Are you blind?

I was walking briskly on the narrow road to my school on a Monday morning when something funny caught my attention. A three-year-old boy

was practising some dancing steps in front of his mum. I stopped momentarily to watch the scenario. Just then, an old man bumped into me.

“Are you blind?” he asked. I was speechless. “Me! Blind? I wasn’t even moving at the time! “Sorry sir,” I said in apology even though I felt it should have been the other way round.

Several years later I was able to provide an answer to his question. Way back, when I was in high school, long before I got myself  involved with eye care, I believed that for anyone to be designated as blind he must have lost vision completely in both eyes; that as long as one could see and move about one could not be said to be blind. Thus, I held all those beggars out on the streets soliciting for alms using guide sticks to find their way in utter disdain. As far as I was concerned, they were all pretenders of the first order, out to prey on the generosity of the hard working people.

Don’t blame me! I was young, naïve, impressionable and believed in anything that was written as it was written. The only acclaimed authority on the English Language that I knew at the time was the Oxford English Language Dictionary.

I had a copy given to me by my mum. It defined “blind” as “sightless, unsighted, unseeing, eyeless or visionless.” How could anyone so described as sightless be able to move about without being led?

But now I know there are different categories of blindness. One is described as being “as blind as bat,” when one is totally blind and cannot see one’s way around in clear daylight.  Bats can’t see during the day and hang on trees until night time when they become active.

But then there is legal blindness. To be declared legally blind, you must have five per cent vision or less. A patient of mine described it to me as “Everything appears blurry. I can tell the difference between white and black even on television but the details are lost. I cannot recognise faces.”

How then does “visual impairment” differ from “blindness”? First, it should be obvious that blindness is the extreme form of visual impairment. However, being visually impaired doesn’t mean that one is legally blind. Someone who is visually impaired can actually have a 6/6 (perfect vision) in some areas of his field of vision – parts may be blind or blurred.

Sometimes he can see only when using his peripheral vision while unable to see what is in front of him when looking straight ahead. Patients with advanced glaucoma often see clearly (6/6) whilst looking straight ahead of them, but are unable to see anything on the sides. This is called “tunnel vision” and often the main reason why they do not seek assistance until they are unable to cope with the level of vision.

Visually impaired people are physically challenged, but that does not mean that they cannot do things on their own. A colleague of mine would like to describe them as people with different abilities. Despite their challenges, many have achieved greatness and feats that those without any visual blemish could not attain. Examples abound – Helen Keller is a household name was blind and deaf; Steve Wonder one of the leading musicians of his days and our own Bitrus Gani retired as a Professor of Physiotherapy, to mention only a few.

Now, I can answer the old man’s question. I am neither blind nor visually impaired. Looking back, the old man must have been visually impaired. I must have stood outside his line of vision and that was why he walked into me.

If you won’t be offended, may I ask you like the old man, “Are you blind?” Don’t rush to give an answer except you have had an eye examination by an eye medical doctor in the last one year.

Remember, blindness is in the extreme. You may be visually impaired and don’t know it. Many are on the way to being blind and are not aware of it! That process can be halted by taking time off to have a comprehensive eye examination and following your doctor’s advice. A stitch in time saves nine.

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