As I’ve mentioned before, I faced many challenges after losing my sight, learning to use a cane, to read Braille, to manage major daily tasks, like negotiating a new city, or minor ones, putting eye liner on my eyelids, not my nose. After an excellent training program, I lived on my own, changed careers from elementary school teacher to teen therapist, married, had two kids, became a writer, then came full circle back to teaching. All challenges met, though not always gracefully.
So I didn’t expect as a veteran blind person to encounter another and very different challenge—comparisons to the superhero blind—people who climb to the summit of Mt. Everest (Erik Weihenmayer, 2001) or hike the Appalachian Trail (Bill Irwin, 1990.) They are courageous, adventurous, and altogether extraordinary. But frankly, to someone like me, who became blind at the age of twenty-six and now functions independently, if not stupendously, they can also seem a little, well, exhibitionistic.
“I used to think you were something, Sally, but you’re not,” a friend joked, after marveling at the exploits of Bill and Erik.
I wanted to ask, “Did Bill or Erik ever get a baby and pre-schooler fed, dressed, placed in a backpack and child’s harness and leash, and onto two buses in a snowstorm for nursery school and a parents-day-out program for which they were the lecturer?”
I’m the first to admit that I lack the daredevil-blind’s risk gene. My derring-do consists of crossing streets with sighted people as old as I am behind the wheel, flaunting their slowed reflexes. Or crossing intersections with drivers half the age of my children texting while holding a tall latte between their knees.
Yes, there are many more accomplished people with disabilities out there, putting me to shame. But if you’ll excuse the immodesty, there is one way in which I rival the alpha blind. And that is in the way that I’ve adjusted to my life with vision and hearing loss—and not just adjusted but improved.
Let me give just a few examples.
I became a reader. Before my blindness I read everything required, but I never read for pleasure. I was a jock, and books seemed too sedentary for my taste. But in the hospital with my eyes patched, I listened to audio tapes and discovered how joyful books are.
I became a writer, a career that always seemed to be the dominion of the blazingly exceptional. But once I fell in love with books, the profession seemed possible.
I began to teach again, at a local University in its M.F.A. program, in the two writing critique groups I mentor, and during school appearances.
So my blindness and the hearing impairment resulted in two things: adjustment and transformation. Still, coping with personal tragedy is often enough of a challenge. I adjusted because of a combination of outer and inner resources, incredibly supportive family and friends, excellent training program, marketable job skills and experience, a god-given hopeful attitude, a sense of humor. The timing was perfect, too, since I had few responsibilities, no spouse or children with expectations/demands, so I could concentrate on learning the skills I needed. And I was young—two/thirds of my life was ahead; I couldn’t give up.
Without such resources and good timing, coping must be awfully difficult. But I met many people with far greater tragedies to face than mine, and still they carried on. This, frankly, inspired me.
And I had models to follow, of people whose losses transformed them and made them better human beings. Again, these people spurred me on.
So if it helps, I offer my life up, in all humility, as a reason for hope. When you face devastating problems, remember me facing the blind person’s fog, encountering open manholes and take courage. Remember me carrying a bag of reeking dog poop around in my pocket for 12 blocks, then into a store, because I can’t find the dumpster. Maybe you’ll laugh and feel your own frustrations ease.
And yes, remember those show-offs, Eric and Bill, and continue to climb your mountains and hike your trails. Maybe, too, in time, you’ll find that these problems have transformed your life in positive ways.