By Jessica Knight
This piece is excerpted from Growing Up Disabled in Australia, a fantastic anthology about the experiences of people with disabilities. It’s published by Black Inc. and is available as an eBook and audiobook, narrated by editor and disability activist Carly Findlay. This is only one of the pieces included relating to people who are blind or vision impaired. I chose to publish it here because it offers, in a light-hearted way, extraordinary insight into the unique challenges of living with vision impairment, and how a few small moments can profoundly shape the way we see ourselves.
This piece contains themes which may not be suitable for all readers. Parental guidance is recommended. It also contains what I believe may be the first swear word in the history of Blind Citizens News.
“Hey. How blind are you really?”
“I once ate potpourri from a bowl in a cafe because I thought it was mixed nuts.”
This amuses the young man I am talking to at 2am. He has taken me home and I am trying to explain how bad my eyes are. It is my ‘wearing contacts’ phase. I am my own example of a post-glasses makeover.
I am attempting to figure out (for the hundredth time) how to take the contact lenses out of my eyes before getting busy with this person, who has a pet rat in a cage in his bedroom.
This person is cute, and I think it’s quite sweet he has a pet rat. It’s so difficult to remove the contacts and it causes my drunken self so much stress that I start to cry a bit at the futility of love and human connection. This lubes up my eyes so that one of the contacts finally pops out and into my hand. It works with the other one as well. Success! I put them away and turn to the young man sitting on the edge of his unmade bed. He is smiling at me. I wipe my tear-stained eyes, smudging my eyeliner. I smile back and pull my t-shirt up and off over my head.
This is being twenty-five.
Back to the here and now. I have sat on my glasses and now they are bent quite badly. Placing them on my nose, I find the hinges have angled the eyepieces and the lenses so that they are facing my nose instead of being in front of my eyes, their vital position in the humble mission of making me slightly less vision-impaired.
There have been numerous close calls over the years, where I have been about to sit on them but realised seconds before placing all my weight on top of the unsuspecting object. This particular pair of glasses is important to me. I feel good wearing them. They make me feel intelligent and capable and a little bit sexy.
Then why were they left on the couch for the thirty thousand and fifth time, you may ask. If you could see me right now, you would see me shrug.
It was not always like this. I have a long history of hating my glasses. They were not always considered a cool accessory, worn by intellectual posers or used as a form of fashion. Please do not wear glasses unless you need them. Pretending to be blind or visually challenged is actually really uncool. So is trying on my glasses as though it’s fun to have warped vision. Your face is usually bigger than mine and you wreck the fit. This happened all through school and university. My crush in second-year uni once wore my glasses while pouring a drink of juice. They missed the glass, made a mess and left me to clean it up.
Now that I live in Melbourne and have many writer and creative friends, I am surrounded by people who need and wear glasses. It is a magical and wonderful world.
I take my mangled glasses back to the place where I got them. They fix them but say that the damage has been done to their overall sturdiness and future longevity. The end is nigh.
My first pair of glasses was placed on my nose when I was four. They had thin metal frames and curved over each of my ears so they didn’t fall off easily.
“Coke bottle glasses!” my father exclaimed. He was not wrong.
He made it clear that they were adorable. Though he and my mother referred to me as their little owl, I grew up loathing those glasses. One day I put them somewhere so safe that I forgot where they were, and for two weeks I had to go to school with nothing but my natural amount of vision. Then one morning, as I was about to go to school with my backpack on my tiny back, I looked into my mother’s concerned face as she asked me one more time if I could remember this special place where I had hidden my glasses. I ran into my bedroom and opened my underwear drawer. They were there, pushed to the bottom and back of the drawer.
“Where are your glasses?” was a question I heard a lot while doing completely normal things like watching television or reading a book. It was so annoying. I should have been able to hold books as close as I wanted without judgement. My mother would sing-song ‘Vanity, thy name is vanity’ for the trillionth time as I resentfully placed my glasses on my nose and sat a bit further away from the television. It was easy for them to say it was silly and vain – they didn’t wear glasses. All four of my siblings have excellent vision. My parents did not need glasses until they were in their fifties.
The bifocal years didn’t help my resentment. When I was thirteen, an ophthalmologist suggested that I wear bifocals for my two-tone vision needs, so that I could read books with one part of the lens and do everything else with the other part. Old people wore bifocals. My grandparents and other uncool people wore bifocals. The word sounded crusty and decrepit to my young mind. I didn’t just have Coke bottle bottom lenses to contend with anymore.
When I brought the glasses home, I stood alone in the bathroom with the door closed. I looked at myself in the smudged mirror while wearing my new bifocals. My reflection was not smiling.
Because I only had a few precious moments before being found by a younger sibling, I had a quick but intense self-hating cry and went back out to continue being a big sister. A big sister who did not wear her ugly glasses.
It was at this time that I very nearly picked up a giant brown spider from the living room floor. It was hiding under a stray sock. The carpet in the room was faded floral, and while I was cleaning things up I mistook the unsuspecting spider for an abandoned toy. The worst part was that after I squealed it scuttled away under the couch, evading capture and relocation outside. Did I take this as a sign to wear my glasses more often? No.
When I did start wearing my glasses out and about, it amazed me how many dudes felt the need to come up and tell me that I would be more attractive without them. This unprompted, freely given advice enraged me every single time. These young men thought they were giving me a much-needed tip so that I might be deemed worthy of being sexed up by them. It happened a lot while I was working as a cleaner of hotels on Hamilton Island. I took the advice of these beach-bodied douchebags with a sprinkle of sea water. No, that’s not true. I felt ugly and sad.
Now I do wear my glasses everywhere, but my eyesight is still not great. Glasses cannot fix a total lack of peripheral vision or inoperable cataracts. I wear my glasses everywhere now because five years ago I managed to get a pair that I love. Until then I had only ever got them from the Medicare range of free frames. You had the option of about three or four different frames that ranged from super-awful to meh-not-great-but-they-will-do.
This time was different. This time I was getting my frames and lenses from a hipster eye place that served me tea and had antique-looking rugs on the floor. They even had an optometrist there who I could see for an eye test. When I got tested the optometrist sat down in her chair and gazed at me in wonder.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
I stared at her in confusion. None of my past eye doctors had asked me such philosophical questions. She must mean literally, I finally concluded.
“By tram,” I said.
“Your eyes are extremely bad. You should consider applying for a disability plan.”
This was news to me, and life-changing news at that. Perhaps my eyes were the reason I was bad at so many jobs even though I tried so hard. I did not follow her advice until three years later. It took me that long to wrestle with my ingrained ableism.
This is how I found my first true love: after seeing the kind optometrist I browsed the amazing array of glasses, the likes and variety of which I had never seen before. The chosen pair were plain black and made me look like Zooey Deschanel in New Girl (ha ha, okay, ‘feel like’) and every asshat beat-poet wannabe.
When I found out how expensive they were, it was all over and the dream was dead – until a payment plan was arranged. They were expensive not just because of the frames but because my prescription was so high and unique. Thanks to my pathological desire to be special, this both pleased me and ruined me financially. The new glasses even came in a bright red case. No boring glasses house for these babies. They have got me through so much over the last five years.
How bad are your eyes?
Bad. Real bad. I once mistook a stranger’s two-year-old child for a small adorable dog.
I go back to the same place to look at new glasses and get my eyes tested. I am nervous. What if my already legally blind eyes have got worse? What if they are going to deteriorate at the same rate as the eyes of people who get glasses in middle age? If my eyes are this bad already, surely it is just a matter of time until my eyesight goes completely? Of course I could live a happy life more blind than I am currently. I just don’t really want to.
I am already the kind of blind that angers cyclists as they dodge me and my lack of peripheral vision. Sunlight hurts my eyes and it takes me a little while to adjust to sudden changes in light.
On arrival I am approached by my fave assistant. She wears amazing bright-coloured glasses that match her pastel purple skirt and pastel blue blouse with white collar and bow. She makes me a cup of peppermint tea and gives me a biscuit. It is so much nicer than all those poky old windowless examination rooms of my youth in regional Victoria. Also, thanks to being an adult and having a bit of foresight, I am getting ready to replace my beloved black-framed glasses before they break completely. There is a crack forming, so I’m preparing myself. This way I can have time to pay for my new pair and not be in a blind bind, like when my last pair broke. Who can afford new and awesome glasses whenever they want without having to live off mee goreng and toast? Without getting evicted because they have spent their rent money? Not this hard-of-seeing, all-extreme-emotion-feeling babe.
Do I dare go for tortoiseshell frames? I ask myself as I am shown a multitude of this kind. There are more than thirty different types.
The decision is made for me by the cost difference between getting the same frames again and my favourite pair of tortoiseshell frames. That difference is three hundred dollars. In two months I will be wearing dark-blue tortoiseshell frames.
The optometrist who greets me as I sip my tea is not the woman I remember, and my reaction proves that I’m more of a feminist now, because instead of noticing his handsomeness straight away I simply feel deflated that it’s not the woman from before. It would have been nice to tell her that I finally took her advice.
Eye tests don’t take so long when your eyesight only allows you to identify the large, single letter at the top of the pyramid of letters that get smaller and smaller. After the optometrist shines a weird light into each of my eyeballs, he tells me my eyes have not got any worse. I confess my fear: if my eyes are this bad now, how will they be when I’m fifty? He explains that when someone who has had perfect vision gets glasses, their eyesight has gone from 99 per cent perfect to 95 per cent. The difference is not that much but enough to need glasses. Since my eyes are barely 50 per cent working, they won’t actually decline like someone with 20/20 vision will experience decline. I nod.
“So you’re saying my eyes are already fucked, so I can relax and not worry.” I smile. “Thank you for clearing that up. It was stressing me out.”
I put my glasses back on and look at him. Oh, my goodness, he is handsome, I think, as I scoop up my tote from the floor and walk out.
Jessica Knight is a Melbourne-based writer and performer, and a conflicted heathen. Jessica wrote and performed Mormon Girl at the 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, SCUM Mag and Archer.