Today is World Sight Day. A significant and personal day for me.
So what is it?
World Sight Day is an annual day of awareness which focusses global attention on blindness and vision impairment, and is held on the second Thursday in October each year.
The day was established by the World Health Organisation in 2000. World Sight Day is the main advocacy event for raising awareness about blindness and impairment.
So why is this day significant for me? To put it simply, I am visually impaired. People ask me if I am legally blind and the answer is no, not quite. There are very strict guidelines and my right eye sits just outside of the definition. But even though I am not legally blind, I need a white cane to keep myself safe, and I also require other low vision aids such as magnifiers and binoculars, and a GPS to see and get where I need to go.
I recently spoke about my vision impairment and how for most of my life I have hidden it as much as I could. You can watch my talk here:
Now, as you heard in my presentation, my visual impairment was caused by complications in my facial reconstructive surgery. My optic nerves were damaged. Optic nerves are like cables carrying information from the eye to the brain for processing. They consist of over a million nerve fibres and give the brain the information it needs to see clearly. Once optic nerves become damaged,gyv they turn pale and grey, and there is no cure. Optic nerves cannot be repaired.
Optic Nerve Atrophy
In my case there was prolonged pressure and swelling of particularly my left optic nerve, which severely damaged it, rendering the eye useless. I have extremely dark and blurry vision and a black blind spot, and cannot read at all - I am legally blind in that eye. In my right eye my visual acuity was affected, I have no depth perception and I became colour blind. In my right eye the optic nerve damage also led to a condition called hemianopia which I have written about in a previous blog post. Hemianopia is where you only see out of half your eye. See the picture below. This is similar to how I see out of my right eye.
I was resistant to having a white cane. It was only last year, after struggling for just over 40 years, that I decided to get help. With my husband's deteriorating health I had been venturing out alone, and experienced some scares - from falling into the train, to nearly falling down a very long flight of stairs, to being scared by people bumping me on my left side. I was also always stressed wherever I went where there were lots of people, as I would always run into people or spend the whole time flicking my head from side to side, to flicking it to the ground then back to the front. I didn't enjoy being out and about and would become quite anxious.
I am sure you would agree that I needed the cane.
So why was I resistant? Why have I left it until in my 50s to get one?
To put it simply, I didn't want my life to change. Having a cane makes you stand out, pointed at and stared at. As I say in my presentation, I had battled being accepted by society growing up, and was teased for looking different. Once society deemed me as 'you now fit in', I wanted to stay that way. In primary school I would sit in the front row and in high school the only help I accepted was a wooden stand for putting my typing book on, so I could read it. Apart from that I sat up the front if my friends were, but if they sat at the back, I copied off their books. I refused to wear glasses because glasses weren't cool and not many people wore them, and those who did, were teased.
When I went to university, I began to wear glasses as I didn't know people well enough to copy off them, but only when I absolutely needed them - not all the time. In fact it was only maybe 5 years ago, when glasses were becoming trendy, that I began to wear my glasses all day - and what a difference that made. I remember my ophthalmologist being stern with me, saying, 'Jenny go and find a pair of glasses that you really like, and wear them all the time.'
But still it was hard. I could only see so far. I couldn't read menu boards and was too self-conscious to say anything, so I would only go to the takeaways I knew the menu of, and I would order a limited range.
Now I have my white cane (which is actually pink), the world has opened up to me.
So how has it opened up the world to me?
Because I no longer have to pretend, my mask has been torn off, and I am able to say, 'Please help me.' or 'What does that say?' Most of the time people get out of my way, so I'm not bumping into people and not having the number of scares I was from people coming up close on my blind side. The cane enables me to check the depths of stairs, and it shows me where stairs are that don't have yellow paint lines on them, and the depth of the entrance to the train, so I haven't fallen. My cane identifies obstacles. cracks in the path, and curbs before I reach them.
Once I made the decision to get my cane, which I have named Seymour, it took a while to get used to being stared at again in public. It triggered uneasy childhood memories. Fortunately I've had no bad names thrown my way so that has helped me to keep going. I've heard lots of parents talking to their children about what my cane is for, and that has to be a good thing for diversity and inclusion for the future generations. It would have been so easy in the first couple of months to put the cane away, or just use it around friends, but I knew that wasn't when I needed it. I specifically needed the cane when I was out alone, and in busy places. I also found that when I didn't take my cane, I either walked into something or someone, or I stumbled down and over curbs and sidewalks. It became a no brainer in the end.
I have noticed that when I am out and about I rarely see another person with a cane, which I always think is strange. Where are all the visually impaired people? I think there are many people who like me, don't want to show the world that they can't see and are pretending they can see better than they actually can.
So to end this blog post, I am going to give you a few pointers that I have come to realise from my white cane journey:
1) Be positive about getting help
If you need the help, you need the help. Today's society is a lot more accepting in many ways than the world was when I was growing up. Yes, there is still a lot of prejudice and bullying, but I have found with the 'coming out' of my visual impairment, people have been kind and accommodating.
I definitely have my 'woe is me' days, and it infuriates and frustrates me that I cannot drive, but I can't change things, so I can choose to live my life with a negative attitude, or I can be positive and grateful for the vision I do have. And hey people jump out of my way most of the time, and if I put my imagination to work, I can pretend I am a queen or Moses parting the Red Sea. That's something to be positive about!
2) Put your head up and be confident
No matter what your difference is, or your disability that you are coming out with, put your head up and be confident. You deserve to be in this world and you are perfect just the way you are. Embrace your difference and own it. When I was having my orientation and mobility training with the Guide Dogs, that is one of the first things they taught me. Stand up tall, look ahead, and walk straight. I believe walking this way is important. I don't walk with my head down, wanting the world to not notice me, or help me as I once did. I also believe I am less likely going to be a target of crime if I look confident.
3) Live your best life
I could quite easily sit at home and pick the fluff from my navel, and not go anywhere unless someone is willing to take me... but I made the decision that I wouldn't. You only have one run at life, and I want to have experiences and see things. One of the activities on my bucket list was parasailing and this year I was able to - and I absolutely loved it! This past month I took my eldest two children to Sydney for a sightseeing holiday. It is a matter of deciding what you want to do, and then how you are going to do it, with the adjustments or help you need.
To finish with, on World Sight Day, I must encourage you to visit an optometrist and have your eyes checked. Most problems that occur with eyes that aren't related to trauma as mine were, can be treated or if not, they can be closely monitored. I shake my head when I see people who need reading glasses, trying to make their arm as long as possible to read something - go and get some glasses!