Comic Vision Sets Sight on a Cure

By Paul Mayne
March 31, 2011

Gavin MorrisonUniversity of Western Ontario student Gavin Morrison hopes one day cracking a few jokes leads to restoring the sight of people living with vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and macular degeneration, the leading causes of blindness among children and people aged 50 plus, respectively. 

The Business Management and Organizational Studies student was first diagnosed at age 6 with RP, which results in progressive, ever-narrowing tunnel vision culminating in blindness.  While the normal peripheral vision for most people is 180 degrees, his vision is closer to 20 degrees.

But thanks to a unique idea from his mother Ann and family friend Meg Soper, Comic Vision was created to raise money for the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB), the only organization in Canada dedicated to finding treatments and cures for degenerative eye diseases.

What started at a small club in Oakville has now grown to five cities across Canada including Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and London, with plans to add
shows on the east coast in the coming years.

This year’s show in London is scheduled for Tuesday, April 26 at the Carousel Room at the Western Fair.

“Comic Vision started when I was first diagnosed with an incurable eye disease and my parents were told I was going blind and nothing could be done,” Morrison says. “My mom wanted to create an event that would raise awareness about this rare disease, while fundraising for critical vision research with the hope that one day a cure will be found.”

With 30,000 Canadians currently diagnosed with RP, and 3,000 new diagnoses yearly, Comic Vision has grown into a major fundraiser for FFB-research in areas such as gene therapy, cell implantation, nutritional therapies, genetic research and stem cell research. In 10 years, the event has raised almost $3 million, with $680,000 raised in 2010 alone.

“Looking back I was a lot younger and never really realized what was going on, but now it’s such a great thing and really can’t get over it,” says the 19-year-old. “Every dollar that’s raised goes directly to the scientists and what makes it so great is that we’re so close to a cure. It’s just a matter of time. My mom probably never thought it would blossom to where it is now.”

While Ann doesn’t often have time to step back and admire her work, she says there are always ways to make it better and more successful.

“Comic Vision’s success can be directly attributed to the incredible volunteers who get behind the event in each community. They are the backbone and it
wouldn’t be possible without them,” she says. “It is thrilling for me to attend the events that aren’t in my community and see all the people I’ve never
met. Comic Vision has reached out and touched them in some way. That is what I find remarkable.

“Organizing the event gave me an outlet to talk about it and spread the news about the good work FFB does by funding leading-edge vision research. Everyone wanted to help with Comic Vision in whatever way they could. This was how they showed their support for us. We are truly blessed to have such amazing friends and family members.”

The London evening includes comedians Graham Chittenden (Just For Laughs, CBC Radio’s The Debaters, Comedy Now! and a Great Canadian Laugh Off finalist in 2009), James Cunningham (Last Comic Standing, Just for Laughs, Comedy Inc. and Comedy Now!) and Debra DiGiovanni (Much Music’s Video on Trial, Last Comic Standing and Comedy Now!).

Money raised will support the FFB’s innovative projects in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in hopes of leading to future clinical trials for patients in Canada. While Morrison has lost a significant amount of vision, he is hopeful that research will help save and restore
sight not only to him, but also to more than one million Canadians living with retinal degenerative diseases. 

“Comic Vision began over 10 years ago with family and friends in a small venue in Toronto, and now we’re entertaining over 2,500 people each year across Canada,” Morrison says. “Now in its sixth year in London, I can’t believe how much support this event has received from the community, helping us raise $2.7 million dollars for vision research since we began – a true inspiration for me and my family that a cure is possible.”

While he initially had a bit of difficulty seeing blackboards, with the help of friends and accommodation support from the university, such as larger print
exams, Morrison is loving his first-year at Western.

“Things are going great and I’m pretty busy with exams coming up.”

And mom is thrilled to see her son doing so well and maturing at Western.

“No question that I am incredibly proud of Gavin. I always have been,” says Ann. “He handled his disability with a sense of maturity, even when he was very young. Gavin has always been a wonderful ambassador for FFB. He knows that Comic Vision is making a difference, and he believes in the work of the researchers and scientists.

“Research is what gives us hope that  break-through discoveries will lead to treatments and cures for devastating eye diseases. My hope is that Comic Vision will continue to raise awareness and significant funds for vision research by reaching new people every year.”

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