Of Struggle and Acceptance

by Candance Rizzardini, Salem, Oregon

As a child, I didn’t use the term “blind” to describe myself, though I was born legally blind. I subconsciously emphasized what vision I had by referring to myself as “partially sighted.” Like everyone who has full sight or some sight, I relied on my vision more than my other senses. I grew up accepting that I needed to use some low vision aids. But as I got older and experienced more vision loss, I struggled against using what I would call more serious low vision aids, such as the cane, braille, and a screen reader with the computer. I realize now that my resistance to these things was directly related to my struggle with accepting my loss of vision.

I’m not the type of person to stick a smiley face on something I regard as inherently bad. I’ve met people who seem to have a good attitude about their blindness, but I am not one of those people. Some blind people try to make lemonade out of the lemons life has given them. But my reaction is to get mad and throw and smash the lemons. I’m at the point in my life where I can admit that some of my problems accepting certain vision aids only hurt myself and held me back from achieving the things I could.

My first memories of school were of learning to read the Dick and Jane books in large print. Throughout my elementary school years, my primary low vision aids were books in large print and writing paper with thick, dark lines.

When I attended public junior high schools in California, some of my itinerant teachers tried to make me use the white cane. But I always resisted, claiming that I didn’t need the cane because I could see well enough to get around. I still believe I was right. At the time, I had pretty good vision and didn’t see the need for a cane.

After I had cataract surgery in my 20s, my vision improved, but this didn’t make me more independent as a blind adult. I was living with my boyfriend at the time, and I relied on him to drive me wherever I wanted to go. I was afraid to leave the house by myself. I was also frustrated at the way my life was going, which seemed to be nowhere.

On the advice of a counselor, I attended a life skills training program, sponsored and paid for by vocational rehabilitation of Indiana. I knew I needed to improve my life situation, but I wasn’t looking forward to this training program. I knew the teachers would make me do things I didn’t want to do, such as use a cane, learn braille, and so on. These things were supposed to help me be more independent, but I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was tired of being dependent, but afraid of being independent. I had no courage or confidence to deal with the world outside my house.

I had avoided using the white cane all through my school years. But I knew the teachers in the program would make me use it. So I decided to stop fighting and accept the inevitable. I was lucky to have a mobility teacher whom I liked, and this made accepting the cane easier.

The teacher taught me a different and, in my opinion, better way to use the cane than the one I had seen others use. I had always seen blind people, in real life and in cartoons, tap their canes as they walked. Just the sound of it annoyed me. It was like an audible announcement to the world, “I’m blind. Get out of my way before I run into you.” But instead of having me lift the tip of the cane from side to side, the mobility teacher showed me how to sweep the area in front of me, with the tip never leaving the ground. You don’t miss anything when you sweep the tip. You spend less physical energy sweeping than lifting the cane from side to side. There is no annoying tapping when you sweep. It’s quieter and more dignified.

One of the main reasons why I hated the cane as a kid was that I saw it as an obvious symbol of blindness and thus vulnerability. I thought people would try to take advantage of me when they saw my cane. But my experience with the cane over the years has taught me that people are more likely to help me when they see the cane. On the other hand, I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t know that the cane means I’m visually impaired. I know they see my cane, but when I ask where something is in a store or in a doctor’s office, they still point and say the words that drive me crazy: “It’s over there.”

I had fairly good vision as a kid–what they used to call “high partial,” so I wasn’t taught braille in school. Even the school for the blind I attended from the third to the sixth grade didn’t teach braille to students who had as much vision as I did. The adult training course I took in Indiana provided classes to those who wanted to learn braille. I didn’t think I’d ever really use braille, but since the program was offering the lessons I gave it a try.

I liked the braille teacher, who was totally blind. Like me, she’d had better vision when she was younger and struggled to accept her loss. She told me that when she began to lose her vision, she refused to use a cane and fell down a flight of stairs as a result.

I decided to learn all the braille letters, that is, the combination of raised dots, of the alphabet. I got to the point where I could distinguish one braille letter from another. I could read a few sentences in braille. I even used the slate and stylus, which requires you to write in braille backwards. But after I got to the letter Z, I quit. Braille was just too hard. Reading it was not enjoyable; it was mental torture. The teachers in the program respected my wishes and didn’t force me to continue learning it.

Even though I can’t read braille now, I regard my attempt to learn it as a small personal victory. After my encounter with learning braille as an adult, I think it’s better for partially sighted kids to learn braille when they’re young, because it’s harder to learn it when you’re older. Braille is not like learning another language; it’s like learning to decipher a secret code.

The training program was probably the best thing I have done for myself. It taught me to use the cane, which I now use every time I leave the house. The other valuable things I learned were typing and computer operation. Though I didn’t know it then, learning to type and mastering the basics of the computer enabled me to read and write. Now my vision is so bad that I can’t read or write without the computer, a screen reader, and a program that scans books and reads them aloud.

I finally learned that accepting some vision aids really was in my best interest. Some people have tried to make me use other aids, such as a guide dog, for instance. But I feel that it’s up to the blind person to decide what aids do (or don’t) work for them. What’s important is that the blind person remains open to whatever can make his or her life easier.