Adventures in Partial Sight

It is common when people see me with a mobility cane to assume that I am completely blind. This is much the same as people almost always assuming a wheelchair user is paralyzed, or that a deaf person can’t hear anything, etc. As to be expected, the spectrum of the disability world is much wider than most imagine. Most blindies can see something, most deafies can hear something, most wheelchair users can stand, walk, etc. This is an attitude that I think most crips get use to as part of their inevitable and unavoidable job of educating people not in the disability know how on the reality of disabled life. That’s all fine with me. I expect people to have questions. I certainly would. What I find interesting is that when I tell people that I have some useful vision (I can read large print, see colors, etc) the usual response is “oh thank god!” I.E. “You’re sort of normal, that must be so much nicer for you than other blind people! It could be so much worse!”…

Now, I will state that having some useful vision is helpful, and probably makes certain aspects of daily living easier for me than for someone with no vision. Though I will do my political duty here and say that this is because the world is geared towards people who can see. It has nothing to do with people who are completely blind being less capable. For the record, I also know a fair amount of blind people with no vision who cope and seem far more independent than me… disability is only one factor in how a person copes with his or her life… Likewise, if I were to loose the vision I currently have, I would have to make some huge adjustments in how I operate in that I’m use to being able to read print, see the color of my clothes, and identify large visual cues when navigating a street in order to orientate myself. What I don’t think people are aware of is that there are also many points in my life where I actually think being completely blind would be far more useful than my current visual state. This is no more apparent to me than when I’m on stage.

I spend the majority of my life looking at a blob of blurry color and shape and trying to identify what it is. My brain can’t not do it. Often I’m wrong. This usually leads to very interesting and fun experiences where my brain will invent images (not based in reality) in order to make sense of said blob. I have seen people seemingly sprout wings and watched what looked like a line of gigantic pumpkins parading down a building sight (they were tractors). I’ve also seen repeated shapes that I logically know are something mundane like a couch and constantly identified them as other things in my visual memory. In my childhood best friend’s house, her family had an old grandfather clock next to a recliner, and the two objects together always looked like a strange dragon to me. I even went so far as to name him (Samuel) in my mind, though I was never brave enough to tell anyone of my imaginary friend.

As fun as that can be, and as much as I am convinced that this experience in itself is largely responsible for me leading a life and career in the arts, it can also be exhausting and frustrating, and is something that can only be turned off by closing my eyes. Also, when the shapes are extreme brightness (like a stage light) or extreme darkness (back stage) they actually become uncomfortable and extremely disorientating. Spotlights mean all I can see is light, and often leave me with a glare that hangs around for a few minutes regardless of the actual lighting state, which restricts any useful vision I have. Also, there are points where extreme changes in light mean it is easier for me to operate as though I can’t see anything. For example, in Threepenny, I have one small part where I play the glockenspiel. The first time I play it, it is lit. This particular one is silver so it gives off a glare, thus meaning I can’t see it. The second time I play (as I play it actually) the lights do a quick fade to a much dimmer state, and in my visual brain gives the image of the ground and the gloche dropping out from underneath me. I’m use to it now, but the first few times, it did actually make my tummy jump a bit. (Ironicially, I was more worried about the gloche than my own safety)

I also find in dancing that I am often better with spacial awareness with my eyes closed, particularly when I’m spinning. This is the case in the tango for Threepenny where Macheath and me spin around quite a bit in our dance. Funnily enough, I use a visual cue to find him at the beginning of the dance. He has a white shirt, which to me in the lighting state (which is quite red) glows like a beacon. Then as soon as we’re both down stage and singing he moves to a different place and due to his proximity to the light behind him, he completely disappears so I have to find him through sound (difficult when his voice is coming out of various speakers, including ones behind me) and muscle memory.

Also, when on tour this means everything changes in each venue. This is the case for everyone who performs in multiple venues, but is again one of those things that can be less acknowledged as lighting states, sets, etc. don’t change thaaat much usually. Even the smallest shifts in a set or a light can change everything.

I mention all of this not as a plea for pity at all. I’m very happy with my visual impairment and who I am with this visual impairment. I don’t think that my supposed “issues” make anything harder for me than anyone else. It’s just how it works for me. I mention this because I’ve had a few people (blind and sighted) make comments about how much easier things must be for me for having some sight. While I won’t outright deny it as I’ve never experienced “proper” complete blindness, I will state that making a cut and dry statement like that is not going to be accurate. Visual impairment as it exists for many people (i.e. having some vision and dealing with the various ways that this state shapes the world one lives in) is a vastly unexplored subject outside of the medical world… and in that world most of the exploration seems to be about how to capitalize on the vision that is there in order to make a person as sighted as possible… fair enough. But blindness, like every other disability, and really like every other part of life that shapes a person’s identity, is complicated and unique for each person. Things that are easy for some are not for others and vice versa.

I’ve unintentionally stepped on my soapbox here. I hope you’ll excuse me for that! This is just something that keeps coming up for me, and therefore something I thought I’d share. As always, thoughts are most welcome!