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The Danger of Passing

by Jody W. Ianuzzi

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From the Editor: Jody Ianuzzi is not a mental health professional. She is a blind woman with a little residual vision and a long history of working to come to terms with what that means and can mean to her. Almost anyone who has ever had a little vision knows the temptation of pretending to see more than one really can. Other people want you to appreciate the visual world, and it is such a disappointment to them when it isn't possible.

I remember in college knitting a sweater with a four-color pattern around the yoke. I gather it was rather spectacular, and a friend wanted in the worst way for me to appreciate what I was doing. She spent hours cutting two-inch-long slips of colored construction paper and arranging them on a table under a bright light in the pattern of my sweater. She hoped that I could see the enlarged, brightly lit pattern. I couldn't, but she was so excited about the project and so dismayed when I walked in and did not have any idea what she had done that I was gradually persuaded to begin pretending that the more I looked at the table the more clear the pattern became. I felt hypocritical, but I trust the Lord will understand my impulse to be kind.

When children are forced into these subterfuges, it is particularly unfortunate because they learn lessons that are destructive of their true identity and their sense of worth for who they are. Here is what Mrs. Ianuzzi has to say about the experience:

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What is passing? It is not a new phenomenon. Various groups of people have attempted to pass for years. Passing is behavior practiced by members of a minority to appear like the majority. In the past African Americans straightened their hair to appear white. People even changed their names from Roberto to Roberts to seem more Anglo. People with disabilities have worked hard to keep their disabilities from being noticed. For a legally blind person, passing is learning to play endless games to appear to see things that can't be seen.

Why should a legally blind person attempt to pass as a sighted person in the first place? I played the passing game for most of my life. It starts out innocently enough. A small child realizes that parents are happy when the child can see and sad when he or she can not. When I went to school in the '60's, I was always afraid that, if I couldn't see and keep up with the sighted students, I would be sent away from my family. I came to believe that my parents, the school, my peers, members of the opposite sex, and future employers would accept me only if I was sighted or pretended to be sighted.

The stress levels resulting from trying to pass are unimaginable. Every time you walk into a room, you are terrified that someone will find out your secret. Your hands shake at the thought of the possible traps awaiting you. Will there be stairs? Will someone hand you something that you don't see? Will people notice you don't make eye contact with them? I remember when I began taking horseback-riding lessons, the instructor asked what I could see. I said I could see when I couldn't for fear of not being allowed to ride. I remember confiding in a friend that I had problems seeing. I was sure that, once she knew, she wouldn't be my friend any more.

The really sad thing about passing is that it inevitably catches up with you. Your vision will decrease, or the demands of a busy lifestyle will make it impossible to keep up. How do you explain you don't drive? When it does catch up with you, you go through a period of self-contempt because you can't pass anymore, and you feel like a failure. You are terrified of being rejected by everyone you have always passed with.

Then, when you eventually come to accept yourself as you are, you resent all the people that made you feel as though it was necessary to pass in the first place. You ask yourself why they couldn't have accepted you the way you are.

I knew a wise woman who discovered the truth about passing long before I did. She used arm crutches to walk slowly. She had some movement in her legs, but it was very limited. One day she realized that the only reason she used the crutches was to appear as normal as possible. She decided to start using a wheelchair because it was more efficient and faster then slowly walking with crutches. She went on to become a finalist in the wheelchair races at the Paralympics. Today she has to start marathons first because she leaves the runners in her dust. We could all learn a lesson from her example and the example of many competent blind people.

Why was I taught that I should choose between being a competent sighted person and an incompetent blind person? I have met many competent blind people who have mastered skills from climbing mountains to walking across the country to sailing oceans. Yet I still hear of children who believe that they must hide their blindness. They are ashamed of what they are. I still hear of teachers who settle for a slow print-reading speed when the child could read twice as fast using Braille. I still hear of children risking serious accidents because their parents don't recognize that they need a white cane. Why!

I envy the blind children who are raised in a matter-of-fact environment by parents and schools that accept their blindness openly and encourage the blind child to reach for the stars anyway.

Passing is like being followed by a dark shadow. One day that dark shadow catches up with you, and you realize it is an angel telling you that it is okay to be blind, that you are still a whole person, and that the world won't reject you. It is much easier and safer to accept who you are and stop fooling yourself.

Let's put an end to passing!

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