You are here:

My Life as a 'high Partial"

Editor's Note: Shelley Ann Morris is Secretary of our new Ottawa-Gatineau Chapter. In 2004, she was the recipient of the United Way Community Builder Ambassador's Award.

I am known as a 'high partial', a person who, though legally blind (partially sighted), has a relatively high degree of useful vision. Being somewhat sighted has its advantages; however, like those who are totally blind, high partials also face unique challenges.

I was born with optic atrophy. My right eye is totally blind, and I have a small field of vision with low acuity in the left. A talking computer and an ocutech (a device used for both distance and reading) increase the little vision I have and enable me to function almost as well as a sighted person.

High partials stand somewhere on the continuum between full sight and total blindness--sometimes WE don't know where we stand! It?s paradoxical. I can read small print but cannot proof-read a document or complete a form. I watch TV and go to movies, but my definition of cruelty is subtitles.

I can operate my camcorder, but can only recognize my friends and family by voice, shape, hair colour and the context of where I think they would be. My white cane enables me to travel with confidence; however, I've walked into more than a few men's washrooms, found plate-glass windows face-first and asked store dummies for directions.

Eye specialists have explained to me why I see some things and not others. I can see, but I cannot discriminate, which explains why I cannot recognize faces. Having a very small field of vision means that, when I read, my mind tries to over-compensate by seeing? letters and words as I think they should be, and not as they are.

Everything I see has 'gaps', which explains why I can?t complete written forms or read columns. I?m ?monocular?; therefore, my depth perception is different, making descending staircases and drinking toasts very interesting. Augmentative technology, a good sense of humour and a positive attitude are valuable coping tools.

Whether or not to use a white cane is a question that can nag at a high partial almost on a daily basis. My cane serves as a silent ambassador, moving vehicles, pedestrians and danger out of my way. As helpful as this may be, I?m caught between the over-help and the over-there's. When I use my cane, well-meaning people often give me more attention and preferential treatment than I need--people scramble to give me a priority seat on the bus, grab me by the arm and propel me across streets (whether I want to go or not), and access to the private elevator? is automatically granted without question. I train for and participate in the annual CN Tower Stair Climb; therefore, walking, climbing stairs and standing are no problem.

When my cane is folded, however, any request for directions is met with the vague response that blind people dread most-- It' over there.? Other not-so-kind responses include, What' the matter, are you blind or something?? To cane or not to cane is a balancing act!

Every cultural group has its own customs and ways of interacting. Blind folks are no different. In groups of blind and vision-impaired friends, I have been both the leader and the follower. It' been my experience that there seems to be an unwritten code of conduct among us that says that the one in the group who is perceived to have the best sight becomes the leader or guide. Sometimes, I have served as the guide, while on other occasions friends with better vision have guided me.

People point out to me where braille has been added to elevators and bank machines. In many cases, large print is not included. There is a common misconception that all blind or vision-impaired people read braille. While I am happy when braille has been provided to those who need it, I do not use it. Thankfully, the screens now on many bank machines are large enough for me to read--some even talk!

Being a high partial requires diplomacy, tact and assertiveness. Educating others as a way of responding to ignorance is a skill that develops with time and experience. Once, in a dimly lit elevator, my request for help to find the right button for our floor was met with an impatient colleague snorting,Oh you can see that, can't you??

My eyes are spastic, which makes eye contact next to impossible. I've learned how to look in the general direction of the person I?m speaking with, but for some, this is not good enough. Like most teens, I baby-sat. Once while the parents were giving me last minute instructions before leaving, the children' grandfather butted in,Shelley not looking at you; she's not listening.Since then, I have developed the assertiveness skills to handle these situations more effectively.

My family and friends don?t see me as blind. My family jokes about the times that they hid my eggs at Easter time, took me bird-watching or left a room without telling me. My parents were determined to help me to become as independent as possible, and to live successfully in a sighted world. My ability to blend into this world was further facilitated by a program at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind that I nicknamed ?Finishing School for the Blind?. Blind teens like me met each week with a lady who did our colours, taught us how to apply make-up, as well as how to sit, stand and carry ourselves. In the workplace, I have found that my being vision-impaired engenders a spirit of cooperation rather than conflict, as colleagues offer assistance when necessary. More often, they forget--once a colleague asked me if I drove to work! I've been asked for my driver license when making ?big ticket? purchases. Once when buying athletic shoes, a rather flustered sales person explained that my name would be entered into a draw to shoot baskets and win prizes. That's OK,I told him, just as long as the other participants are wearing blindfolds.

I've met people who, just like me, stand somewhere on a continuum. In our family, there are people who are hearing-impaired. I have many friends who have all kinds of mobility impairments. I work with new Canadians who are in various stages of acquiring English. Just like people who meet me for the first time, it is hard to know what to expect. It is important that we all take the opportunity to learn from each other as there are some valuable lessons from which we can all benefit.