Probably the most singularly annoying thing people say to me is “oh I know what it’s like to be blind. I’m completely blind without my glasses.” You have NO idea what it’s like to live without proper sight unless real sight loss – the kind that can’t be fixed by a pair of glasses – happens to you. I know what it’s like to have poor sight that’s corrected by glasses, I had short sight ever since I was about 10. But it’s a whole different world from being blind or partially sighted. Trust me, I know.
What gets me the most about sight loss is the little things. I’ve long accepted the fact that I can’t read small print, that I’ll never play sports like cricket or lacrosse again (despite my dad constantly saying “but you used to be so good at cricket, why don’t you play any more?” – he really doesn’t get the whole sight loss thing), that I’m not allowed to drive any more, that I can’t read slides in meetings or see what’s on other people’s computer screens. I’m quite handy with a white stick, although I very rarely use one these days…but that’s another story. One of the things I hate the most is not being able to recognise my friends when they’re only a few feet away, and not being able to find my way.
Here’s an example. Recently I arranged to meet a friend in London for a drink. We’re both already in Covent Garden so it should be easy. My friend texts to say he’s standing outside the Apple store waiting for me. My knowledge of Covent Garden is pretty hazy…there’s the Tube station and then a big market area in the middle, and I’m somewhere on the other side (it took me a while to find my way to my meeting on the other side, earlier that morning). I start walking towards the market area and realise I have no idea where the Apple store is, so I call him. “Where’s the Apple store?” The reply was something like “in front of the market”. Whatever, it didn’t really help me because I didn’t know where any of the things were that he mentioned. I’m totally confused, the market seems to have about 20 entrances and several different sections, and I don’t know which bit the front is. Or how to get there. I reply that I don’t know where that is, or where I am, other than a street name. “What can you see around you?” Now this flummoxes me. I can see a market, but it could be any bit of the market. I can see some shops, but I can’t read any of the names. I can’t think of anything I can see that would be able to indicate to someone else where I am. I start getting stressed and panicking now, I’m already late and my friend has been waiting ages. I feel completely stupid that I can’t even describe where I am to someone. I put the phone down as my voice starts to wobble, and say I’ll find the place. I give myself a few stern words, calm myself down and decide to ask a stranger if they know where the Apple store is. I start looking around for a person who I think might know. Someone young, probably, who looks like they might frequent such a place and who isn’t a tourist. I spend a while trying to spot a likely candidate while walking in what I hope is the right direction, and then happen to glance upwards and see an Apple symbol. Ah…I must be there. Good thing I didn’t actually ask anyone, I’d really have felt stupid then! Then I panic. The store is huge! How on earth am I going to find my friend? What does “outside the store” mean? Outside the front entrance? Which is the front entrance? In fact, where is any entrance? I can’t see one. How big IS this place? How far away from the store is my friend? I start walking around the outside of the building. This is where I feel at my most embarrassed. I know that my friend will be able to see me long before I see him, and from experience of meeting people I know that for the other person, it’s comical to see someone wandering around not being able to see you when you can see them perfectly well. I might be almost right next to them and start walking in the wrong direction. My head is swivelling trying to see all around me (I have a very narrow field of vision), and I have my eyes screwed up trying to see better. Wondering what my friend will be wearing, how I will recognise him. If he’s looking in my direction and sees me, what will he do? Will he call out to me? Will he wave? If so, will I see him waving? What if the person I think is my friend is actually waving at someone else and I start walking up to him and say hello, only to realise my mistake? I’ve done all these things before and it’s incredibly embarrassing (particularly if the actual friend is watching the incident). I walk very very slowly, head still swivelling, and spot someone which might or might not be my friend. I’m aware how stupid I must look. I edge closer even more slowly, hoping for a sign. It’s not him. I change direction and walk on, heart beating faster and faster now, trying to keep myself calm. Finally I see another likely figure and walk hopefully towards him. I see a movement, it looks promising. I keep going and am finally rewarded by a movement towards me. At about 3 feet away, I recognise him and give a big smile. But inwardly I want to put my arms round him and burst into tears. I feel so helpless.