A Beautiful Place to Be
Among cherished hobbies and interests, I hold particularly dear my ability to make people’s heads vanish. I intend this statement in the least metaphorical sense possible, because encroaching blindness has given me superpowers. With a simple redirection of my blind spots, a stained shirt is rendered clean; a dinner bill is reduced by factors of ten; and a distinguished professor is morphed into a headless body, arms flailing animatedly in an intriguing demonstration of his point. To be sure, blindness is never a dull companion.
I was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration, at 17. While I’ve retained the mobility of a sighted person due to my peripheral eyesight, the fine vision necessary to read books, see street signs, or recognize friends is mostly gone. Though overcoming adversity is often touted as the greatest challenge of a disability, this has not been the case for me. Don’t get me wrong-bypassing the various obstacles of deteriorating vision isn’t easy. My life often requires more planning and a different approach. But challenge can be an irresistible temptress. Add blindness to any enterprise, and success will breed a precious and unique brand of confidence. Much harder than overcoming my limitations is admitting to them. Afraid the elusive line between letting go and giving up would fade with my vision, I spent my first two years of college “passing” for a fully-sighted person. I refused to use magnifiers in class, pretended to see things I couldn’t, and labored to keep my disability a secret.
Al showed me the peace and strength born of acceptance. Each plain, white door at the local hospice is adorned with a dry board. His read: “Al: A Friendly Guy.” I sat with Al every Sunday for the last four months of his life. One evening, his hand trembled so violently he was unable to hold a fork. I offered to help, and Al accepted. Afterward, he declared: “That was the best dinner I’ve ever had.” Al made this claim after every meal, but this time his words catapulted beyond endearment, and landed in the realm of the sublime. I fought tears as my irrational construction of disability as weakness came blissfully crashing to the ground. Al had lost the ability to feed himself, but as he sat back, Lincoln-like in his tall armchair, I had never seen a person look more dignified.
Inspired by Al’s courage, I resolved to change the way I handled my own impairment. In perfect personal-statement splendor, the defining moment of my experience as a blind person occurred on top of a mountain. My junior year of college, I decided to try blind skiing. The sport involves verbal cues from a sighted guide and orange safety vests. For me, the scariest part of blind skiing was not barreling down a mountain without usable vision; it was putting on the bright orange vest that said: “Blind Skier.” Fiercely independent, I had long feared the day when I would not only have to acknowledge my limitations, but inform those around me of them as well. As I stood at the top of my first ski run, my hands shook and my large, red mittens refused to cooperate with the vest’s small fastening hooks. My guide offered his help, and I accepted. It was the first time I was easily identifiable as a blind person, and to my great surprise, the earth did not crumble. The sky did not fall. To the contrary, a previously uncharted world of convenience and understanding unfolded before me: the chair lift slowed, other skiers kept courteous distance, and life was easier than it had been in a long time.
I returned to college with the wisdom that acknowledging limitations creates new possibilities. That spring, I co-hosted a fundraiser for The Foundation Fighting Blindness and gave several speeches, including one to the College Council. More importantly, I began sharing my experience with my friends, whose unwavering support reinforces my faith in this life every day. Marvin Bell writes of losing vision: “Autumnal light/gave to ordinary things the turning/beauty of leaves, rich with their losing.” Blindness is indeed a beautiful and enriching loss-the gems of wisdom my shattered vision reveals remain my most treasured life lessons. So, when the daily grind of low vision wears me thin, I imagine the day when I’ll go soaring down that mountain once more: I throw my poles behind me, crouch firm against the wind, and shoot a smile to the headless skier next to me. It’s a beautiful place to be.