Wednesday, July 9, 2008

say no to cornea discrimination

I've worn glasses since the second grade. There have been many (many) bad frames in my past, some of which could rival these. My eyesight is so poor that the big E on the vision chart looks like a fuzzy black pillow I could take to the waiting room and cuddle with while they special order my out of stock prescription lenses. The "coke bottles" cliché was all too familiar until they came out with light weight lenses and even then, my glasses were always too thick to be hip. Sometimes I think about how limited my life would be if I was suddenly thrust into a world without vision care and the technology to produce contact lenses or worse yet, plain old eye glasses.

This morning I spent 2 hours being oriented to the volunteer program at the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI), and I was reminded that there's a whole population living with vision impairments that make my misshapen corneas seem like a walk in a very blurry park. The director of volunteer services has never been a sighted person. This is something that I'm somewhat embarrassed by, but I've never understood how someone who is blind from birth visualizes things. When I say "there's a blonde man in the feminine hygiene aisle," how would someone who's never physically seen the color "blonde" internally develop the picture I'm trying to convey? Naive, but it's what I was thinking about on the way to the orientation. It's also what I was thinking about while we watched the 1971 video about our guy Jim and his first experience with a blind man.

After a round of introductions and 2 outdated videos (Jim was a good sport as the narrator chided him for his inexperience) we got a tour of the center, which was led by another visually impaired volunteer services coordinator. This same woman gave me my first "sighted guide" experience after the other new volunteers had to run off to their responsibilities. I wonder how funny we looked walking down the sidewalk of downtown Atlanta, an apparently vision impaired woman with a walking stick guiding a person wearing a canary yellow eye mask.

I was only "blind" for 5 minutes tops, but it was not what I would describe as a quick experience. I curbed all temptation to lift my head and search for cracks by keeping my eyes closed the entire time, not that I could have accomplished much because there was a paper towel between my face and the eye mask, which blocked whatever light or peripheral vision I could have cheated with. We walked from the orientation room down the hall to the elevator and then out the back door of the center. It was bring your dog to work day at CVI and my guided tour was timed perfectly to coincide with the beginning of the picnic. So the back doors of the center opened, and I was overwhelmed with the sound of kids chattering, dogs barking, people laughing, all the general merriment of a mid-day break. Up until this point, I was feeling pretty confident about my abilities as a short-term blind person. I could feel the slight change in direction of my guide's elbow. I hadn't kicked her feet once. I'd even managed the tight elevator turn (whose name I've forgotten). But the bustle of the picnic frightened me, and it only got worse with the introduction of street noise as we turned left onto the sidewalk. A few deep breaths kept me from pulling off the eye mask, but I was fully prepared to reject the idea of crossing the street. I could tell we were approaching a corner, and the idea of teetering across a major downtown Atlanta thoroughfare was out of the question.

The rest of the sighted guide exercise was pretty uneventful. I mastered the stairs (both up and down), and I even managed some small talk on the way back to the volunteer room. The majority of the credit goes to my guide of course. She was calm and very much at ease with our jaunt outdoors, which made it much harder for me to give in to the panic.

One thing's for sure: if there's any way to choose your side of the coin in life, I'd much rather be the seeing-eye dog than the master.*

*this is in no way meant to equate visually impaired persons with dogs or to say that a dog would live a more fulfilled life. I'd just be more comfortable licking my own butt than trying to navigate the NYC subway system without my vision.

1 comment:

Cyndi said...

She's so lazy these days. Must be the heat. thanks for the pic!