Friday, June 5, 2020

The Eye of the Beholder

Several years ago, I used my white cane and walked onto the bus and sat in the seat that was facing forward.  A woman who was sitting sideways on the seat in front of me, got up and walked over to the driver.  “I am not sitting next to that white trash,” she said.  That is the ONE and ONLY time I have experienced racism; however, I have experienced blindism MULTIPLE times from whites, both women and men.

The day after the incident on the bus, I decided to wear my power suit and pumps instead of casual clothing.  My mother asked, “Who died?” as she always did with a chuckle when she saw me wearing black.  A passenger on the bus asked me if I had an interview.  Several people on the sidewalk asked me for money.  Everyone who saw me and showed an interest in what I was wearing came to his or her own conclusion without having any facts.  Clearly, prejudging that can lead to prejudice is a choice.   

My first experience with prejudice occurred while I was teaching composition at the university level.  A white, female student was offended by my shoes and wrote her argument and persuasion essay telling me why a woman’s shoes should match her clothing.  I must admit that in the days before women had the option of wearing comfortable and beautiful walking shoes, I chose to wear Department 14 nurses shoes that came in white or tan.  One day, I wore the tan variety with a pink sweater and a pink plaid skirt.  How gross.  Looking back, even I wonder why I did not carry a pair of pretty shoes with me to wear in the classroom.

As I taught students, I learned to be and was even paid to be open minded.  My students had a right to have their opinions.  It was my job to teach them to think critically and express their arguments well.  Now a person who is open minded and reads original sources or listens to all sides is labeled a Republican, a conservative, or a bigot.

Years ago, I chose to be open minded and objectively observed that the woman on the bus had a purpose and might not have intended to offend me.  I had given her an excuse to get up out of her seat and stand next to the bus driver with whom she wanted to flirt.  People like her often believe that their insults cannot be heard by someone who is blind.  My student who had a really good reason for trying to educate me, might have been studying to be a fashion designer, a model, or a clothing merchant.  She might have believed that I was color blind in addition to having low vision and wanted to be helpful.  Then again, both of these women might just have been the kind of people you would cross the street to avoid.

My first student who was living with blindness was also black and adjusting to an eye condition that was caused by multiple sclerosis.  In one of his essays, he shared that being black was more of a challenge than being blind.  Years later, another student who was blind from birth and adopted from an Asiatic country never discussed nor wrote about the challenges he experienced and seemed to thrive on what to him were adventures.  He was a member of the National Federation of the Blind and later worked at the Washtenaw County Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped where he became my computer literacy teacher.

The eye of the beholder can create images that lead to misimpressions and misunderstandings.  A journalist, Debbie Stanley, wrote a book, Coping with Vision Disorders.  The book was written and intended to be helpful.  Some of the information that is provided in this book is excellent, but the tone is negative and, at times, depressing.  Stanley provides the titles of what she calls “Film Images” at the end of several chapters that are supposed to portray what life is like for the blind and visually impaired.  Her argument is faulty, however, because three of the movies (A Patch of Blue, Scent of a Woman, and Ice Castles) have main characters who lost their eye sight from a traumatic accident involving the eyes or the head rather than a medical condition caused by an eye disease or the side effect of another illness.  Her selections that also include The Miracle Worker that is about Helen Keller who was deaf-blind, does not mention that Anne Sullivan Macy, Keller’s teacher, was also visually impaired and a trained rehabilitation teacher.  At First sight is the other movie that is mentioned.  The main character loses his sight, regains it after medical procedures are performed, and then loses it again.  If this is the only movie a patient or a caregiver sees about managing a life with vision disorders, a cloud of hopelessness and melodrama will impact their ability to remain objective about future procedures.   In addition, Stanley’s resource list excludes two of the most important and oldest organizations, the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired (formerly the Hadley School for the Blind) and the Xavier Society for the Blind.

Phyllis Campbell, an author who is living with blindness, has written two romance books that are equal to any stories that you would watch during a Hallmark Movie.  Come Home my Heart is about a female obstetrician who becomes blind after a brain tumor is removed.  Where Sheep may Safely Graze is about a married pastor who is blinded in combat and returns to his wife and congregation.  These books do not show their main characters coping.  Rather they are overcoming and providing the happy endings that romance readers expect.  Once again, however, these books present the images of people who lose their vision due to circumstances other than eye diseases.  The National Library Service and Learning ally have many books written by or about people who live with permanent, temporary, or chronic eye diseases.  Amazon and Audible also have other books that are being independently published and not added to the NLS or Learning ally offerings yet.  Most of these books are positive, entertaining, and sometimes humorous.

I did have one thing verified as I read Coping with Vision Disorders.  I am no longer living with low vision.  I am now living with blindness.  The transition occurred slowly at first but escalated in the past year as 30 year old cataracts now leave me blinded by light on many occasions and unable to read large print without high-powered magnifiers.  Simple tasks like finding a can of corn on a shelf instead of a can of beans is no longer a simple one.  Until now I have not needed Braille labels and shopping lists.

I’ve tried to set up surgery three times in the past ten years.  Each time, something puts up a wall to prevent it.  My trust in god teaches me that Father knows best and His timing is not the same as mine or my doctor’s.  What this means is that I am setting up boundaries in order to learn the independent living skills that I need at this stage of my eye disease’s progression, and the time that I have devoted to advocacy and volunteering will no longer be available.

The most impressive person my eyes ever beheld was a computer specialist who was able to get my computer and scanner to work together.  The technology gave her 10 seconds to accomplish this task.  She left Ann Arbor after working here one year because the students expected her and her guide dog to get out of their way as she walked through campus between classes.  Students and alums also stop traffic, ignore street signs and lights, and read their smart devices as they walk down the city sidewalks while expecting people to get out of their way.  Since the pandemic began, people who live with blindness and have traveled independently in the past are expected to read signs that have safety rules, follow arrows on floors in order to keep a social distance, and ride buses by entering through the back door without the assistance of the driver who usually confirms that a person is getting on the right bus.  Expectations are so high in Michigan that the governor even told people to go online to learn how to cut their own hair.  Considering that Michigan cannot provide decent roads, safe water, and dams that don’t break, I am not expecting help from the State.  I do believe, however, that in a country that can send men and women into outer space, “the experts” can come up with a safe way to give a haircut to a person who is blind—and everyone else.  They can also stop turning a blind eye to the importance of regular eye exams and surgical procedures that will prevent or postpone blindness during the pandemic.

Jesus, who was also an innocent victim in his time, said, “Behold I make all things new.”  Revelations 21:5.  Being able to adjust to new situations is one of the skills that blind and vision impaired people are required to learn.  The virus, protests, and riots in many cities have now made the world less safe for the blind and vision impaired to travel alone .  After being independent for so long, it is almost impossible for some of us to behold this new and different world and accept that we are once again invisible.  The biggest challenge in a time of social distancing is finding people who will say, “Let me walk with you and be your eyes.”  As Stevie wonder sings, “That’s what friends are for.”  “Keep smiling.  Keep shining.”

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