Friday, 19 November 2010

Invisible disabilities

I am a contact lens wearer. I'm not ashamed of it, the way I am about colouring my hair (yeah! - say it in public!). But it's an odd thing about wearing contact lenses - no-one knows that you do, unless you tell them. Then every now and then there's a day when one is running badly late for work, or one has a head so stuffed with head-cold that one's eyes hurt (that's today, FYI) and one goes out in specs. Ooh, specs. Girls who wear glasses, and all that.

My specs are perfectly ok. In fact, they're quite nice - plain and practical with neat black frames that turn out to be smokey-transparent when one looks closely. "Capable and slightly foxy" was the look I hoped to achieve when I chose them. I like them. But people are often quite taken-aback when they see me in them. I just got a massive double-take out of someone at work - you would think I'd gone out wearing a bra on my head, not a humble pair of specs...

At least someone else then gave me a free flowerpot. Thank you, David! But no-one made a pass at me (not that they would have done if I'd been wearing my lenses, either, mind you).

Poor eyesight is a pain, goodness knows. I wish I'd inherited my father's 20/20 vision rather than the severe myopia that runs in my mother's family. I have such bitter memories of being teased in childhood for not being able to see things in the middle-distance; teased even by people who could have worked out, if they'd thought twice about it, that I must be short-sighted. I mean, people who are short-sighted themselves! Because the world looked exactly the same to me as it had done for as long as I could remember, I wasn't aware that it was blurry. It was normal. I had no idea that other people went on seeing clearly, the way I could see my own hands, when objects were further off. I though the world was blurry. I thought my perceptions were the only reality.

The first time, aged eight, that I looked through the testing specs at an opticians, with the right corrective lenses, and saw that there was indeed a list displaying the letters of the alphabet hanging up at the other end of the room (I had begun to fear he was making fun of me, as until then I literally couldn't see it) - it was revelatory, and rather frightening. The world looked totally different to the place I had lived in until then (you will gather, I really do have lousy eyesight).

I wonder if my grandfather, who was severely deaf, went through a similar revelation/shock when he was first fitted with a hearing aid and realised that the quiet world he was used to didn't exist outside his own perception? Deafness is an far more invisible problem than poor vision; at least these thick-lensed specs make it quite clear what my problem is. Grandpa struggled for seventy-odd years against others' impatience, prejudice and ignorance about deafness, with all the considerable vigour and fury of a very pugnacious educated working class man with a chip the size of Manchester Cathedral on his shoulder. Towards the end of his life it used to wear him down sometimes. He would joke about inventing a series of badges to carry in his pocket, and pinning more and more of them on as he tried to communicate with some mumbling shop assistant. Badge number one would read "I am deaf - please speak up"; then the successive messages would get blunter, then outright rude and finally be quite surreal - I particularly remember "If you want me to listen, don't talk to your bosom". He never did it, of course; but it gave him a laugh to fantasise about it.

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