How Living With Blindness Can Open Windows of Perception


Many people in society seem to believe blindness is a fate worse than death. As a recently blinded woman, it wasn’t until I lost my sight that I realized blindness is just a different way of perceiving the world around me — certainly not a death sentence. My “dark” circumstances have caused me to open my sightless eyes and see blindness in a different way. I’ve learned that blindness is not the end of life, but rather, the beginning of a new chapter and a different way to live a happy, productive and fulfilling life. And I would argue, even better.

But blindness is not the problem. It’s managing the people around you. If you’re blind, that’s what society sees first. Since my ability to perceive the world is now different, the way I’m perceived by others has also changed. When a friend recently pitied me saying she was so sorry I had to live in darkness the rest of my life, I realized that my visible disability — made ever so apparent by my dark glasses and white mobility cane sweeping and tapping about — marks me to some sighted people as someone who must be living a sad, lonely and unfulfilled life. However, I live in the same world, do the same things and go to the same places I did before I lost my vision, and then some.

First of all, I do not live in “darkness.” I know it’s hard for sighted people to understand that, but blindness is not like closing your eyes and being plummeted into a world of terror and panic that sighted people assume it is. I work, write, hike, swim, kayak, race sailboats, perform music, go to parties, dine out and perhaps the most fun, shop ‘til I drop. (Yes, blind girls can do all the girly things sighted women like to do!)

Your brain can rewire itself to recognize the world in a very different way by using your remaining four senses, sending information deeply into your heart and mind, mapping out the very rich and wonderful world of shapes and sounds, aromas and tastes, rendering a vivid impression of my surroundings in a complex, intertwined and profound way. This phenomenon is called “neuroplasticity,” an umbrella term referring to the brain’s amazing capacity to both physically and functionally reorganize and adapt or alter itself (“plastic”), helping it to remap itself in response to new situations or changes in one’s environment due to injury or loss of a sense such as sight. Although blind people generally don’t have any innate “superpower” senses as many people think, this dynamic re-mapping process of the brain does help us to learn from and adapt to different sensory experiences by paying attention to our other senses with a heightened level of sensitivity.

Yes, some people will pity me, thinking I have a horrible disability, while others, due to my ability to function effectively and navigate the world around me — particularly when I take off my dark glasses and fold up my cane and put it in my purse and “look” them in the eye as they speak — will say, “Carla, you don’t look blind to me.” I’m not always sure how to respond to that subtly accusatory observation beyond saying, “Well, guess what, you don’t look sighted to me!”

I’ve worked very hard to understand and accept who I am — simply a woman who cannot see with her eyes. And now, along with some adjustments, new windows of perception open up for me every day by using the many resources available for the blind. I do everything I did before I lost my vision and then some. Just like sighted people, blind people are diverse and unique individuals with different passions and interests, skills and talents. I have wonderful friends and spend as much time as I can with them, enjoying a rich and fulfilling life. The challenge is more about helping society become more understanding of and comfortable with blindness.

It may take me a little longer than sighted people to do things, but I just say “I can” and I do. That’s what it’s like to live with blindness.

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