It’s never been easy. Having to scan the floor in front of you when walking down the street. Having to pre-plan the route to the nearest toilet in a restaurant. Having to feel your way through an unfamiliar room in the pitch black. Having to hold onto your mate as they stroll through the club. Having to desperately apologise to someone after walking straight into them in the supermarket. Those of you with Retinitis Pigmentosa know exactly how it is. Those of you who don’t might only begin to imagine. What on earth is it like to see in front of you, and to your left, but not in the middle? Is it black? Is it blurry? It’s neither. It’s just not there. I ask you the same question: What is behind your head? Is it black? Is it blurry? No. It’s just not there. This is what it is like living with peripheral vision loss. “Oh, you’ve got vision loss? Have you thought about wearing glasses? Are you wearing contact lenses?”. I can’t blame people for being uneducated on the matter. How many people do you ever bump into with peripheral vision loss? It’s just not a common thing.
The eye is a complex thing. Most people know about the lens, the iris, the pupil and the retina. Maybe you know about the cornea, the macular and the optic nerve too. The majority of those who suffer from some degree of sight loss have a problem with their lens; It just isn’t the right shape. Some people are shortsighted, where they are able to see things close, but not far. Some people are farsighted, where they are able to see things far, but not close. Some people just have a lens that doesn’t allow them to see either. This is all stuff that can be corrected with glasses. Glasses simply alter the way the light rays enter your lens, so that the correct image ends up coming out on the other side. Most of you probably know that the image projected on your retina is actually upside down. It is the brain that ends up inverting this image, so we see things the right way around. It’s amazing what the brain can do. There was an experiment where some guy was asked to wear glasses that turned everything upside down for a few weeks. After just ten days he was able to fully adapt to this upsidedowness, and his brain had actually inverted the image back the right way up. The process of him removing the glasses caused him to start seeing upside down again. It then took another week or so for his brain to adjust back again. Similar things happen to those with sight loss. Someone born completely blind just has no possible comprehension of colour. People say things like “hot is red and cold is blue”, but what the hell does that mean to someone who has never seen a colour in their life? You cannot fully comprehend something you haven’t experienced; it is just a fact of life.
“What did you say?”, “Sorry, what was that?”, “Excuse me, I didn’t quite catch that”. No doubt that these are phrases that deaf people almost feel like they need to have recorded on their phone, so they don’t have to waste their breath repeating them every fifteen seconds during a conversation. Being sat there on a table, watching people throw their opinions about whilst moving your head back and forth trying to lipread everything being said is, let’s put it this way, bloody exhausting. Some people are easy to understand; they have a clear crisp voice and speak in a way that resembles the language that you have grown up understanding. Their lips move in a concise manner and they don’t have any lisps or a strong accent. Personally, I find women a lot easier to understand than men. Their tendency to have higher pitched voices really fills the gaps in my hearing loss. On the other hand, some people just cannot be understood, no matter how hard you try. Whether they have a strong accent, a really quiet voice, lips that barely move, or a massive beard that gets in the way, it is just a constant struggle. I’m sure other deaf people can relate, but is there ever a certain person in your social group or who you work with that you just hope you never have to have a conversation with? It’s not that you dislike them, but it is just the fact that you know it will be a constant struggle to have a one to one conversation with them.
It’s not just the social struggles. Being deaf comes with its other problems. Ever wondered what it is like to be woken up by a vibrating phone under your pillow? Trust me, I’d sooner have an elephant wake me up. Ever had to go into a hotel and work out how you are going to know the fire alarm is going off? Ever felt extremely isolated because your hearing aid stopped working or you had forgotten to put fresh batteries in your wallet? Ever had terrible earache, but needed to make the decision between sticking the hearing aid in and suffering, or pulling it out and not hearing? It does come with its benefits though; Being able to turn your hearing off is a huge bonus in some situations. Kid screaming on the bus. Off. Bloke playing his music too loud next to you on the plane. Off. Annoying conversation that you don’t want to hear. Off. Car alarm going off outside when you’re trying to get some sleep. Off.
What’s worse though? Would you rather be blind or deaf? It is a common question that goes around, especially during philosophical discussions with a bit of alcoholic influence. I love these sorts of discussions. It really takes people to a different level of respect for their senses. Some people would rather be blind because of their love of music and the birds singing in the morning. Some people would rather be deaf, so they would still be able to drive their car and see the stars at night. Whichever you choose, it will no doubt mean a significant part of your life will be diminished, or worse, destroyed completely. Some people don’t have that choice though. Some people must deal with both. Being completely blind and completely deaf at the same time is extremely rare, but those who have some degree of both hearing and sight loss are fighting a battle of two competing senses. Typically, one backs up the other. You may hear stories of blind people with supersonic hearing, or deaf people with eagle-eyed vision, but those with Usher Syndrome and other deafblind disabilities are neither of those. One sense doesn’t help the other. Rather, it makes the other even worse. So I think it is safe to say that you should make the most of the senses you have, as it is something that you might one day wake up without. It is our senses that make us who we are, and without them, we would live in a very bland world. But for those of us who are deafblind, I guess we must make the most of those whispers in the dark.