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Perception, Not Sight, Important in Life

Would you rather be deaf or blind?

That was a question posed on a website I was on recently. Most of the people who commented had zero faith that life would be worth living if they had to lose one of the two senses. I found the comments about blindness so interesting, though.

I'm always curious what people think of the life that someone like me is living. Many of the comments expressed some degree of fear about blindness and others were grumbling ignorantly about everything that blind people can't do. Nobody had anything but negative things to say about blindness, and I felt a strange twinge of amusement, mixed with disgust, as I read through it all.

I know, I know. It's scary to think about going blind.

I was scared when I was younger. Blindness was inevitable for me, although the doctors couldn't even begin to predict when it would happen. I've been totally blind now for 11 whole years. And, it's been more like 13 years since I had any real, meaningful, useful vision. So, maybe I've just completely lost my ability to understand how scary the concept seems to a person who hasn't had a first-hand encounter with loss of his or her vision.

Let me just begin by saying that being blind doesn't mean that your life or your dignity is taken from you. It doesn't mean that you will forever be dependent upon someone else to take care of you. It doesn't mean giving up your dreams nor your favourite pastimes. And it certainly doesn't mean that you lose the meaning and essence of life itself.

I'm certain that some people in this world, after going blind, will never leave their houses out of fear. Others will be told by their family, friends and community that they can't become anything. Those people will find someone willing enough to attend to their every need for years and years to come. It's sad, but inevitably true for some people out there.

Personally, I cannot imagine a life like that. The day I left my mother's womb was the day I declared my independence.

At this particular moment in my life, though, I have mastered living independently. I do not live with my parents anymore, which means I pay my own bills, clean my own apartment, cook my own food, and do every other task any other "head of household" does. It's not scary, it's not really difficult, it's just part of life, and I do it all because it needs to be done.

There are inevitably going to be things I cannot do exactly like a sighted person does them. I know I can't drive a car, but that doesn't stop me from getting around town by foot or by bus. I can't read my mail or sort my laundry exactly as a sighted person does it, but that's what a talking scanner and a talking colour identifier are for. I have a talking money identifier, talking kitchen scale, talking alarm clock, talking colour identifier, talking computer, braille labeller and braille note taker for school. Each one of those things are ways of making typical life more accessible to me.

Other than that, I learn how to know things by feel, sound, touch or smell. You'd be surprised at the actions or activities of daily life that seem like exclusively visual perceptions. Think again, though. There's likely some way, even if you have to get really creative about it, that can adapt it all for a blind person.

Enough about technical stuff, though; what about seeing the pleasurable things in life?

I do miss some things, such as seeing the fireworks and the colourful sunsets. I find, though, that on the Fourth of July, I don't sit around pining away about the fact I can't see the fireworks. I really enjoyed them when I could see them, but now that I can't see them, they've sort of slipped off to take a backseat to things that interest me even more nowadays. Things such as the outdoors and nature still do interest me, but I don't get my kicks out of watching a sunrise or a sunset. Instead, I find my interests have moved on to learning more about the birds I hear, as well as digging around in the dirt. You'd think I was a little kid again or something!

So, whether you're sighted or blind, it doesn't much matter, life is still a rich thing to experience either way. I might add, also, that experiences have nothing to do with 20/20 vision. They aren't seen, they are perceived. And, thankfully, perception is a universal kind of "vision." It requires nothing more than your ability to be living, breathing and have neural messages capable of running from body to brain and back.

Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for 11 years.

Reprinted from the Oneonta Daily Star, New York, September 8, 2007.