It’s 10:00 a.m. and I’m about to head out the door to meet up with a friend at my alma mater to go downtown for coffee at a quaint café known as Hyperion. I begin to take out my folding cane and walk down the concrete sidewalk, which is marked by clumps of grass and weeds (predominantly the latter) and inconsistencies in height. I swing my cane back and forth as I listen to the roar of traffic next to me and come up to the first intersection and the rolling tip of my cane caressing the sidewalk with each swing of my wrist, hoping that whatever driver might be there is a kind soul. I stop and listen; thankfully there’s no one there and I can cross safely.
Depending on who you ask, going out like this can be a potentially deadly flirtation with Death, but I’m unfazed by such anxieties and presumptions. I’m legally blind and have been since birth. I was born with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) due to being born three months premature. I was also recently diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which will most likely lead to eventual total blindness. At the moment, I’m “just” legally blind with a 15˚ visual field in my right eye and 10˚ in my left. My overall visual acuity is 20/200 in both eyes. Both of these criteria meet the legal definition of blindness, which stipulates a visual acuity of 20/200 and/or the widest degree of vision being 20˚ or less in the better eye.
This will be the first time my friend and I have met in person. We met via Facebook and FaceTimed and texted back and forth fairly frequently over the preceding summer. I’m the first blind person she’s ever met, and she made it clear she has a ton of questions. The first time we talked on FaceTime, I got this concerned look followed by, “Hey, so this is kinda awkward for me, but is it OK if I ask questions about your blindness?”
I smiled warmly and replied, “Sure, that’s totally fine!”
“Oh, thank God,” she said, “I was afraid you’d think I was an asshole. When do things start getting blurry for you?”
I paused momentarily and thought about my vision, “Um… you know when you’re sitting at a stoplight and there’s a car in front of you? I can read the license plate until the car starts moving. Does that help at all? Oh, and I have pretty much no vision off to my sides.”
“That actually helps a lot! Thank you! Is it OK if I have, like, a trillion questions?” she asked.
“I actually appreciate it when people ask me questions rather than making assumptions,” I replied.
I arrive at the university and make my way to my friend’s dorm. I take out my phone and quickly send her a text letting her know I’m here. A few moments later she emerges and runs up to hug me. We then began the walk to Hyperion where we’ll spend the next few hours drinking ungodly hot chi tea lattes and talking about a myriad of topics ranging from school to psychology (both of us have anxiety).
She nervously grips her latte and asks me another question, “What are some of the most ignorant things people have done or said because of you being blind? Is it all right to ask that or am I being a jerk?”
I laughed a little as I thought of all the naïveté I’ve encountered over the years, “Well, yes, that’s fine of you to ask. Ask whatever you want. Um… when I was at school the students working at the post office tried to use ASL on me when I told them I needed help getting to my mail.”
“What? Are people really that ignorant?” she asked, shocked.
“Sadly, yes, but I think most people are decent,” I responded.
“What’s the worst you’ve dealt with?” she inquired.
“If we’re talking about people being purely naïve, I’d have to say one of my high school math teachers. She flat out banned me from using visual aides and assisted that I was ‘too young to have so many doctor appointments and bad vision,’ so I must have been faking it all,” I stated.
“How… like, I’m becoming a teacher and I can’t understand someone being that foolish!”
“Now, if we’re going to talk about someone being an asshole, the award goes to my step-aunt,” I said.
“Oh God,” she replied, bracing herself for the absolute worst.
“So as you know, I just finished my Master’s degree in psychology and working towards my doctorate so I can become a clinical psychologist and eventually a board certified clinical sexologist,” I began.
“My step-aunt is a nice lady, don’t get me wrong, but she’s ignorant. She once asked me what my career choice was after I finished high school. I told her my plans and her reply was, ‘Don’t you think that’s a bit ambitious for someone like you? Cripples don’t become doctors. You need to shoot for something more realistic and in line with your intelligence, like washing dishes.’ I haven’t talked to her since,” I said.
There was dead silence for a good 30 seconds. “I… I… can’t wrap my head around that! How can anyone be so cruel?”
“That’s a wonderful question,” I said. Not too long after, we wrapped up and started our walk back to campus so we could say our goodbyes and I could walk home, where a Xanadu-like environment awaited me.
If I had the opportunity to stand up on a soapbox before society and educate people about blindness, there are a myriad of things I would say. However, above all else I would want people to know that blind people are capable of accomplishing nearly anything they set their mind to. There are blind medical doctors, psychologists, and lawyers. Blind people aren’t as limited as society seems to “dictate,” and we’re capable of achieving our goals and dreams; we simply need to do things a bit differently to reach our end goals and live our lives to the fullest extent possible.
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Thinkstock photo by Antonio Diaz.