The main question I get asked when discussing my visual impairment is “what do you actually see?” The answer is no one truly knows. I have been diagnosed with Lebar’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), which is a hereditary genetic disorder affecting light receptor cells in the retina of the eye, and, according to electroretinogram results, I should be blind.
Neither doctors, ophthalmologists nor researchers can measure my level of visual capability. Over the years, I have established that I cannot see any colour, only shades of grey. I have extreme light sensitivity, meaning the brighter the light, the less I will be able to see, and overall, I generally just see less than the average fully sighted person. Having this visual impairment has resulted in many issues, complications, and stresses throughout my life, although it has also simultaneously allowed me some unique opportunities that I would not ordinarily have had.
There are certain aspects of life which many people take for granted. A lot of people would think nothing of finding the correct room on a corridor if it is clearly marked by a room number. They would not consider the implications of not being able to read a restaurant menu. Identifying a new friend among a crowd of people who are unknown would not present any difficulties. For me, as a person with a visual impairment, each of these tasks holds a far more significant level of consideration and often stress.
The main question I get asked when discussing my visual impairment is ‘what do you actually see?’
On my first day of lectures in college, I had to find a room in the arts block that was simply labelled 3048. From the first number, I deduced that the room was on the third floor, but once there, I found that, as I could not see the numbers on each door, I had no way to independently find the correct room. Because of this, I was forced to ask a passing individual whom I did not know, for directions to a room, which turned out to be very close by.
While I had no way of knowing whether I was close to the room or not and had no choice but to ask the passer by for directions, this did not change my feeling of utter embarrassment and awkwardness. This type of scenario is not unusual in my everyday life. I have found that once I visit somewhere, I can generally remember where to go, an adaptive skill I have been able to teach myself growing up. However, going somewhere new for the first time alone is quite daunting and stressful for me.
While technologies like google maps help me lead a more independent life in the wider world, they too have their limitations. I might be able to get to the right bus stop but have no way of knowing which bus is which when it pulls up. It is in the smaller details of independent life where I struggle the most and it is in these areas where accommodations need to be looked at for people like me.
Going out for lunch is often one of the first activities people will do together when trying to get to know each other, whether that is to make business connections or friendships. When I go to lunch with someone, I regularly have to request that my companion read the menu for me. While I can use my phone’s magnifier and reading apps to somewhat elevate this issue, often the fonts or the extensiveness of a menu make these aids slow and highly impractical. Therefore, I have no choice but to ask my companion. Typically, when meeting an employer most people want to make the best impression possible. They will choose specific outfits, walk with more confidence, and portray themselves as an independently and confidently as they can.
While I am a highly independent and capable person this image is often marred by first impressions. Many people assume that because I have to ask them to read the menu out to me this translates to all aspects of my life and thus the idea of me as a capable person in my own right is shattered.
However, going somewhere new for the first time alone is quite daunting and stressful for me
Once again, while this is simply an unavoidable consequence of visual impairment, having to ask others for aid with very simple tasks often has a tendency to make me feel inferior and extremely uncomfortable, and can be quite distressing for me.
New social situations are a daunting aspect in your average person’s life but for me this is drastically amplified. One of the greatest disadvantages for me as a visually impaired person is the inability to recognise the faces of people whom I have met before. When I first meet someone, I try to remember individual features such as tone of voice, height, hair length and very basic facial features. Despite this, it may often take a number of meetings before I may identify a person by hearing their voice across a room or seeing their profile in the distance.
If I meet many people in a given setting one day, for example, the first few days of college, I struggle going forward to identify said individuals when I meet them again. It is also quite difficult to identify people I know in a crowd. If I am in a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students, I am often unable to find the few people I do know in order to sit with them unless it is a pre-planned affair and I have been told exactly where to meet them.
Throughout my life, these issues that I have highlighted have occurred, not because people are trying to be unkind or degrading in some way, but simply because there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the specific needs of a person with a visual impairment. There are those few people who will always seek to make anyone who they perceive to be different, feel inferior and unaccepted.
However, I think the main problem is that people do not realise how their actions, or lack thereof, affect people like me. With the ever-increasing development of new assistive technologies, and the assistance and support of my best friend and loyal guide dog, Mossy, I am able to lead a largely independent life, though I always appreciate those kind people who wish only to help. I would request, if you ever see a visually impaired person whom you think is in need of help, ask them whether that is the case. Do not assume our needs and neglect to check whether your help is required. As a society, it is imperative that we act with kindness and consideration toward one another, rather than condescension and superiority. We must strive to always show empathy and respect for one another, regardless of our differences.