When Your Visual Impairment Isn’t Visible

The Temptation to Pretend We Don’t Have a Disability

In honor of Invisible Disabilities Week, which falls from October 18 through October 24, I decided I would share a few thoughts about the temptation to pretend we don’t have a disability.

What Is An Invisible Disability?

According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, “the term invisible disabilities refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments. These are not always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes or always limit daily activities, range from mild challenges to severe limitations and vary from person to person.”

Although I was born with congenital glaucoma, I could see well enough to learn to read at age three. I had some usable travel vision until I was 8 and a half years old.

A 20-degree field from glaucoma

Caption: Image Showing 20 Degree Field From Glaucoma

When you see a bit, you learn to maximize the use of what vision you have. That can be confusing to the public who tend to think that being blind means that you see nothing at all. If your vision is such that you can see to read – or like a friend of mine paint – by viewing the world through a narrow aperture, people can assume you see more than you do. Some people who are visually impaired are tempted to pass as sighted rather than deal with the difficulty of trying to explain what a limited field of vision or travel vision is.

collage of children using white canes, and the slogan Keep Calm, It's Just a Cane

Hiding One’s Disability Leads to Risk of Injury or Misunderstanding

When I meet young people who refuse to use a white mobility cane or other devices that mark them as visually impaired, I try to make them see that they only risk injury and misunderstanding. It is better to accept visual impairment as just another part of who you are than to have others make assumptions that you are rude because you didn’t notice them wave at you in the hall. It is better to have them know that you don’t see well in certain lighting conditions than to suspect you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol or just clumsy when you trip or run in to things.

Taking Time to Explain is Important

On occasion, I have been accused of faking my blindness because I move gracefully, look at people when I speak to them, and my prosthetic eyes look normal rather than clouded. I have found though, that taking the time to explain is important. I don’t want friends to think I am rude or stuck-up if I don’t acknowledge them across the street. I don’t bring my dog guide everywhere because I am passing my pet off as a service dog just so I can have him with me. Nor am I training him. He is honestly necessary for my safe travel. Learning to accept my blindness as just part of the total package that is me makes me comfortable in my skin and generally content in my life. I feel that learning to handle the complexity of alternative methods of doing things has made me a stronger, more flexible and resilient person. Challenges are just opportunities in disguise.