What Does Seeing Feel Like?

Hello readers. Last week, I was on Spring break, a much needed break I might add, especially because for some reason whoever makes the calendar decisions for the college decided to make spring break two weeks later than it was my freshman and sophomore years. Although I have a lot I could talk about, especially regarding my search for an internship which is required to graduate from my college, as the subject indicates, I feel inspired to talk about something entirely different that has been on my mind the last couple months.

     I will never forget how One day–I think it was when I was eight or nine years old–my mom and I were listening to the radio when there was a commercial for some kind of eye procedure to restore vision. “Nothing is more precious than your vision,” the commercial declared. At the time, this declaration didn’t phase me, I think because I was too young to understand the shallow implications of such a remark, but perhaps also because since I have been blind since I was six months old, being blind was normal for me, something I had adjusted well to and was perfectly comfortable with. Thus, I already knew this commercial was shallow, even if I was too young to articulate it. But fearing that my self-esteem might be affected by such a superficial statement, I will never forget Mom turning down the radio and having a talk with me about that commercial, pointing out how silly such a statement is when I am perfectly happy without vision. My acceptance of blindness, made even stronger by this talk, is still as unwaivering today as it was when I heard that commercial. Sure there are the occasional times where I will feel left out when I hear sighted people raving about a spectacular full moon or something. There are even occasional episodes of feeling sorry for myself when I have to make a special trip to campus during winter and summer breaks to buy my textbooks weeks in advance and get them to the Disability Services office so they can be scanned, when sighted people can go to the bookstore the day classes start, pluck them off the shelf and they are in business. But the vast majority of the time, the fact that I cannot see is insignificant, overshadowed by all that I can do. In fact, I love to point out to people that there are advantages to being blind.

     First and foremost, being blind allows me to have a guide dog, who is also an unofficial therapy dog whom I can reach down and pet when classes are boring or stressful, and whose mere presence brings smiles to other students who miss their dogs back home.

     When the power goes out and the sighted world panics because it is dark, I can go right on reading my braille book or walking around like nothing happened.

     While sighted people step outside on a cloudy or overcast spring day and complain about the dreary weather, I view it as gorgeous weather if it is warm and birds are singing.

     Sometimes I think I relate to people on a deeper level than sighted people can because I don’t know or care whether they might be fat, wear clothing that sighted people deem unflattering, or have unusual hair styles or unattractive tatoos. Instead, in the words of Martin Luther King, I think being blind allows me greater freedom to judge people solely “by the content of their character.”

     Being blind also means I have no insecurities about my appearance. Well, my mom has taught me that I have to at least brush my hair, pull it back so it is not hanging over my eyes, and wear clothes that match before leaving the house because the reality is that it is a sighted world where I will be negatively judged for looking like a slob even though I am blind. But while sighted women spend hours getting ready in the morning, fretting about what clothes to wear or standing in front of the mirror complaining annoyingly about how terrible their hair looks today, I can be showered and dressed with hair combed in twenty minutes. If I shower the night before, I can be ready in five minutes. And when I go clothes shopping, (which is not very often because it doesn’t bother me to wear the same jeans for years if they may look worn out but still fit), I don’t step out of the dressing room like my sister and ask Mom “does this make me look fat?” in a whiny voice. Instead, I ask myself “is this comfortable?” If I determine the jeans are not comfortable, even if Mom or Grandma thinks they look cute on me, I refuse to let Mom or Grandma buy them. I have two sweaters that I wear more frequently than my other shirts and sweaters because they are especially soft and comfortable. My mom has pointed out a couple times that sighted people sometimes find it weird when people wear the same clothes too often, but I don’t care what people think!

     I also enjoy being an ambassador for the blind, answering questions from my sighted friends about braille and how I accomplish tasks without sight. At my college, there is a business class on diversity in the workplace, and every semester the course is offered, the professor who teaches it invites me to give a presentation to the class on blindness and how with just a few adaptations like screen reading software, blind people are just as capable as anyone else. (I will be doing another one of these presentations on May 13). After I talk a little bit about the adaptations I use, I open up the rest of the presentation time to questions, and one question that is always asked is “if technology developed that allowed you to see one day, would you take advantage of it?”

     What I have always told them is something on the order of “since I don’t remember when I could see, it is not something I miss. I suppose sometimes I wish I could get my sight back for maybe ten minutes, just to know what it is like to see, and to have a basic understanding of what colors look like. But I have been blind so long that getting my sight back would feel strange.”

     I will probably use this same response in my presentation this year, so as not to arouse concerns about my self-esteem and confidence as a blind person. But the truth is, just this year, I have noticed that in quiet moments, I think more about my blindness, and long to see more than I used to. This could be a result of my search for an internship, where I am learning that the real world isn’t as friendly and accommodating as school has always been for me. (You wouldn’t believe how many internships require a driver’s license, photography skills or proficiency in some graphic design computer program.) It could be due to the fact that Republicans are in power again, so it will be awhile before stem-cell research will be funded again. But shameful and ridiculous as it sounds, my longing to see really got going after hearing a news story about a Catholic church in my home state that is believed to be the site of an apparition of the blessed mother Mary to a nun, and that continues to be the site of modern miracles. The story mentioned a person who came in to the church wearing crutches because of a leg injury, who walked out of the church without crutches.

     I have listened to a couple clips of televangelists supposedly performing miracles, and found them revolting even before I learned that most of these “miracles” were later proven to be merely psychological, and that they were not done in a Christian spirit as evidenced by the lavish lifestyles they enjoy with money paid to them by desperate people. Therefore, I have never, and would never waste time or money on these charlatans. I have heard about other churches where miracles occurred in far away places like Portugal. But after hearing about this church so close to home, I had this strange sense of excitement, and an urge to visit this church that I have never felt before. It wasn’t an all consuming urge: I have had to manage this excitement very carefully because my parents are very perceptive and I don’t want them to think I have gone nuts. I go about my school work without a word, and when my parents occasionally mention taking Grandma to visit this church, I am very careful to be nonchalant and not let on in the least how much I want to visit this church too. Even casually mentioning with a straight face that I want to visit this church would look very suspicious since ordinarily, I complain about visiting largely visual attractions like churches and museums. But late at night when I am lying in bed waiting for sleep, when I am home alone or when I am walking on the treadmill, that is when the excitement consumes me. That’s when I start asking questions in my mind.

     What would it be like to stand on a hill or balcony and be able to see for miles and miles? I cannot stretch my arms and touch things miles and miles away. In the summer, Milwaukee has a huge festival with fireworks that can be heard from our house which is about a half hour drive from the festival grounds. But ordinarily, I cannot hear things going on miles away. So to be able to see for miles and miles is something I cannot even comprehend.

     What would it be like to go for a run on a glorious spring day with both arms swinging at my side and not have to hold on to a cane, dog harness or the arm of a sighted guide? Once when I was in seventh grade, I went to school without my cane because I had an evening activity the night before and left it in the car that Dad drove to work. I remember Mom getting upset with me for not bringing it in, and my teacher asking me how I could forget something so essential for my safety. From then on, I became more responsible and made sure to always bring my cane in from the car because although at the time I had the attitude of “what’s the big deal? I made it through the hall fine”, even I had to admit that walking through halls as chaotic as the halls at my middle school without a cane wasn’t smart. But there was another side of that experience that I didn’t dare admit to my parents or teachers, but which I remember fondly. It was a feeling of liberation! Of course, it wasn’t the true experience of being sighted: my hands may have been free, but I walked very very slowly and cautiously, knowing that if I got hurt on this little adventure, I would be in huge trouble. But just having both hands free was exhilarating to the point that ever since, I have always wondered if running hands free like sighted people do would be just magical!

     What would it be like to just walk in to any store or building and orient yourself to its layout instantly? Sighted people have told me about situations when they got lost driving, and even walking through big buildings. But for them, it seems as though getting lost is rare, and when they do, they find their way back pretty quickly. Simple routes to the buildings on my college campus that my peers probably learned within a day or two took me months of orientation lessons, and while I will have to ask for assistance every time I go to the grocery store, it amazes me how my parents can go to a grocery store they have never been to before and just instantly know where to go for milk or bread.

     What do colors look like? Just out of curiosity, I looked blue up in the dictionary, which defined it as a color intermediate between green and violet (really helpful), the color of the sky on a sunny day (a beautiful image), but also the color of someone’s skin when they are cold or have difficulty breathing (an unpleasant image). How much more abstract can you get? Adjectives related to touch like describing something as smooth, cold, or prickly, or adjectives related to taste like sweet, salty or bitter are so much more concrete than colors seem to be. But maybe that is only because I don’t remember what colors look like, and someone who cannot taste would find sweet, salty or bitter to be abstract and mind boggling. But I long to see colors and make sense of them once and for all, and determine for myself whether blue more closely represents the sky or a sick person.

     Would my personality and interests have been different if I could see? If you were to ask me the three activities I hate most, they would be going shopping, going to museums and going to sporting events because all these activities are so visually focused and thus excruciatingly boring for me. A lot of sighted people I know love these activities, but I have also met people who can see who find these activities boring. Would I be in the camp that enjoys these activities if I could see, or would I still find them boring?

     And ultimately, as weird as this will sound to sighted people, I simply want to know what seeing even means. Put another way, what does seeing “feel like”? I have never been good at articulating to people what I mean by this question, but let me try again. Maybe I should explain by using something I do understand like hearing.

     Elementary school science textbooks and the dictionary describe sound as vibrations that travel through the air which are perceived by the ear. But this definition I imagine would be so incomplete to deaf people. I am listening to the radio right now, and of course a deaf person could touch the radio and feel vibration coming from it. But when the vibrations reach your ears, they are so different. Touching a radio that is turned on would allow a deaf person to know what vibration is, but sound is so much more complicated than that, with so many intricacies like high voices, low voices, intonation, dialect, instruments and harmony, which I have absolutely no clue how I would explain to them. But answering the question of what seeing means is probably just as vexing for people to explain to me, especially because the dictionary defines seeing as perceiving something with the eyes through light and I don’t even know what light is. Indoors I cannot tell whether lights are on or off. Outside, I can tell when the sun is out because the heat from it hits my eyes, but in the same way that music is so much more complicated than just vibration, I know light is so much more complicated than the sensation of heat. But in the same way that I have no clue how to explain music to a deaf person, sight is so complicated that sighted people have no idea how to explain it to me. Now that I think about it, it is occurring to me that maybe the inability of sighted people to explain this to me is not because they don’t understand what I mean by the question but because it is an experience that simply cannot be put in to words, and thus I should resign myself to the reality that I will never fully understand it. Yet it is something I have always longed to understand. (Does that make any sense or does your head hurt now?)

     When I am not asking these kinds of questions, I am dreaming of simple everyday activities that sighted people take for granted that I have always wanted to do.

     I have always wanted to learn to read print. One time when I was younger, I wanted to see if I could pretend to be sighted, so I picked up a print book, opened to a random page, held the book right up to my eyes and moved my head side to side, imitating how I move my fingers side to side to read braille to look like I was “reading”.

     “That’s not how sighted people read,” my dad said with a chuckle when he saw me and sensed what I was up to.

     That is when I learned that sighted people don’t hold books right up to their eyes and they don’t move their head. (Occasionally, I will still pretend to read this way just to be funny). But seriously, how do sighted people read? I have heard the expression “hunched over a book” and indeed when students used to read out loud in school, I could tell their face was close to the book because they sounded like they were talking in to the table. But still, the book isn’t held right up to their eyes. I have felt raised print because the type of printers used in one of the computer labs at my college raises the print ever so slightly. I cannot read it by any means because the letters and lines are so tiny and close together, but if I cannot distinguish the letters by touch, I cannot fathom how sighted people can distinguish them without holding the page right up to their eyes, or how they move their eyes across the page without moving their head. I want to find out, and then I want to throw a paperback novel in my pocket to read on a beach somewhere instead of having to haul a giant backpack required for the same book in braille. (Nowadays, I download most of my books from bookshare.org and read them on a special computer with a braille display, but I don’t feel comfortable taking this computer to places like the beach because if sand got in to the braille display somehow, or a mishap caused it to get wet, repairing it would not be cheap).

     I want to look at pictures of three-dimensional objects to understand once and for all how I was puzzling over a tactile drawing in my high school geometry book for hours one evening going “what the heck is this?” when Mom, with barely a glance said “that’s a mailbox.” Then I want to go to town with blank paper and markers and see if my lack of artistic ability was only because I was blind.

     I want to see fireworks light up the sky on the 4th of July and finally understand why sighted people are so thrilled by them when to me, they are just obnoxious noise. I want to know what is so spectacular about Christmas lights that sighted people will risk their lives climbing trees to install them, and make special trips to see them. I want to understand why sighted people rave about the beauty of sunrises, full moons and sunsets.

     I want to watch a movie like Avatar which won an Oscar and which sighted people everywhere I went were raving about the stunning visual effect. Then just once, I want to watch a scary violet movie to understand why so many people talk about having nightmares after watching them. I have listened to violent movies with lots of gunfire sounds, but they never gave me nightmares and I know it is because the visuals convey a lot more than the mere sound of gunfire.

     I want to learn to write print. I have a little bit of knowledge about what print letters look like because in elementary school, I discovered that all the classrooms had both braille and giant raised print letters on the plaque indicating the room number. In elementary school, the procedure was that the classroom teacher would escort us to our “specials”, like music, art and gym. It wasn’t uncommon for the teacher to get us to the door of these classrooms a little early when there was still another class finishing their lesson. So while waiting outside the door, I would push to the front so that I could teach myself print by matching the giant print letters with the braille letters below them. My braille and orientation instructor also taught me how to write a few letters and sign my name. But I never learned to write all of the letters, and the letters I can write, I never mastered to the point that I could trim them down to fit in the minuscule spaces between the lines of spiral notebook pages. Oh, and while practicing writing, I want to sit in a classroom desk, rip a page out of the notebook, crumple it up and flick it across the room to land perfectly in to the garbage can, a stunning display of hand eye coordination that never ceased to amaze me when I heard sighted students do it in school.

     Then once I have mastered writing in a notebook, I want to take a pen and notebook out in to the woods to meditate and write while sitting under a tree. I don’t feel comfortable taking my braille computer out in to the woods for the same reason I don’t feel comfortable taking it to the beach. If something happens to a pen or notebook after all, sighted people can just run to Walgreens and buy another one for 50 cents. But even if I were to take it out in to the woods, it would spoil the peaceful atmosphere. I know this because when I went to an earth keeper’s camp in fifth grade, we had to find a quiet place in the woods to keep a journal, and while the other students could write in complete silence, my typing on the braille writer seemed so loud it probably woke up sleeping animals for miles around.

     I want to have enough of an understanding of the capabilities of vision that I will quit asking stupid questions in a futile effort to understand. For example, in sixth grade, I remember asking my mom questions about how far the eye is capable of seeing and she said that people can see until vision is blocked by an obstruction like trees or buildings. “So let’s say you could cut down every tree on earth, and knock down every building on earth. If you did that, essentially getting rid of obstructions, could you stand on the tallest mountain and see the whole earth?” I asked. “Well no,” she said, pointing out that would be impossible just because of how the earth is shaped. I have never heard little sighted children ask questions like this which means it is probably something that is automatically understood by even the youngest sighted people.

     I want to gaze at my reflection in the mirror, at first just to marvel at the concept of seeing your own reflection and make goofy faces at myself like a baby discovering mirrors for the first time, which in a sense would describe me if I were to get my sight back. But then, I want to use the mirror to be my own judge of my appearance. My family and friends tell me that I am beautiful especially because of my naturally curly hair, but I know a lot of sighted people who are told they are attractive but don’t like their own appearance. So I want to know how I would perceive myself if I could see what I looked like. I want to know what my tastes would be in terms of clothing and hair style. Clothes shopping especially is so subjective, with Mom and Dad constantly disagreeing about whether clothes look good on my figure or whether they are “old lady clothes”. So what would I say about the clothes my parents have always picked out for me if I could see them?

     Finally, I want to know what the members of my own family look like, and how my features fit in to the genetic equation. This question too is so subjective. Once when I asked my parents whose features I inherited most, I think my dad said I inherited a lot of his features, while my mom said I had more features in common with my brother than either parent, noting that despite the fact that my brother and I are nine years apart in age, we look identical in baby pictures. Actually, of all the things I have mentioned in this entry, I think this is what I long for most of all, and I must confess, I desperately hope that science will develop a way for me to see while my parents are still alive. So much of the banter at family gatherings is centered around pictures and discussion of physical features, and it is at these events that my blindness really hits me and I feel left out. I have no idea what I look like or what anyone in my family looks like, and thus sometimes I feel like I am missing a piece of my identity.

     Thinking about all these things I would love to experience kind of reminds me of the fantasies people have when they think about how wonderful it would be to win the lottery. But in both situations, we both know that will most likely never happen. Actually, the odds of winning the lottery are probably better than the odds that some miracle at a church will restore my sight. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. Catholics do believe miracles can happen and scientists have validated miracles bestowed on people after visiting holy sites or receiving blessings from popes or saints. But the very definition of miracle is that it is a surprising extraordinary event and thereby is not something that everyone has the privilege to experience. If it were, everyone with disabilities would have flocked to churches to be healed and there would be no handicapped people in the world. Of the miracles I have heard about, they have all been bestowed on people who either didn’t believe in God to turn them in to believers, or on devout believers like nuns. By these standards, there is nothing special about me and thus no reason for me to be deserving of any miracles like this. There is also the fact that Christians believe God is all-knowing and therefore he will know my self-centered purpose if I were to visit this church, I am ashamed to admit. But more importantly, Christians believe that everything happens for a reason. So maybe I was meant to be blind so that I could teach people how to look at life in a positive light, to see it as a lovely day even if there are clouds in the sky, or show employers that you don’t have to be physically perfect to be a contributing member of society, or teach people that life is too short to spend hours in the mirror agonizing over physical appearance and that there are more important questions we should be asking than “does this outfit make me look fat?” As I mentioned earlier in this entry, I enjoy this ambassadorial role, and although I would like to know what I look like, it would be a shame if I was given the gift of sight again, only to use it for shallow purposes like this. Thinking rationally about these things usually allows me to stay in touch with reality and all of the things I have expressed a longing to experience, and all of the concepts I have longed to understand, have stayed in the dream realm as unlikely to come true as it is unlikely my family will win the lottery. But when it really gets scary is when I start thinking about the practical implications of such a miracle. When my thinking gets this far, I start to wonder if it would be better that I not visit this church because as hard as I would try to keep myself grounded and not expect a miracle, I worry that after thinking about it with such thoroughness and excitement, I would feel let down and devastated if I walked out of that church no different than when I walked in.

     In the same way that my parents get carried away discussing how they would use their lottery winnings first to pay off all the bills, and then live out the rest of their days quietly in a modest house, in a community where no one knew them to avoid being scammed or robbed, I think about how I would react if suddenly, I could see. I am sure I would be so shocked that my first instinct would be to just go hysterical and tell everyone about the miracle. But then it has occurred to me that in the same way that lottery winners wouldn’t want to announce their newfound fortune to the whole world as then everyone would suddenly pretend to be their friend, I would probably want to keep this miracle quiet too to avoid becoming the object of a media circus. My parents are all about keeping a low profile so although I have never discussed this with them, I am sure they would say that every effort would be made to ensure my space and privacy. But let’s be realistic. If a person walks in to a church blind and walks out with vision restored, and the person has a condition that modern science has yet to find a cure, a media circus would be inevitable and after being granted such a miracle, I would want to spend my time out exploring the world with my newfound superpowers, not in some science laboratory undergoing tests to determine if this miracle was real. Even if the media never got wind of this miracle, I might want to live a secret life and keep this miracle quiet even around my parents who as wonderful and well-meaning as they are, would go ballistic with amazement and ask me all kinds of questions. I would tell them eventually of course, but maybe a couple weeks after the fact so that when they do go crazy with shock and amazement, I have had time to process life as a sighted person. Being that I have been blind my whole life, I am sure I would have no problem acting blind when my parents were around, and then letting loose to explore the world while they were running errands or something. (Haven’t there been movies written with this kind of plot?)

     But as my dad says when the rest of the family talks about the practical implications of winning the lottery, “why are we even talking about this?” As I mentioned before, miracles are so named precisely because they are rare, and I believe there is a purpose for me being blind.

     Judging by the fact that when we are doing group activities in school and I will spot someone’s notebook on a desk and caress the tiny wrinkles in the page made by their writing with admiration, and they say “oh that’s just my notebook” moving it because they think it is in my way, it could certainly also be noted that sight only seems amazing to me because I don’t remember when I experienced it, and that my amazement with sighted people is no different than the amazement expressed by sighted people when they see me typing on my Braille computer, something which to me is just ordinary. So perhaps what I am trying to say with this long wrambling entry is that there are so many reasons why I would love to see someday which can cause me to get carried away by thoughts and fantasies and dreams of a miracle. But writing this entry has helped me sort out my thoughts and realize that there are also so many reasons to be happy with the purpose God has given me as a blind person. If I am able to see one day, it would be exciting. But until then, I can accept staring longingly over a figurative fence in awe and wonder at the sighted world while sighted people stare back in amazement of me as the way my life was meant to be.

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2 Responses to “What Does Seeing Feel Like?”


  1. 1 GirlWithTheCane July 1, 2012 at 9:30 am

    You have a beautiful, clear writing style…and you’re very engaging. Have you thought about writing a book?

    • 2 Allison Nastoff July 12, 2012 at 11:13 am

      Thank you! I actually have thought it would be fun to write a book, but unfortunately lack the motivation to go through all the re-writes and deal with the competitive publishing business that an english teacher spent a class talking about. But maybe I could self-publish someday.


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