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At eye.t we strongly believe in a solid partnership between the vision field (vision professionals) and the vision community (people who have visual impairments). As such, as we release new content related to AT, we also want to provide you with multiple perspectives on what it is like to have a visual impairment.

In that light, this post is by Heather Johnson, currently serving as the Braille Instructor at The Maryland School for the Blind. She has taught students with visual impairments for 20 years and always adds a balance of creativity, accountability and support that only a master teacher can provide. That describes her membership in the vision field. As for her membership in the vision community… well I’ll let her explain.

How to be Awkward….Step one.

Meeting and talking with anyone new has always been a challenge for me. Most of the discomfort comes because I always feel like the first thing new people notice is my thick glasses and wobbly eyes. So, to press on in normal new-person conversation seems awkward. But equally awkward I have found, is to blurt out that I have low vision so early on in a new connection. Ugh, either way always feels awkward. 

By all measures, I should feel and act confident in my social interactions, right? I mean, I wasn’t raised to feel sorry for myself because of my visual impairment, or to act any different at all. I am a mother, a successful professional who has been recognized as such many times over, so you would think that basic conversations would be no big deal. BUT THEY ARE!

The Low Vision Paradox

It’s not black and white, you know? Hear me out- when you are blind, like totally blind, I think people can understand that, it’s concrete- you can’t see. But with low vision, there is a lot more uncertainty. To be fair, I don’t think my functionality and independence helps clarify my limitations! What people see when they look at me is a woman who gets around just fine; she walks to work, 99% of the time doesn’t use her long cane, makes use of public transportation when needed, reads regular print- held very close-all the typical “seeing” things that people do. 

What they have to look more closely to see, and do a little thinking about is a little less obvious….. When entering any new environment, I always, ALWAYS walk a step behind another sighted person so that I can respond to the new environment based on how they react. When reading text messages, I usually take my glasses off. I cannot maintain eye contact for very long, I cannot see details of ANYTHING beyond 2-3 feet in front of me. I have extreme photophobia, and NO depth perception. On that note, it won’t take long for you to observe me trip or stumble (yes, a long cane would help that, but I’m so stubborn) on a sidewalk or flight of steps. I fall all the time! Trust me, it hurts more the older I get. They don’t see how visually fatigued I am by the end of a day. So, having low vision is much like many other hidden disabilities. Unless I know you pretty well, you won’t really get an understanding of how this impacts me. 

Should I tell them?

All this makes you wonder, why even tell a new person then, if it’s not that obvious, would it really matter? Yes, I think it does. I think it’s like ignoring the elephant in the room if I don’t speak up about it. Though, I don’t always feel like it or want to, because obviously, it shifts the conversation my way and is followed most often by a bunch of questions. This is fine sometimes, but in larger new groups, not fine sometimes. 

I think when speaking up, it’s difficult to navigate the fine line between making someone new aware and explaining, versus them developing a sense of pity for me. I DO NOT WANT THAT! What I wish is that people would take in the explanation of my low vision (if I give them one) and then move on. Maybe they quietly take notice and then grow a sense of respect for me and my fierce independence that they didn’t have before. As a person with a disability, I do not want pity, I just want to be treated with respect. 

However, if I don’t speak up, then people form misunderstandings; she doesn’t respect me because she isn’t giving me eye contact, she is disinterested because she keeps looking away or looking down… So, I continue to try and find the right time, the right words to explain who I am, without dominating the conversation, without developing pity. But to also speak up, try to be confident and show the world that people can be successful, contributing members of society who work hard and do normal things with a disability. 

During very safe conversations with dear friends and even my children once, I have been brave enough to ask; what DO you see, what DO you notice about my visual impairment. I’m often surprised to learn that most of the time, people don’t really notice it at all. Or do those close to me just say that to make me feel some relief? Which brings me back to that ongoing internal dialog, do I speak up and tell people or just let it be?

To continue the conversation, feel free to join our facebook group AT for VI professionals. We would love to hear your opionions and experiecnes. If you have any questions, email us at [email protected]