People’s reactions to my informing them that I am visually impaired has been one of the greatest surprises of my life. You cannot tell by looking at me: I am able to enact eye contact fairly well, I walk unassisted unless in difficult terrain and my eyes move the way peeps with 20/20 do. I go to lunch every week with my friend at a favorite eatery and often have the same waitress. Hamburger after salad after nachos after chicken fingers, the server doesn’t know until I finally make them aware.
I don’t hand out my optic deficiency like candy on Halloween but sometimes I need help working a credit card machine or reading something and then I explain why. Often I see a person a lot at a restaurant or store and they have no idea of my lack of sight. One night I was at dinner at my weekly lunch place and the hostess I talk to every visit was waving to me from about 5’ away and I didn’t see her until my husband told me she was trying to get my attention. I vigorously returned the gesture and the next time I saw her I told her why it appeared I was giving her the brush-off that evening. I learned my lesson that night and now I let acquaintances know that they may see me somewhere, but I won’t see them.
I know that my delivery does not help others to digest my disclosure. I say it so matter-of-factly, wanting to get the information out there so we can all get on with our lives. I need to work on the way I share the news and also learn to allow time for the recipient to take in the unexpected revelation. In my mind it’s such a part of who I am that it’s no different than the fact that my eyes are hazel and I am 37. Ahem. But I also realize that you don’t meet that many people as you go about your day who have a severe physical disability that can’t be seen. There couldn’t possibly be any more irony in that sentence.
I also have to acknowledge the fear I often detect, for if this random devastation could occur to me . . . And maybe it’s as simple as that. I look like you and I once was you but now I’m not. It’s sobering, I am sure, to learn that it is rare, yet possible, to wake up blind without warning. In a strange twist of fate, I have the advantage: I’ve lived it for over five years while my unsuspecting recipient is shocked that such a thing is even possible. Before it actually happened to me I would also have been sickened to hear that seeing is not guaranteed. The
The #1 reaction, though, hands down is a nervous laugh and the person not believing me. I tend to joke around a lot and since I don’t look like I can’t see properly they think I’m kidding. Or, because I am over 50 it is often thought that I am referring to the need for reading glasses that most of us require at a certain age. Recently I was in a Michael Kors outlet store, talking my same friend into buying a handbag that was both beautiful and a steal at its discounted price. As my mother-in-law would say, “You would lose money if you didn’t buy it.” A salesperson was standing nearby, watching us and the rest of the space, no doubt listening to our exchange. I can be a character and was pouring it on thick to seal the deal of the purse purchase. My friend was admiring the red color of the leather and as she always does, was asking me what it looked like to me. I told her tan and she was surprised, despite us playing this game all the time. The salesperson joined our discussion and my friend explained that I am visually impaired. The woman, probably in her 20s, asked, “So are you color blind?” I replied, “Color is one of my issues but I have very little sight in general.” “I don’t know what to say”, she said, which was the single-most honest reaction I have ever received upon telling someone I am visually impaired. I told her that was fine and that I really appreciated her truthful response. She then asked, “What happened?”, to which I provided the abridged version of how one morning I woke up completely blind, they don’t know why, a virus perhaps, and that I regained some of my sight but not much.
Our attention went back to the red beauty, already looking very at home on my friend’s shoulder. She bought the bag and we said goodbye to the young woman. As we continued on to other shops that afternoon, we talked about her and how she handled my sharing my “see-cret” with her compared to others we have both observed over the years. We are together a lot and my friend has a different vantage point than I do when I nonchalantly make my “vision statement”. It’s possible there’s a quicker processing time if the person hasn’t previously seen me and has less of a chance to observe me seeming to be observing too. My friend reported to me she saw empathy, disbelief and the curiosity I sensed, and added that she got the distinct impression this young woman was wondering what it would be like to have my limited sight. I know that if the optic nerves were on the other brain, I would definitely do the same. I am happy to answer anyone’s questions and respect and am touched by their interest.
I have no way of knowing if there are lasting effects as a result of my disclosure when we go our separate ways but I hope there are. I want those in the know to remember tha if I was a handbag, my tag would say “disabled” but I am able to live my life just like them: out in the world with friends, laughing, needing a little help sometimes, and capable of detecting a bargain a mile away.