The stereotypes and reality of being visually-impaired, Gateway contributor opens up about life as a blind student


By Rachael Vancanti, Contributor

If you’re ever walking to class and see me with a long white stick in my hand, it may be a bit awkward.  But rest assured, I’m doing the same thing you’re doing: going to class.

I’m blind—not deaf, certainly not helpless, and no, I don’t have supersonic hearing. Being blind is different. It has its challenges, its triumphs and many life lessons.

I’m called a “high-partial,” meaning that I can see more than people think, but that I’ve lost enough vision to be declared “legally blind.” As such, I’ll never drive a car.

I can see some stuff, but not others. I like highlighting textbooks and having teachers write comments in red pen. My vision changes day to day. I get migraines. When I’m reading, I have to put my nose two inches away from the page or computer screen.

I face challenges outside of the classroom as well. Trying to get to different locations is a battle between myself, the buses and the clock. I often hire drivers whenever I can to avoid being late. In interviews, my cane stands out. Legally, employers cannot bring blindness up during the interview. I must try to sell myself and appear just as qualified as sighted candidates.

Some of the alternate techniques which blind people use don’t apply to me. I don’t need to figure out a labeling system for my clothing. I don’t have to label my spices. I don’t always need to use my cane. I don’t need to know how to read Braille. Since I don’t know all the alternate techniques, it’s difficult to fit in with my blind friends, who advocate for Braille literacy, independence and the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind: “Changing what it means to be blind.”

Other times, being a high-partial has its triumphs. I can at least see people. I can read and spell, unlike some completely blind people who face a 90 percent illiteracy rate. My college tuition, books and fees are paid for by the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (NCBVI), a state agency that helps blind youth achieve their goals.

As with any disability, several life lessons can be learned.

Lesson 1: Good days and bad days

I have really good days and some other days where I want to cry, knowing I can never change the outcome of my vision. But I’m grateful for the vision I have.

Lesson 2: Have a sense of humor

Far too often, the interaction between sighted and blind people is serious. I often get sarcastic with my blindness. There are several jokes about the cane, and whenever someone says, “See that tree over there?” I always say, “Which tree, there’s about 50 of them.”

Lesson 3: Don’t conform

Some extreme types of blind people say “No, don’t help me,” and go try and change the world and push their independence. On the other extreme, there are blind people who take advantage of every single handout that they can, claiming they deserve them because they are blind. In the end, I just use what works for me. If people don’t like it, it’s their problem, not mine.

My parents raised me in the real world full of sighted people, mainstreaming me through school with my sighted peers, to give me as much a taste of reality as possible. I had to do my chores, clean my room, do my homework and be polite. I was raised on hard work and dedication. No one was going to do anything for me in the real world.

Upon graduation from high school, I opted to receive training at the Colorado Center for the Blind, a training center that teaches students how to live independently as blind people. I hated the militant, black-and-white philosophy and the sleepshades I was forced to wear to block out any and all usable vision. The process took nine months, several mental breakdowns, getting brainwashed into believing certain things and essentially being told “You’re blind, get over it.”  Still, no matter how I felt about the center, its teachings and sleepshade use, I came away with the confidence to attend Metro Community College where I successfully obtained my associates of arts degree.

Once I enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I decided to quit any and all blind-related organizations so I could spend time in college figuring out my beliefs about blindness.

Blind people are ordinary people. It’s just like having long brown hair or blue eyes. Sure, we do things a little differently sometimes, but we still like doing the same things you do: going out for sushi, attending local concerts and having dinner with friends.

I declared a journalism major after taking a few classes and falling in love with the subject. I then realized some questions I couldn’t answer right away. How do I conduct interviews? How do I recognize body language or facial expressions? How do I go out and get stories?

In addition to those questions, I get asked questions that are hard for me to answer: “How much can you see?” Well, that depends on the light, angles, distance and a variety of other factors.  “How do you plan to get to and from work?” I have two choices: walk or take a city bus.

Sometimes, people say it’s just amazing that I can go to school and be successful and do things I love because I’m blind. Well, I hate to burst their bubbles, but telling me that is as much an insult as a compliment. It’s insulting because you pity me, thinking it’s a miracle I can do these things. On the other hand, it’s a real confidence booster to be an inspiration to others.

I’m just another student. I go to class. I study. I do my homework. But some things need to be learned. If you say hi to me, I beg you, please tell me your name. I can’t keep track of all the voices. Please don’t randomly grab my arm and try to guide me. Just ask if I need assistance.