By Randy Pierce
A student recently asked me if having had sight makes it easier for me to be blind. While I obviously do not know what it is like to have always been blind, I have some insight into my personal experiences and some of the differences from those of someone who has been blind since birth.
To fully appreciate the answer, I think it helps to understand what we mean by blind. There is a tendency to think of blindness as completely blind, which is my present experience. The reality is that more than 80% of people who are blind have some amount of vision. Whether it is light sensitivity, motion, blurry images or a significantly reduced field, the reality is that many variances exist within the term of “legal blindness.”
Any significant impact to one’s sight creates a variety of challenges. Fortunately, there are many low-vision rehabilitation techniques that mitigate these challenges. Developing a plan that suits a person’s specific sight and needs is the essential part of easing the impact of the situation.
Transition is what seems to me to be the most challenging aspect to sight loss. In transition, one needs to evaluate the impact, understand the challenge, and create a plan for new solutions. My personal transition was the most difficult in the first episode of loss even though that occurrence had left me with the most usable vision I would have in any of the following episodes. The next most challenging for me was the final transition to total blindness. It required the most extensive solutions and removed the most common strategies for everyday skills. Those solutions were based in many cases on utilizing what limited sight I still had.
Calling back to the original question, the experience of having seen did result in my improved understanding of the visual world. I can relate well to all the meanings behind things that are largely visual in nature, such as colors. I can grasp the notion of the horizon, sky, ocean and sun very well. Shadows, light, and directional terms and expressions all have meaning to me that would not exist if I did not have a visual cortex as a result of my years with full sight.
I do, however, notice that spatial awareness without vision seems to be more challenging for me than my totally blind peers. Their ability to echo-locate information about their surroundings far surpasses my own still slowly developing skills. Their tactile speed of interpretation, particularly in the braille literacy, is vastly superior to my own. Each of these phenomena seem to have a correlation to active time spent in the experience. I am improving, but the extended time spent of those blind from birth, particularly in the brain forming early years, has a value which I may never fully appreciate because I lack of that experience.
What I absolutely observe and believe is that in either case, the quality of life is not so much dependent upon the level of blindness or the experience of any vision. Rather, it seems directly linked to the choices made by the individual to use the skills available to them as a baseline for their own appreciation of the world. In this I’m glad my experience is almost solely based upon an eager curiosity and a highly motivated approach to ensure that life is a rewarding adventure with or without the use of my eyes!