Can You See Anything?
Virtually all of us, as small children, are taught not to ask why Uncle Fred is so fat or the next door neighbor has so many wrinkles. I’ve noticed that even people whose social skills are fairly appalling have generally mastered this lesson. I clearly remember the day when, at about age six, I asked my mother why “Aunt Mary had that thing on her nose with all those long hairs growing out of it.” Not asking such questions promotes better personal relations but at the price of keeping us ignorant about some things we would really like to know.
There are few subjects more taboo than blindness. (In fact, when people are asked their greatest fear, only cancer rates higher.) So, I’ve collected some of the questions I’ve found over the years people are dying to ask but, generally, are too polite and will try to answer them in some upcoming posts.
Q: Do you see anything?
A: Actually, this is a very good question. The large majority of people think that being “blind” means you don’t see anything. I’ve met a lot of very smart people, including more than a few doctors, who believe, if you’re blind, the world is black. This idea has been held throughout many cultures over centuries. It makes sense, especially if you’re trying to imagine blindness as a sighted person, but, with rare exceptions, is completely wrong.
Let’s begin by making a couple of distinctions. The term “visual impairment,” at least as used by professionals in the field, simply means that vision can’t be corrected to 20/20 by surgery, contacts, etc. This includes an awful lot of people; the best guess is about 10 million, whose vision isn’t what they would like but is still pretty good. On the other hand, legal blindness means that your vision is 20/200 in the better eye or your field of vision is less than twenty degrees. This means that someone who is legally blind sees at twenty feet what someone with normal vision sees at 200. This is a big difference.
Many people who meet the legal definition of blindness, therefore, still have some residual vision. Frequently, they either don’t know, or don’t want to admit, that they are legally blind. This is the person who says, “I’m not blind; I just can’t read the stop sign when I’m driving.” (Not only have I heard more than one person say this, but they still have their driver’s license. Just remember that the next time you’re complaining about the other driver.) In my experience, people who are “totally blind” and really don’t see anything are a minority of the legally blind population.
You may have noticed that I frequently use the expression “blind and visually impaired” in these posts. Because just the word “blind” is so terrifying for most people, when speaking with someone who has recently lost enough vision to meet the definition of “legally blind,” I’ll use language like “low vision,” “vision loss,” or “visually impaired.” It’s not uncommon for many people who are “legally blind” to use “visually impaired” as a shorthand term for someone who is legally blind but still retains some useful vision.
Thinking of yourself as “blind” is a huge hurdle and marks a tipping point in adjusting to the loss. It’s something like AA encouraging people to be able to say that they are an “alcoholic.” This doesn’t mean that someone can’t adjust to serious vision loss without thinking of him or herself as “blind,” but confronting such an awareness does make it easier.
Probably the best vision I ever had growing up was 15/200. It was 6/200 when I entered college, and I’ve been totally blind for the last twenty years. You’d think that being totally blind is much harder, and in some ways it is, however, the problem that many people who are legally blind confront is that they are neither fish nor fowl; that is, because they can still see something, society doesn’t think of them as “blind” yet, at the same time, they aren’t sighted in the same way as everybody else. So, the question to ask is not “Can you see anything?” but “How much can you see?” or “What can you see?”