I have been living in Italy for a little more than five months now. I am blind. And at this point, I’m going to ignore the State Department blogging guidelines with impunity because i need to say this.
Cue deep high-speed radio voiceover: this is not an official Department of State website and the views and opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.
So: Italy is a terrible country to live in if you’re blind.
Okay, I’m sure it’s not the worst in the world by any means, but compared to the United States, compared to what I am used to and what I expected when I left college, it’s been pretty rough.
At this point, I need to back up to give a bit more context.
I was born with aniridia glaucoma. By the time I was one year old, I’d had twelve eye operations, and then two more when I was five. I had some vision in both eyes—light and shadows and color, but not enough to read print or navigate without a white cane or guide dog. For all intents and purposes, I was blind, and last year, I became blinder when the pressure skyrocketed and my retina detached in my right eye. The pain was so unbearable I had to have it removed. It was horrifying to open my eye onto complete blackness—even more horrifying when my brain started trying to compensate for the black, sometimes filling it with what it knew to be there, sometimes presenting me with thoroughly distracting swirls of light and color. But once I got used to it, my life didn’t change all that much. Yes, I am suddenly more left-handed than right when it comes to things I use my vision for, and yes, I like to sit in the middle or on the right of gatherings watching television so the black doesn’t get in the way, and yes, the Jameyanne the One-Eyed jokes are always fabulous. But my vision had been deteriorating in that eye in the weeks before it was removed, so by the time I had the surgery, most of what I was losing was the pain. And who needs that anyway?
But this is the sort of attitude I have had all my life. Yes, I’m blind. Big deal. It’s not going to stop me from biking or drawing or playing clarinet or swimming or going to school or teaching in Italy or whatever it is I want to do. And woe to you if you tell me I can’t or try to stop me.
It’s something I was taught when I was very young, something most blind children are taught. I am not a blind girl or a blind student or a blind friend or a blind teacher or a blind writer or a blind person. I am just a girl, a student, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a person, who happens to be blind.
All my life, I have resisted being labeled as “blind”. Because “blind,” when applied as a label like that, usually means “can’t.” And “can’t” is not part of my vocabulary.
All my life, I have learned the skills I need to be independent, and when I went to college, I felt as if I had achieved that. I had teachers who asked what they could do to help me before I told them what I needed, teachers who saw me as they would see any other student. I had friends who told me where we were sitting in the dining hall before I asked—even developed a system of banging on the table so I could find them—friends who sometimes argued over who would get to describe a movie or television show to me, friends who never questioned me when I said I was going to play Humans Versus Zombies with them or participate in the Kenyon Hunger Games (I rocked at both, by the way). The fact that I was blind barely ever came up. Best of all, I didn’t feel blind, not even during those months where my eye was exploding and I turned the lights off instead of on when I entered rooms. Okay, maybe a little bit then, but not for the same reasons.
And then I came to Italy last October, and all my dreams and ideas of what it meant to live independently and what I thought I could do were given a thorough pounding. I met, for the first time in my life and from almost all sides, the attitude that because I was blind, I couldn’t, shouldn’t, had no business, even, living so far from home by myself, working, taking the bus, walking to the grocery store. There’s a cultural attitude here that if you’re blind, or have any disability really, you stay at home and let your family take care of you. My volunteer project—to help teach children at the school for the blind in Assisi some basic independent living skills, like pouring water without spilling or tying your own shoes or putting toothpaste on the toothbrush without making a mess—was shot down almost immediately by the director of the school, because, and I quote, “They can’t do that.” My backup plan to work with blind kids at local elementary schools also failed because apparently there are no blind children at local public elementary schools. Even my most basic goals , like going to the store independently or cooking by myself, didn’t work out as I had planned. Since traffic laws are only suggestions here, and therefore sidewalks are synonymous with parking lots or sometimes even highways, there’s no safe way for me to walk to a supermarket, even though there are several within walking distance of my apartment. And since I need to use a lighter to light my stove, and let’s face it, I have terrible aim, I can’t cook by myself either. So, for the first time in a very long time, I felt blind.
This was very difficult for me. It was like my neighbors’ attitude was seeping under my skin, to my very bones, making me feel like somehow I had failed. It took a long time for me to realize that even though I’m not as independent as I would have liked, I’m still more independent than I have been my whole life. I’ve taken one more step towards independence after college, not the giant leap that I envisioned myself taking, but still a step. And I’ve done more than that.
Somewhere between eliciting a round of applause for cutting up my own chicken at a dinner for the International Lions Club and being denied access to the tower of Pisa, I realized that I am representing blind people to Italians who may not have any direct experience with someone who is blind. I have been showing them that a person who is blind can do things on their own. And I’ve noticed a difference in the reactions I get around town. People say hello to me as I pass in the street. They ask me how I do things. Sometimes, they even admit that they didn’t think someone with a disability could do any of the things I’ve done, but I’ve changed their minds.
It’s only been in the last couple months that I’ve noticed this change, and when I noticed it, I realized something else. Ever since I left high school, I have resisted being “blind.” I didn’t even know I was doing it, because I was so happy, but to give an example, if someone suggested I write about being blind, I resisted. I said it was because I wrote fiction, not nonfiction, but I didn’t even want to write about a fictional blind character. I didn’t want to be defined as “that girl who writes about blind people because she’s blind.” And this extended to everything else I did and said and thought.
But I am blind. It doesn’t have to define me—in fact, I’ve made it fairly clear that it doesn’t—but I can’t change it either, and I wouldn’t want to if I could. And who better to represent people who are blind, whether in literature or in real life, than a person who is blind herself? Who better to represent me than me?