Contributor Andrea Bolan – Living as a VIP (Visually Impaired Person)

I have often thought about the numerous experiences, good and bad, that I have had throughout my life as a person with a visual impairment.  I am thirty-nine years old, and was born with glaucoma, nystagmus, and corneal hereditary endothelial dystrophy (CHED).  I can decipher shapes and muted colors with my left eye, and I can read large printed material and a computer screen with my right eye.  I wear a hard contact lens in my right eye, but I am still legally blind.

On a side note, I was also born with a forty percent sensorineural hearing loss in both ears, which is not related to my visual impairment.  I have worn behind-the-ear hearing aids since I was seven years old.

I always went to mainstream public and private schools because my parents wanted to give me as normal an upbringing as possible with sighted people.  Their intention was founded in what they believed was best for me, and I have never begrudged them for any of their decisions.

Throughout high school and college, I spoke to my teachers individually and told them about my visual and hearing impairments.  I assured them that they did not need to do anything special for me, but that I could not see the chalkboard or an overhead projector.   I had arranged for my own note takers, large print books, and large print tests through the school’s invaluable student disability resource center.  I wanted to make the teachers feel as comfortable as possible.

Sometimes situations at school can be humorous as well as a little humiliating.  During my freshman year in college in the fall of 1989, I took the required Speech Communications course.  One of my projects dealt with conducting a half hour slide show presentation.  I thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to show the students and teacher how people see who have various visual impairments.  I arranged to meet with a researcher from a local hospital, and we sifted through hundreds of slides depicting low vision.  I chose approximately fifty slides and borrowed a slide projector.  My mother helped me organize the slides, and reduce the number of slides to about twenty.  I rehearsed my presentation with the slides in the projector relentlessly.  Although I did view the slides before the presentation, I knew that I would not be able to see them during the actual presentation because the projection screen was too far away.  So I memorized the slide order along with my speech.

The Speech Communications instructor was one of those people who seemed to enjoy making life difficult for a few select students.  I felt that he never believed that I was visually impaired, and he made several derogatory comments to me in front of the class.  I was raised to respect my teachers, and I felt that I would only make things worse for myself if I said something to him.  Now that I am older and have had a lot more experience, I never let someone criticize me for being visually impaired.

As everyone knows, things do not always happen as planned.  I always took the city bus to classes, but my mother drove me to school on the morning of the presentation and helped me carry the projector and slides to the classroom, then she went to work.  I was never very confident giving presentations and speaking publicly, but I felt good about my presentation that morning.  Although I was extremely nervous, I had rehearsed my presentation and was prepared.  Finally, it was my turn to present.  I discussed how visual impairments affect what people can and cannot do.  I cited examples about not being able to drive, see stoplights, or read street signs, differentiate similar shades and colors, read the print in a phonebook or a menu in a fast food restaurant, etc.  The various slides I chose illustrated common eye ailments such as glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, a torn retina, macular degeneration, cataracts, eye injuries, etc.  Although looking at a picture is a world away from living and functioning with diseased or injured eyes, I thought the slides would provide a vantage point for those with normal vision.

Suddenly, the instructor interrupted me without an apology and said, “That slide is upside down.”

My heart raced in my chest with anxiety, and my cheeks burned with embarrassment.  I turned to the teacher and said, “I told you I was visually impaired.”  I then continued with my presentation and the rest of the slide show.  To my knowledge that was the only slide that was upside down.  How the slide ended up that way I will never know.

Thankfully the students clapped after the presentation, but the teacher never said another word to me for the rest of the semester.  If I remember correctly, I got a “C” for the class.

Being visually impaired has brought me to my knees on many occasions.  Yet it is all I have ever known.  It is just part of who I am.

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