By Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education and Training, IlluminArt Productions
In IlluminArt Productions’ play, “What Goes Around”, the opening scene portrays several students asking the question “What do you see when you look at me?” In a school setting, our outward appearances often cast an inaccurate shadow over the content of our character. Peers make assumptions based on how we look, what we wear and who we associate with. You’re the nerd, the fat kid, the jock, the cheerleader. Every kid has a label and whether or not that label is correct is anybody’s guess, unless you’re willing to actually take the time to get to know the person as an individual. Behavior such as this has been occurring since the dawn of puberty and sadly has led to the rampant rate of bullying that our nation’s schools are facing on a daily basis. But what happens when you’re an adult in this situation? How would you react? How would you cope with people judging you based solely on your appearance or in my case, my outwardly visible disability?
IlluminArt’s work has always resonated with me, but even more so since I became legally blind in 2012. I was born with perfect 20/20 vision. My husband still jokes that when I met him in the late 1990’s, I had “eagle eyes.” I could see a missing button off his shirt from half way across a room. I could find my car in the parking lot that was 8 rows over, 6 rows down and 40 feet away from me. I could tell you every color of leaves that fell off the tree in front of my house each fall. Then, like that, I had breast cancer and with chemotherapy came the need to use a cocktail of certain medications that I was explained “could possibly” impact my vision. By 2010, I had gone colorblind and was hospitalized for steroid treatments to try to prevent my optic nerves from detaching from my eyes. The good news was I had beat cancer; the bad news was I had another war to fight and it was just getting started.
Over the next two years I slowly began to lose vision in both my eyes. I had gone completely blind in my left eye and had 20/800 vision in my right. My color vision never returned or improved. I was left dangling between two worlds, the sighted and the blind. After registering for services with the New York State Commission for the Blind, I began taking daily living courses. I had to be taught how to cook again, how to cut vegetables, how to tell when meat was done. I had to label all my appliances and purchase some new items to help me function in my home. My phone didn’t just have caller id, it had the caller id equivalent to a big box super store on black Friday, loudly announcing who was calling and the number. Alarm clocks spoke. Timers rung. It seemed for as dark as the world had become over a matter of months, it got painfully louder. By far the hardest obstacle was mobility.
Ignorance about blindness is infinite. Blindness is not binary. You’re not either completely sighted or completely blind. There are countless ways to be classified as “legally blind.” How you see is dependent on your own situation. How you travel is also a personal choice. Blind people have 4 options: 1) White Cane 2) Guide Person 3) Guide Dog 4) Nothing. When someone loses their vision, white cane training is the first course of action. An instructor helps you use this tool to see your world differently. You have to learn how to hold the cane and how to move it to assess the information you need about where you are and where you want to go. Your cane becomes an extension of your arm, a necessary appendage to a degree, that is both helpful and extremely frustrating all at the same time. After about nine months of training, I had mastered the cane but even three years later, I have not mastered the reaction to it.
“What do you see when you look at me?” I was sitting in my chiropractic office, wearing dark glasses and using my cane when a mother came in with two beautiful little girls. I stared at them through my dark lenses, thinking they reminded me of my own two daughters, ages 2 and 7 months. I wondered if my own two little girls would resemble these adorable children when they got into elementary school.
I sat and waited for my appointment, listening to the mother of these two young girls start up a nervous conversation with another person in the waiting room. I could see the other patient glancing over at me. The girl’s mother began to fix her younger daughter’s hair and had her stand directly in front of her knees as she began to fuss over her numerous ribbons and bows. The younger girl looked at me then turned abruptly, hugging her mom. I could hear her whisper “I don’t want to look at that lady.”
My heart sunk. Was I that scary? Did dark glasses and a white cane make me a monster? I waited for the mother’s reply to which she whispered, “honey, she’s a poor soul.” Poor Soul? I couldn’t believe my ears. I wasn’t on some street corner peddling pencils out of an old tin can; I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to be seen. Poor Soul? Just then the doctor called me into exam room. I was so tense, livid. I didn’t want to correct another mother in front of her children. I didn’t want to make a valid point out of anger. I thought about just walking out of the office and not saying anything, but as I used my cane to head towards the office door, I decided to speak directly to the little girl that was so terrified of me.
Nervously, I introduced myself, “I’m sorry if you were scared when you saw me. I was looking at you and your sister because you remind me of my little girls.” The look of shock on both the little girl and her mother was immeasurable. “You have children?” the mother asked. I explained that I had two daughters and was admiring how lovely her children were. Just then the eldest child, who had remained quite quiet until this point blurted out, “but mommy, you said the lady was probably pretty lonely because blind people aren’t usually married or have kids.” I couldn’t help but look at the mother, although her face was blurred by my blindness, she was undoubtedly embarrassed by her daughter’s comments.
I had been judged, based solely on my appearance; dark glasses and a white cane. Perhaps more painful than that judgment, was the fact that this mother in her own naivety truly believed that this “poor soul” of a woman was incapable of experiencing any joy, love and perhaps education. I spent the next few minutes talking with the girls and their mom. I shared how I had lost my eyesight from cancer. I discussed some of the tools I used to help me function better in a darker world. I mentioned my husband, my daughters, and the fact that I had two masters’ degrees and worked with Illuminart. By the time we had finished talking, both children had held my cane and were very excited to tell their teachers that had met “a real nice blind lady.” Although I received no apology from their mom, I know she too learned an important lesson that day, not only about blind people, but also about judging others.
Looking back, I could have taken the easy way out. I could have bowed my head and just walked out of the doctor’s office to my husband and children who were waiting for me in the car that I will never drive again. However, I chose to use the situation as a forum to educate, not just the children, but their mom as well. When others look at me, I don’t want them to see a charity case. I don’t want their pity. I want them to know that I am a wife, mother, social worker, and a happy person that does not let my disability define me. Just like children, adults can let our own preconceived notions about others cloud our minds. We can pass those wrong messages onto our own kids. Try to view every person as an individual, with his or her own unique mind, body and spirit. If we can do that, then we can educate our children to be accepting of all people and remind them, that despite another’s disability, whether seen or unseen, our possibilities in life are indeed limitless.
*Licensed from Illusion Theater, Minneapolis, MN www.illusiontheater.org