What’s So Funny About Low Vision?

by Dan Roberts

What’s so funny about low vision? Nothing really, but some humor can come from living with it. You know, those gaffes and missteps which may not be funny to anyone who hasn’t lived with visual impairment, but which can make us grin when we realize we’re not the only ones who commit them.

Lord Byron wrote, “Always laugh when you can. It’s cheap medicine.” And recent research has shown that it actually does make you healthier. This presentation, therefore, is dedicated to humor, featuring contributions from the people in our Internet community who understand visual impairment first hand. It won’t cure what ails us, but it might be one of the best treatments we’ll ever get.

I’d like to start with a short poem by Marion. She calls it “Macular Mayhem”.

I feel my life is all a blur:
I cannot tell a him from her.

I once approached a garbage pale
And thought it an attractive male.

And since I am a friendly soul,
I wave and smile at every pole.

And this is just the normal state
Of a macular degenerate.

Thanks, Marian. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who talks to inanimate objects.

Faux pas like that abound in this strange world of ours. Like this one from Sharon, who wrote:

“We were listening to a guest speaker at church, and the topic was ‘Are you desperate enough for God?’ It was a powerful message and I was quite moved. “As we entered into the greeting area, I went up to a friend of mine and gave him a hug, then leaned in and whispered in his ear, ‘Are you desperate enough?’

“When I pulled back and realized that this was not my friend, but some elderly gentleman I had never met, I blushed and moved right along. I can only imagine how well this story got around at the senior men’s breakfast.

A somewhat similar story was contributed by Mary:

“My husband [she wrote] deliberately wore a bright yellow shirt when we went shopping. That made it easier for me to find him in a crowd. Well, I found a perfect purchase, but realized I didn’t bring enough cash. So I approached the yellow shirt and said, “I don’t have any money. Could I have your billfold?

A strange voice said, “What?”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were my husband.” 

The African American gentleman looked at my fair skinned Irish mate and said, “No, I’m not your husband, but it looks like we have the same good taste in shirts”. 

And speaking of shirts, Lorraine wrote about the time she was shopping for a blouse. She saw one on a mannequin and began fingering the material. She let go quickly, however, when what she just THOUGHT was a mannequin pushed her hand away and said, “Ma’am, I’m not for sale.”

Shari’s faux pax was even more embarrassing. She wrote:

“George and I were invited out to dinner by his new boss and his boss’s wife. The restaurant was dark, but everything went well…until we prepared to leave. That’s when I reached for George’s hand so he could help guide me through the maze of chairs and tables. Only it wasn’t George. It was his boss. And it wasn’t his hand I grabbed. Oops.

“George explained my situation, but the wife didn’t seem to be as amused as her husband. She said to me, ‘You don’t LOOK blind.'” 

To which I wanted to respond, “And you don’t SOUND lie an IDIOT.” But I resisted, because George needed to keep his job.

And then there are those times when we simply don’t see things the way they really are. Like when Irving confused hemorrhoid cream for toothpaste and then worried all day that his teeth were going to shrink.

Or like when Jenny thought something terrible was happening to her recently-treated right eye. She keeps her reading glasses attached to a chain around her neck, and while preparing the evening meal, she put them on to see better. 

Jenny began to panic when she noticed that her vision was much worse, and her eye was beginning to sting and water. She described it to her husband as calmly as possible, but real tears were also starting to flow. Her husband smiled and gently removed her glasses to show her a big thin slice of onion nestled in the bottom curve of the lens. 

Vera wrote about the night she rolled over in bed to see what time it was. Her clock was always brightly lit, but that night she couldn’t see it at all. She panicked and woke her husband by yelling, “I can’t see!” He sat straight up in bed, then started to laugh.

Now she was screaming: “Didn’t you hear what I said? I can’t see!”

Calmly, he said, “Neither can I, sweetheart. The electricity is off.”

And another time, Vera wrote:

“I was taking my daily walk to the bank from my office. The big clock on the bank sign was always my point of reference as I got closer. But that day, when I got to where I could usually see it, I couldn’t! When I drew closer, I still couldn’t! My heart started racing. I was scared silly. 

“When I got to the entrance, I saw that the clock wasn’t even there. It had been removed for repairs.” 

Considering Vera’s luck with clocks, maybe she should just buy a talking watch. 

We all have trouble locating our keys, finding our cell phones, and trying to change TV channels on our stomachs because we’re holding the remote backward. But I’ll bet every one of us can, the first time, every time, from three feet away, hit the snooze button on our alarms. Why is that?

Shirley keeps calling her son-in-law to come over and get rid of snakes in her yard. One of them turned out to be a long scarf that blew out of someone’s car window. Another snake was some black tubing left by the landscaper. She says she’s afraid no one will believe her now if a snake really DOES show up.

Pam decided to make a stir-fry. She threw pieces of chicken and other ingredients into a white bowl, mixed them together, and heated it all up for dinner. Turns out the bowl she used was half full of sugar, so dinner was provided by McDonald’s that night.

Dina thought she was going blind when the lens fell out of one side of her glasses. 

James thought his vision in BOTH eyes had gone overnight until he realized his bedroom window had frosted over.

Carol thought her bag of almonds had gone bad until she realized she had popped a handful into her mouth along with her multivitamin capsules.

And then there’s Maxine. She reported that she came in all wet from watering the garden one evening. So she took off her clothes, and placed her wet socks and tennis shoes on the porch to dry overnight. Next morning, she opened the door to get her mail and found that what she thought were her socks was her brassiere. She said she wasn’t sure if her old mailman noticed. She said Ernie never actually mentioned it, but he seemed a lot friendlier after that.

It’s not so bad when we don’t recognize THINGS. But when we don’t recognize PEOPLE, that can be a social nightmare. 

One Monday morning, while waiting my turn in the post office, I saw Sheila, a fellow teacher, at the counter. It has been over twenty-five years since my retirement, but that was Sheila, all right. I couldn’t quite make out her face, but she was talking a blue streak, as usual, to the postal clerk about something or other; and I would know that voice anywhere.

By way of greeting her, I very loudly joked, “You know, if some people weren’t so gabby, the rest of us might get faster service here!” To which I expected good old Sheila to bite back with something like, “And if you weren’t so crotchety, you could have gotten here BEFORE me!” Then everyone in line would have had a healthy laugh at our antics, and this particular Monday morning would have become a little brighter.  

But she wasn’t Sheila. I don’t know who she was. She just gathered her purse, whispered, “I’m sorry, sir,” and slipped quietly away.

All I know is that my mumbled apology meant zip to her and everyone else in line, and I’ll never be able to show my face in the post office again.

So I decided to become a social hermit. Yep, if I couldn’t be trusted in public, I would just stay home and communicate by telephone. Then∏, at least, I would have an excuse to say, “To whom am I speaking?”

Speaking of telephones, a few years ago, I heard about a great service offered by our local company: free directory assistance for the visually impaired. This is a wonderful concept offered by most states, whereby a vision-impaired person can simply pick up his receiver, dial 1-411, and ask the operator to connect him at no cost.

So I called the phone company to sign up. After several attempts at hacking my way through a jungle of automated phone prompts and dead ends signified by some confused human whose final reply was “hmmm”, I came up with thirty easy steps to acquiring free directory assistance. I’ll list them for you to save you the time and trouble.

  1. Make sure you’re calling the right phone company. The company you THINK you belong to may have been bought out, merged, taken over, or split up anytime during the past billing period. 

  2. Call the billing department. Don’t call customer service, or you’ll be sorry. Also, don’t call 1-816-474-0516. That was obviously only one digit away from being the billing department of my phone company, and the person who answers will tell you so in no uncertain terms.

  3. If you get this far, you’ll be connected, and you will listen to a 90-second commercial message. That is exactly how long you’ll remain on hold. It’s always 90 seconds. Never more, never less. Exactly the length of that commercial message. Curious.

  4. When prompted by an automated voice, say your 10-digit telephone number.

  5. When the voice prompts you to do so, say any number for which you hear the word “billing” in the recorded message. It was number four for me, but they later told me it might change at any time, so don’t count on it.

  6. Say any number for which you hear the phrase “arrange billing payments” in the automatic voice prompt. I didn’t write down that number, because I knew I couldn’t count on it.

  7. When prompted, say the last four digits of your account number from the upper left corner of your phone bill, which is neatly filed away somewhere upstairs.

  8. Look for your hand-held lighted magnifier, and make your way upstairs. Locate the shoebox of last month’s receipts under the bed, find the one you are looking for (the one on the bottom of the pile), and make your way back downstairs to the phone.

  9. Repeat steps 1-7, because you have been disconnected for taking too long.

 10. Say the last four digits of your account number. The number will be in size 7 font, so you will need your magnifier.

 11. Realizing you left your magnifier in the shoebox, climb the stairs again.

 13. Find it, hurry back downstairs, and say the numbers.

 13. Repeat the numbers several times slowly, because you are so out of breath that the automated voice keeps saying things like “I do not understand wheezing.

 14. After several more tries, during which time you have become someone your mother would not even take to church, the voice says, “Please hold while I transfer you to a human who understands that kind of language.” 

 15. Check your pulse while listening to the entire second movement of a lovely string quartet by Mozart.

 16. A human will eventually answer and ask you for your 10-digit telephone number.

 17. Don’t bother to explain that you already did that back in step number four, because they don’t want to hear you whine.

 18. Just give the human your phone number.

 19. The human will ask for your name as it appears on your phone bill.

 20. If you don’t know which page of the receipt that is on, don’t bother crawling upstairs again, because you mailed it with your payment.

 21. Say any name, and hope the human doesn’t become miffed if you are wrong.

 22. Miffed, the human will ask how it can help you anyway.

 23. Say, “I would like to receive a request form for directory assistance exemption.”

 24. If the human says “hmmm,” immediately ask to speak with a manager. That’s the secret. Don’t try to explain it to the human, because it will only get more confused and start transferring you to places unknown.

 25. Listen to the third movement of that lovely string quartet. Then have a little lunch. Maybe take a course in Braille, which you’ve been meaning to do for a long time.

 26. The manager will eventually come on the line.

 27. Repeat, “I would like to receive a request form for directory assistance exemption.”

 28. If the manager doesn’t say “hmmm,” you have succeeded!

 29. You will receive the form in the mail in a few days. 

 30. Sign it, have your eye care specialist verify it, and mail it back to the address shown. That’s all there is to it.

And what do you do if the manager doesn’t know how to help you?

Hmmm . . . 

So things like this happen a lot. We either don’t see it, can’t find it, run into it, or fall over it. And even when we think we have everything under control, we somehow still seem to find ways to draw unwelcome attention to ourselves.

Take Sharon for example. This is another Sharon–not the one who propositions elderly men in church. This lady bought one of those new voice recognition phones and was anxious to make her first call without operator assistance. Here’s what she wrote about her experience as she tried calling her house from the store.

“‘Home,’ I said into the microphone. Nothing happened. Then I realized maybe I wasn’t using the right tone. So I stood there just outside the entrance to the store repeating ‘Home’ in high, low, sweet and, eventually, not so sweet tones. Still nothing, but I wasn’t giving up.

“Before long, several people had gathered around with offers  of transportation. Hey, maybe next time I won’t even turn the phone on. I’ll just yell ‘Home!’ and choose my ride.”

Hannah, one of our more progressive seniors, purchased that new phone that can carry on a conversation with you. It’s called Siri. She says the best part of Siri is that it will actually answer when you request to be beamed up by Scottie. Other than that, Hannah says she finds it to be pretty useless.

For example, she asked Siri to call Panera Bread in Charleston. It kept saying there was no listing for Hanera. So she broke it down phonetically: “Pa-ne-ra”, to which Siri announced, “Sorry, we have no listings for dating services”. 

Hannah said she and her husband were in the car at the time. It’s a good thing the windows were closed, she said, or he might have had to stop and help her look for Siri by the side of the road. 

We CAN get pretty frustrated at times. But I think it’s forgivable, as long as we don’t let it get the best of us. 

After her six-month eye exam, Olive’s ophthalmologist told her there was nothing he could do for her. “God did this to your eyes,” he said, “Now please leave, as I have other people waiting.” So Olive pinched his nose and told him God made her do that. 

8-year-old Brittany got her first long white cane. It not only helps her navigate through the halls at school, but she says it also comes in really handy for “whopping” the boys who tease her. A little more training may be necessary for Brittany.

And then, funny things just seem to happen BECAUSE of us. And when they do, it’s usually best that we keep our sense of humor.

Patty sometimes has to close one eye to look at something close up. One day, her dentist numbed her for some work on a bad tooth. As he waited for the novocaine to take effect, he saw her closed eye and exclaimed, “Oh, no! I put your eye to sleep, too!” Patty thinks he seriously thought so, too, until she stopped laughing long enough to explain. 

In my music teaching days, I took my children’s group to perform at a local choir festival. As usual, I brought along a portable light to help me see the score. As we entered the performance hall, the light dropped out of my folder and crashed to the floor, spilling its batteries across the carpet.

As my kids scurried around to pick them up, the harried festival monitor said, “Never mind those. We must remain on schedule.” To which one of my little sopranos scolded her with, “Mr. Roberts can’t SEE without his BATTERIES!” Not only did the monitor wait patiently, but my young wonders took first place at the festival.

If nothing else, having poor vision provides us with plenty of excuses for bumbling through life, whether it’s really due to our eyesight or not. To wrap things up, here are a few great excuses offered by our low vision community:

When you go out with friends, you never have to be the designated driver.

When getting engaged, you can encourage your fiancee to get you a diamond big enough to see.

You can get seated on the front row of the airplane so you can “see the movie. (You know you really just want the extra leg space.)

You can pass right by someone you don’t like and pretend you didn’t see them.

You can get your spouse to cook the dinner because you can’t read the cooking instructions.

You can be forgiven for introducing yourself to a tree.

You never have to worry about cobwebs around the ceiling, dirty shoes, or dust on the top shelves. Out of sight, out of mind.

You never have to be the map reader on trips, so you are blameless when your husband finds himself hopelessly lost.

You can pretend not to notice that your children’s faces are covered in chocolate ice-cream so someone else will wash them.

You still look the same in the mirror as you did ten years ago.

You can’t read your calendar, so you have an excuse for forgetting birthdays and anniversaries.

You know, Mark Twain said that nothing can stand against the assault of laughter, and that includes vision loss. Which is why I hope our stories have made you chuckle.

And remember to smile often. It not only helps you to feel better, but it causes everyone around you to wonder what you’ve been up to.