Fifty years ago I eagerly awaited the opportunity to earn my driver’s license. One day my drivers’ education instructor said, “You must never drive a car. You aim the vehicle at whatever you are looking at.”
I ran with the zeal of a 16 year old from optometrist to ophthalmologist and back again trying to find out what was wrong with my eyes. All of these men were in agreement; there was nothing wrong with my eyes. One doctor asked me what I was studying. When I told him that I was an English major, he said that I was “just a high strung bookworm with eye strain.”
For the next six years I bumbled through life like Mr. MaGoo. My reading speed became so slow that I gave up reading the novels I loved and turned instead to poetry and children’s literature because there were fewer words on the page, the print was usually larger and bolder, and the pages were not glossy. When I requested a student teaching assignment in the Illinois town where I was a university student and explained that I could not drive, the department chair said, “Your life sounds like a Dickens’ novel. People like you don’t belong in college.”
One year later, after moving to Michigan, I rested in an examination chair while a young optometrist just out of school, Dr. T.K. Johnson gave me medication and told me to rest until his boss, Dr. R.T. Blackhurst arrived. Dr. Blackhurst, an ophthalmologist, rushed to his office from his cabin. His new associate had just done something outside the box. He had checked the ocular pressures of a young patient whose visual acuity changed every time she blinked. The pressures were exceedingly high, and the visual field tests showed that vision had been lost around central vision in both eyes and through part of the central vision in one eye. I was given a pamphlet about open angle glaucoma that described the symptoms I had been experiencing during my first 22 years, seeing haloes around lights, diminished depth perception, sensitivity to light, and mild color blindness. Even the size of my eyes, larger than normal that most people found one of my most attractive features was a symptom of the disease that was making me go blind.
I finally learned how to drive a car. That was exhilarating as well as disappointing since my driving could be impaired by a few drops of rain, the glare from oncoming cars at night, snow that concealed curbs and center lines, and expressway speed limits. Recalibrating became a way of life for me.
In the fall of that year, 1969, I drove to the Midland Medical Center Auditorium at Dr. Blackhurst’s request. A conference was being held with ophthalmologist from all over the state and beyond. People like me were invited and led onstage to be seen by the chairman of the Department of ophthalmology at The University of Michigan Medical Center. I waited in the wings while a baby with cataracts was carried toward the middle of the stage. I wondered what this child’s life would be like.
When it was my turn, I met the man who would change my life forever, Dr. F. Bruce Fralick. After he learned everything he wanted to know about me and my eye condition, he asked me if I had any questions.
“Yes,” I said. “I would like to know if I will be able to go back to college and get my teaching certificate.”
“Don’t you asked me what you can do,” Dr. Fralick said with a strength and firmness I will never forget. “You show me what you can do.”
As soon as it could be arranged, I completed my student teaching requirement and earned a secondary teaching certificate.
There are some benefits to being left behind like people like me. According to the aptitude tests I took in elementary school, I am just an average student. So my parents did not put any pressure on me to earn good grades. Much later, as an adult no longer measured by timed tests and wearing glasses that filtered out the UV in fluorescent lights used in classrooms, I earned two masters degrees with grade points of 3.95. Quite frankly, I am glad the educators made this little mistake. It freed me to be creative back when STEM was being pushed on baby boomer males.
It is because there were no Tiger Mothers around that I have been able to be published so far in more genres and media than most writers: THE DICTIONARY OF MIDWESTERN LITERATURE, HUMPTY DUMPTY’S MAGAZINE, newspapers, poetry chapbooks and magazines, and now online.
The day that I came across SCATTERED SHADOWS: A MEMOIR OF BLINDNESS AND VISION by John Howard Griffin, the author of BLACK LIKE ME, I knew for the first time that there were other people like me and that some of them lived very successful lives even when the roads they travelled had many bumps and detours. I hope this blog post leads to the early diagnosis of potentially blinding diseases in children, adults, and the elderly whose symptoms might otherwise be ignored or attributed to a character flaw, attention deficit disorder, laziness, or lack of motivation. If you know any people like me or their caregivers, please encourage them to seek the help they need. There are many resources online. Just search for low vision information and services, for university medical center low vision websites, and library services for the blind and physically handicapped in your area. If you need help accessing information, just ask your reference librarian for help. That is what people like me do all the time.