Future Reflections Summer 2013
by Rose Sloan
From the Editor: A recent graduate of Northwestern University, Rose Sloan is currently working as an intern with the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, DC. She won an NFB National Scholarship in 2012 and serves as president of the Illinois Association of Blind Students.
I was born with low vision, and over the years I have struggled with identifying myself as blind. I have been involved in the National Federation of the Blind for a few years now. Gradually I have made the mental switch from considering myself "visually impaired" to calling myself "legally blind."
I am what is sometimes termed a "high partial," which means that my vision is about ten percent that of a typically sighted person. My visual acuity is 20/200. This means that I can "read" 200-point font from twenty feet away.
I put the word "read" in quotes because many factors determine whether or not I can read something. First of all, I need to be in a well-lighted area. Furthermore, the font, the color of the print, and the background color all can be decisive factors. If I want to read a street sign, I cannot see it from across the street (especially if it is at the diagonal!). I might get halfway across the street before I can figure out what the sign says. I sometimes wonder how much time I would save if I could read street signs from any corner of the intersection instead of having to cross to an ideal spot.
There are ways around this dilemma, of course, but no one can be prepared all the time. When I know I am going to an unfamiliar place, I make sure to bring my monocular with me so I can read signs more easily. This strategy usually works well, but sometimes the streets have many lanes and the signs are far away. In such cases, signs are illegible to me, even with a monocular.
Another instance when it is annoying to be legally blind occurs when I take public transportation, especially subways. More often than not, the subway tunnels are not well lighted. Between the dimness and the movement of the train, I am unable to read the signs that identify the stops. I am always nervous on a train or bus that does not audibly announce the stops that are approaching. I feel that people think it is odd when I ask which stop is coming up next. Sometimes I wonder if they think I am illiterate. Usually I explain that I can't see very well. People generally say something such as, "Yeah, I can't see too well, either. Without my glasses I'm as blind as a bat." I smile to myself, appreciating that they think they understand and knowing that they really don't. After all, their vision is correctable. They can drive. My vision is not correctable, and for me driving is not an option.
From the time I was a young child, I knew that I would not be able to drive a car, and I accepted this reality. Even if I lived in a state with less stringent requirements for visual acuity, I would not get my driver's license. If a child darted out in front of my car, I don't think I would see it soon enough to respond. I will almost certainly make my home in a city where I have access to public transportation.
Being legally blind has its drawbacks, but I have developed some positive qualities that may be related to my limited sight. Some of my friends tell me that I am one of the most organized and prepared people they know. For example, the day before I started a new work-study job, I mapped out the route I would take and made a practice run. My friends were surprised, because they would never do such a thing. At that time, taking a city bus was new to me, and I felt I had to be prepared.
Another example of my planning occurred when I was a college freshman. I visited the buildings where my classes would be held days before the beginning of the quarter. When the new quarter began, my planning paid off. I knew my landmarks; I knew where my classes were. By the time I was a senior, my friends looked to me for the most efficient way to get from here to there on campus.
Whenever I run into a situation in which my blindness affects me unexpectedly, I remember it and try to learn from the experience. For example, during my junior year in college, I had to give a presentation. Although PowerPoint was not required, I decided to use it. I had given PowerPoint presentations in the past, so I did not expect this one to be a big deal. However, when I got to the classroom, I realized that the screen I would have to use was smaller than the screens I had used in the past. I got up to give my presentation. The pretty purple background was on the screen, but when the first slide came up, I couldn't read my own presentation. The font was too small because the screen was too small. Of course, I used very high contrast colors, but that wasn't enough. I could not even start my presentation because I couldn't read it.
My friend quickly tried to help me out. She gave me a copy of the handout I made for the class. "Use this," she said. "You should be fine."
But I was not fine with the handout. First of all, it was in small print. Second, I had never practiced giving the presentation this way.
At this point, I was panicking. I have been legally blind all of my life; I've learned to use alternative techniques when the standard methods do not work. But in that moment I couldn't think what to do.
Finally, someone suggested I give my presentation sitting at a desk with my laptop open in front of me. The class could see the slides on the big screen, and I could see my slides on my computer. I felt very embarrassed because I was the only person to give a presentation sitting down. I also felt I had wasted my classmates' time before we came up with a solution.
In the end the presentation went well. Now, whenever I give a presentation, I have my laptop in front of me. This was a valuable lesson, but to this day I feel ashamed that I did not foresee the challenge I faced that day.
Although I found a solution to the challenge of giving presentations, I have not found solutions to all of the challenges that arise from being legally blind. One of my biggest challenges is my difficulty reading people's emotions visually. In a psychology class, I learned that facial expressions are universal. However, when I look at pictures of people with certain facial expressions, I often misread the emotions they are conveying. Sometimes I feel that my friends are upset with me, but when I ask them about it, I realize they are not.
On the flip side, my own facial expressions seem to be more distinct than those of most people. When I talked to my professors, for example, they seemed to know when I was confused just by looking at me. Sometimes this trait is helpful, but at other times it would be nice to be unnoticed.
These personality traits and quirks of mine may be totally unrelated to my legal blindness. Some of my friends attribute parts of my personality to the fact that I am legally blind, but others believe I would behave the same way even if I had perfect vision. I am not quite sure what I believe, but since I know my vision will never be perfect, I will never find out.
My lack of vision may put me at a disadvantage at times when I interact with people, but sometimes it actually can be advantageous. For example, my sport of choice is gymnastics. I have been involved in this sport since I was in second grade, and I absolutely love it. I feel an adrenalin rush when my body is flipping through the air, especially at that moment when my hands hit the vaulting table.
I mention gymnastics because certain maneuvers require "blind landings." Blind landings occur when a gymnast is not able to see the ground before he or she lands. Many gymnasts prefer backward tumbling skills; as the gymnast approaches the ground, her head is positioned in such a way that she can see where her feet are supposed to land. Front tumbling is the exact opposite. In a front flip, the gymnast's head is looking at the wall, not toward the floor.
In order to perform a blind landing well, a gymnast must have very good body awareness. I am very aware of where I am in the air and what I am supposed to be doing in order to execute skills correctly. Many gymnasts struggle with body awareness, possibly because they rely on their eyes. Of the gymnasts I've known, many prefer backward tumbling and try to avoid blind landings. Blind landings make sense to me, and I actually prefer front tumbling.
In order for me to participate in gymnastics, a few adaptations are made. I "borrow" a teammate's eyes before I complete a vault. It is proper gymnastics etiquette to salute the judge before and after performing a routine. Often I can't see the judge signal to me that it is time for me to take my turn. I ask a teammate to come to the far end of the vault runway with me, and she tells me when to salute.
When I am practicing, I find that I am one of the most cautious people in the gym. I do not mean that I avoid attempting difficult skills, but I might wait an extra second or two before tumbling or vaulting, just to be sure the coast is clear. In my fifteen years of gymnastics, I have only once run into another gymnast. In that particular instance, a young girl was running around the gym. (Gymnasts are never supposed to do that!) She darted in front of me from my right side, the side with the eye that has no vision. Neither of us was hurt, but it was a scary experience.
I think I am one of the most verbal gymnasts in the gym. I ask others whose turn it is. I alert others that I am going to be tumbling to a particular corner or that I am going to be vaulting. Other gymnasts may see people coming earlier than I do; other gymnasts may not feel that they have to alert anyone that they will be using a certain space. I would rather be safe than sorry.
I hope that this article gives you a better understanding of how I, Rose Sloan, see as a high partial. I cannot speak for all high partials. We all see things differently.
I would like to close with a story. As a third grader, I was asked what my biggest fear was. It was really difficult for me to think of something I feared. I was the girl who thought snakes were cool and believed spiders were nothing to get upset about. (Anyway, I never see spiders unless someone points them out to me.) After much thought, my response was, "The dark." I realize now what I meant. My greatest fear was that I would go completely blind. I felt it was totally possible, since already I had terrible vision compared to my peers. Luckily, I never have lost any of the sight I have. My vision has been stable for the past twenty years.
Today the thought of vision loss is still unsettling, but I can say with confidence that blindness is no longer my greatest fear. My involvement in the NFB has taught me something invaluable: even if my eyesight declines, I can still be successful. I can still be a very happy person.