Climbing the Mountain
Among cherished hobbies and interests, I hold particularly dear my ability to make people's heads vanish. I intend this statement in the least metaphorical sense possible, for encroaching blindness has given me superpowers. With a simple redirecting of my blind spots, a stained shirt is rendered clean; a dinner bill is reduced by factors of ten; and a distinguished professor is morphed into a headless body, arms flailing animatedly in an intriguing demonstration of his point. To be sure, blindness is never a dull companion.
I was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration, at seventeen. While I've retained the mobility of a sighted person due to my peripheral eyesight, the fine vision necessary to read books, see street signs, or recognize friends is mostly gone. Though victory despite adversity is often touted as the greatest challenge of a disability, this is the secret about my blindness: fighting is not the hard part. Don't get me wrong; it isn't always easy. My vision often requires more planning and a different approach. But challenge is an irresistible temptress. Edit Let's Go: Europe or direct Room 13, then add blindness to the mix-the product is a precious and unique brand of confidence. Much harder than overcoming my limitations is admitting to them. Afraid the elusive line between letting go and giving up would fade with my vision, I spent my first two years of college "passing" for a fully sighted person. I refused to use magnifiers in class, pretended to see things I couldn't, and worked to keep my disability a secret.
Al showed me the peace and strength born of acceptance. Each plain, white door at Chilton House Hospice is adorned with a dry erase board. His read, "Al: A friendly Guy." I sat with Al every Sunday for the last four months of his life. One evening, his hand trembled so violently he was unable to hold a fork. I offered to help, and Al accepted. Afterward, he declared, "That was the best dinner I've ever had." Al made this claim after every meal, but this time his words catapulted beyond endearment and landed in the realm of the sublime. I fought tears as my irrational equation of disability and weakness came blissfully crashing to the ground. Al had lost the ability to feed himself, but as he sat back, Lincoln-like in his tall armchair, I had never seen a person look more dignified.
Inspired by Al's courage, I decided it was time to change the way I dealt with my own impairment. In perfect personal-statement splendor, the peak moment of my experience as a blind person occurred on top of a mountain. My junior year of college, I tried blind skiing. The sport involves verbal cues from a sighted guide and orange safety vests. For me, the scariest part of blind skiing was not barreling down a mountain with no usable vision; it was putting on the bright orange vest that said, "Blind Skier". Fiercely independent, I had long feared the day when I would not only have to acknowledge my limitations, but inform those of them as well. As I stood at the top of my first ski run since high school, my hands shook, and my large red mittens refused to cooperate with the vest's small fastening hooks. My guide offered his help, and I accepted. It was first time I was easily identifiable as a blind person, and to my great surprise, the world did not crumble. The sky did not fall. To the contrary, a previously uncharted world of convenience and understanding emerged around me: the chair life slowed, other skiers kept their distance, and life was easier than it had been in a long time.
I returned to Harvard with the wisdom that acknowledging limitations opens new possibilities. That spring, I co-sponsored a fund-raiser for the Foundation Fighting Blindness and gave several speeches, including one to the College Council. Marvin Bell writes of losing vision: "Autumnal light/gave to ordinary things the turning/beauty of leaves, rich with their losing." Blindness is indeed a beautiful and enriching loss-the gems of wisdom my shattered vision reveals remain my most treasured life lessons. So, when the daily grind of low vision wears me thin, and shoot a smile to the headless skier next to me. It's a beautiful place to be.