by Isaac Lidsky
From the Editor: This presentation was made late on the morning of July 7, 2018, and, as President Riccobono noted, it stood between us and lunch but was well worth staying to hear. In his introduction he related the long list of accomplishments by Mr. Lidsky, including his start out as a childhood actor, graduating from Harvard at the age of nineteen with two degrees (one in mathematics and the other in computer science), becoming a lawyer, working as a clerk for two Supreme Court justices, cofounding an internet startup, and now working as an entrepreneur in central Florida running a company that does $250 million in business every year.
In this article we find not only the celebration of accomplishment but the misunderstandings about blindness that can come between us and our dreams. What Mr. Lidsky has been able to do is remember his own misconceptions about blindness and treat others with gentleness and compassion when they manifest the same. He makes a case both for empathy and education, and his strategies for breaking through obstacles and converting them into opportunities are well worth noting and incorporating into our own lives. Here is what he said:
When Dorothy was a little girl, she was fascinated by her pet goldfish. Her father explained to her that fish swim by quickly wagging their tails to propel themselves through the water. Well, without any hesitation or doubt, little Dorothy responded: “Yes, daddy, and fish swim backward by wagging their heads.” Now in her young mind this was a fact as true as any other fact. Fish swim backward by wagging their heads. She believed it.
Our lives are full of fish swimming backward. We make assumptions and faulty leaps of logic. We harbor biases; we know that we’re right and they’re wrong; we fear the worst, we strive for unattainable perfection, we perpetuate our insecurities and vanities, we struggle to listen to each other and to our own hearts, we tell ourselves what we can and cannot do. In our minds fish swim by in reverse, frantically wagging their heads, and we don’t notice them. Now these pesky, unnoticed fish can be particularly problematic when it comes to so-called disabilities. People make all sorts of assumptions about disabilities. That’s not news to anyone here, right? We are all pretty familiar with that idea. The thing is, we are wired to do it. Our brains build up a vast database of experiences, and we reason from those experiences. We are wired in our brains to predict, to infer, to assume. We take that which we understand, that which is familiar to us, and we try to apply or extend it to the new circumstances we confront.
So what happens when we confront that which is entirely unfamiliar? What happens when our mental database has no relevant or useful information? What happens when we have no basis to understand what we’re confronting? Well, often, fear happens, and anxiety, and self-doubt, and awfulizing.
My childhood was a Hollywood fairytale. I was born into a middle-class family in America to parents who loved me and nurtured me. I never had to worry about food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare. Blessed with a powerful intellect, school came easy to me, and I really enjoyed it. As you heard earlier, the Hollywood part—I mean literally. I grew up acting: I did somewhere between 100 and 150 commercials, got some small parts in some big things, some big parts in some small things, and then I got that lucky break: Weasel Wyzell on NBC’s Saved by the Bell—that dorky, nerdy character. I’ll tell you that as a young boy, it was really an acting challenge for me to get inside the mind of a young dorky boy—it took a lot of acting.
So I grew up with the world in my hands, and then, at age thirteen, I’m diagnosed with this rare disease called retinitis pigmentosa or RP. Now I was unaware of any symptoms at the time. In fact, I would’ve sworn that my eyes were perfectly healthy. Still, the expert told me that I had this disease, and it would cause my sight to fade to blindness. I was thirteen and going blind.
Now I didn’t know the first thing about blindness, right? So what happens? Well, fear, and anxiety, and self-doubt, and awfulizing—that’s what happened. They did their work, and with a bunch of lies they made blindness familiar to me. They told me “You understand blindness just fine enough—thank you very much.” I believed them, and so I adopted their story about blindness.
Here’s what I thought I knew about blindness when I was thirteen, having just been diagnosed. Blindness will ruin my life. Blindness is a death sentence for my independence. Blindness is the end of achievement for me. Blindness means that I’m going to live a wholly unremarkable life, likely alone. No one is going to love or respect me; I’m not going to love or respect myself. I’ll probably never be a father, which is probably for the better. On and on and on it went, and that’s what I knew about blindness when I was thirteen years old and diagnosed.
Now, of course, none of that happened. Of course, that awful reality was a lie; it was fiction [applause]. I was eventually able to see that, to move through it, to choose who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. I broke fear’s spell, and I built a very blessed life for myself—with plenty of children by the way. I have three children who will turn eight in September—that’s a phenomenon doctors call triplets, incidentally—so the tripskies, Lily Louise, Phineas, and Thaddeus will be eight in September, and sweet baby Clementine is two-and-a-half. I am immensely grateful.
So why am I prattling on and telling you all of this? Well I’d like to leave you with two points, if I may. First point: If I had not learned to see through the reality of my fears, eyes wide open, the awful life those fears foretold could have become my reality. I would’ve lived that life. I’m absolutely certain of that fact, and it’s such an important point that I want to say it again. If I hadn’t figured out for myself how to discover my own truth about blindness, I would’ve lived the truth of my fears. I’ll ask you what you fear and how your fears might shape the reality you’re creating for yourself?
Second point: Whether we like it or not, when it comes to blindness, many sighted people and others—many people—live in that world of fear. They don’t understand it, they’re afraid of it, and they assume that blindness essentially ruins your life. They think a blind life is a sad life, a partial life, a pity. Now that is an extremely painful fact, and I wish it weren’t true. I deeply, deeply wish it weren’t true. But I know it’s true because I grew up as such a person. I can remember what I first thought about blindness when I was first diagnosed. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I cringe when I remember it. I’m embarrassed, I feel guilty. How could I, of all people, have harbored such awful and erroneous thoughts about blindness? How could I have been so biased? The answer is simple: I was wired that way. Until I was forced to learn more about it, forced to really understand it, forced to confront it, my default assumption was that blindness was pure terror for me. If I’m honest, it wasn’t just blindness. I made all sorts of baseless assumptions about other people and their lives and their abilities. I still do, though now I’m far more aware of it.
So, was I a bad person as a kid? Did I knowingly discriminate? Did I intentionally behave in ways that excluded some and stacked the deck against others? No. I was human, still am. Looking back at my young self, I’m not angry; I’m sad. I’m sad at how little I understood; I’m sad that I wasted so much time and energy and thought tormenting myself with dark imaginings. I’m sad that my unenlightened perspectives about life and disability may have disadvantaged others and certainly disadvantaged me. I want to go back and hug that young boy, I want to reassure him that he’s going to live a beautiful life, I want to teach him the true meaning of ability and disability. [applause] I want to teach him the true meaning of success and value and joy.As a blind man I confront other people’s incorrect assumptions about my life and my ability every day. Are those assumptions frustrating? Almost always. Do they feel demeaning to me? Often. Do they make me angry? Sometimes. But then I remember that young boy who knew about blindness and how it would destroy his life. I remind myself that, like that young boy, those who make assumptions about me and my blindness—they have their own fears and their own anxieties and their own self-doubts. I remind myself that what I really want is for them to understand. If we want to be understood, we must aim to help others understand. [applause] We must teach not with anger or hate or bitterness or resentment. We must teach with humanity. We are wired to do that too if we so choose. I think that’s the right choice. Thank you.