Living with a Visual Impairment
So how do you come to accept your disability? Well, this is a big question and unfortunately, it is one of those annoying answers – it is different for everyone. Regardless of whether you were born with a disability or develop it later in life, you still have daily challenges to fight physically, mentally and socially.
For me, I became visually impaired when I was 9, after having surgery to a brain tumour behind my eye. I only have 10% vision in my left eye and 50% vision in my right. I have lost my peripheral vision meaning I have “tunnel vision” and also see double of everything, overall, I have been told I only have 25% good functional vision. As many children do, I adapted quickly and just got on with life, and I believe my parents approach to treating me no differently to my siblings helped with this. They knew things would be harder for me, but they let me decide for myself what worked and what didn’t and what help I might need.
It was during my teenage years that I became more aware of my disability as it prevented me doing things my peers could do like driving, playing team sports. I made the decision to move to Leeds to study –the polar opposite to where I had grown up in a little, safe village. It was at this point that I struggled– the noise, the cars and people, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges, and I did want to give up at times. I was encouraged to dust off my white symbol cane (a small 70cm white cane, which you hold at chest level to alert people you do not have full sight) and after months of struggling with unpleasant collisions with people/lampposts and falling down steps or over kerbs, I finally did use it. The transition was hard, it felt unnatural and I felt people were staring and I felt embarrassed, as if I had failed.
I gradually used it more and more though, and it did give me confidence in going into busy places and when I banged into others they were more considerate when they saw the cane. The lack of awareness of visual impairment however, meant that not many people recognised the symbol cane and I still found commuting to university difficult. I now use a longer guide cane (a cane that touches the floor and alerts me to any obstacles on my blind side which I may not have seen before I bang into them). This has increased my confidence considerably and I would not go back to using a symbol cane. I think this transition shows my acceptance of my limited vision and I am now more grateful than ever that I didn’t lose more/all my vision.
I have now been in Leeds for five years and looking back, one of the biggest changes which helped me accept my disability, as well as the support from my family, was how I responded to the public’s questions. At first I would get quite offended when I heard the comments, but I realised that there is a lack of awareness and knowledge about disability and unless you have grown up with someone or worked in disability services they do not know. So now I try to educate people in response to their comments, below are some common misconceptions:
“You don’t look blind”: Some eye conditions affect the eye physically, others affect the nerves behind the eyes, like mine, meaning my eyes appear “normal”.
“Why do you need a cane, you have glasses”: The definition of a visual impairment is reduced vision which cannot be corrected by glasses. My eyesight is just as bad with or without my glasses – I have them purely to reduce glare, strain and tiredness of my eyes.
People assume anyone with a cane or guide dog has no vision: Only 3% of individuals registered visual impaired or blind have no vision at all. Using a cane is an aid to physically mobilise for example, locating kerbs, obstacles etc, but for me, it is predominantly to alert the public. I guess making this assumption is like assuming anyone in a wheelchair cannot walk at all, or has no movement in their legs, and I am sure those individuals would tell you that that is often not the case!
“I don’t know how you do it!”: The way I think about this is there have been many aspects of my health and disability that I have been unable to control but trying to be independent and making the most of the eyesight I have left is something I can control. I am not doing anything out of the ordinary for someone my age, (most of the time!) so why should my vision loss stop me being like my peers? People cannot imagine how I manage, but the alternative of sitting at home and letting my disability get the better of me is not an option, and would only have a negative impact on my mental and physical health.
Why don’t you have a guide dog?: Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and I volunteer for them regularly, but having a guide dog is not for everyone, it is not all about a cute fluffy friend to accompany you everywhere – it is a big responsibility. Accepting my cane has taken a long time and for me and this allows me to get around and do the things I want to do right now. I want to be independent, and everyone has a different view on what that means, for me my cane allows me to be independent and I am not sure how much more a guide dog could give me. I still have some vision and I would like to maximise that whilst I can and not become dependent on a dog – even if they are adorable!
Having a disability is hard, the daily challenges can be exhausting and society doesn’t make it easy for us but acceptance comes with time and there is no reason why disability should stop you doing the things you want to do. I feel that having a disability and coping with the physical, social and environmental challenges has made me stronger in many ways and I can now view my impairment less as a negative characteristic and more of a reason to make the most of life.
I am Celia – daughter, sister, niece, student and friend, who happens to also have a visual impairment and other health conditions, my disability does not define me