I am a university professor and research scientist. My field of study is the sense of sight–how we make use of the patterns of light reaching our eyes to inform us about the objects around us.
You may find it surprising that I have devoted my life’s work to vision research when I am nearly blind myself. I see enough to read highly magnified letters on a display screen, but I rely on braille and computerized speech for most of my reading. I carry a white cane. I recognize people by their voices.
Can you imagine being blind? Why do people fear blindness, and believe that blindness would devastate their lives?
It’s true that visual impairment poses practical challenges for me, such as difficulty in accessing print, reduced mobility in a country reliant on driving, and the inability to identify friends across the street. For much of human history, the practical impediments caused by blindness were devastating, consigning most visually impaired people to life on the margins of society. I am lucky to live in a time when society is embracing the idea that accommodations should enable people with disabilities to join the mainstream. Modern technology is playing an important role. I am writing this essay on a braille computer. In my pocket, I have a cell phone that will take a picture of a printed page and read the text aloud to me.
Many people believe that we are the sum of our experiences, and that vision provides the richest source of these experiences. They believe that, even if the practical barriers of blindness can be overcome, life without vision would be incomplete.
I don’t accept this view. I believe that the meaning of one’s life is to be found in an internal construction. Borrowing a literary metaphor, our lives are tapestries. We weave our tapestries from the fabric of our daily experiences—our happy and sad moments, our exciting, inspiring and disappointing endeavors, the good and the bad that befall us. Yes, vision impairment has had an influence on my personal tapestry. But the dominant structure in the tapestry is shaped by my lifetime of interactions with family, friends and students, and not by the blurry images on my retinas.
Would I like to have my sight restored? When asked this question, a blind friend answered by saying, “I’d like to have vision, but only three days a week.” This answer reveals an ambivalence I share. My personal tapestry has been woven during my lifetime with impaired vision. It expresses who I am, where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
I believe there is consistency in my life. I will continue to do research on the sense of sight. I will continue to use my blurry vision to enjoy the blue sky, the green grass, and the pink blossoms on our flowering crabapple tree. Together, these experiences will find their representation in the personal tapestry I am weaving day by day.
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