running around just like Chloe!" he squealed. Chloe is the family dog.

In the rainforest exhibit, he plopped himself down eagerly to watch an educational film.

"This is awesome," he exclaimed.

Ronan Christian and his dad, Richard, are greeted by the gorillas at the Buffalo Zoo. It's the first time Ronan, who is legally blind, saw a gorilla or any of the animals at the zoo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Watching his delight, people with normal eyesight can't help thinking about how much we take for granted. Everything is new -- the huge, glistening heft of the sea lion, the dignity of an antelope, the majesty of the gorilla.

"He's doing the chest thing," Ronan gloated as the gorilla beat his chest. The fascination was mutual. The gorilla dashed to the window and clapped his hand against it, inches from Ronan's face.

"Wow!" Ronan shouted. "Wow!"

The glasses may have transfixed the gorilla, but they aren't as conspicuous as one might expect. They are black, with built-in sunglasses to protect Ronan from his photo-sensitivity. They look like what they are, an exotic bit of electronica.

"It's like a CCTV on my face, but it's not as humongous," Ronan cheerfully explained.

His mother said that once, a stranger asked him, "What game is that?"

Ronan clearly welcomes such confusion.

"He looks like a guy from 'Star Trek,' " his mother laughed. "We wanted him to order the black ones, because they looked more like sunglasses. And we won," she reflected. "But he wanted the white ones. They looked more like robot glasses. And we thought, that's why he wanted them."

Ronan is still adjusting to the glasses.

"I get headaches because it's like staring at a TV screen up close," he said. "But my mom said I had to wear it more than an hour a day, so I could get used to them."

He giggles every time he turns the device on and it tells him: "Do not drive or participate in any other dangerous activities."

"He said to me, 'Guess what, Mom, I'm not allowed to drive,' " his mother laughed.

"He's a different kid," she added. "He was very angry before. Now, he's not angry."

The entire family is joining in his adventure.

Ronan Christian is joined by his family - parents Kristin Planz-Christian and Richard Christian and his brother Adan Christian - on a visit to The Buffalo Zoo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"I feel like everything we've done up till now, we have to redo it," his mother said. "Because I want him to see everything we have done. We have never let his disability slow us down. That's just how we roll. There's never been a problem, he always has a great time. But all the things he did that we've done, I want him to experience them better. With his own eyes, not just through mine."

The Albright-Knox and other galleries are in the offing. That is something that hits home for Ronan's dad, Richard. Richard Christian is an artist who is well known locally and teaches art at Villa Maria College.

"I wouldn't teach him," he said quietly, watching his son reveling in the sights of the zoo. "I wouldn't want to interfere with his imagination. He could probably teach me a few things."

Also on the itinerary is a return trip to Niagara Falls, though precautions must be taken because the device is not supposed to get wet. And a return trip to Disney World.

And, first and foremost, "Solo."

"He's so excited," his mom said. So are his father and brother, she added. "They're all a bunch of 'Star Wars' geeks. They love all that.

"I'm just looking forward to seeing him watching it."


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