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Writer’s Life – Eyes don’t have it: Writing and low vision

Last updated on May 12, 2017

Low vision is the frame of my reality.  I’ve been working around its encroaching borders for long enough that I now often forget it’s a “thing”.  Since I can’t change it, it’s incorporated into my workflow and I rarely talk about it.  I mean, I’m a writer and needing to see sort of comes with the job, right?

Just recently, and weirdly enough, it came up in conversation with someone in the writing community.  First time that’s happened, actually.  But it got me thinking.  It occurred to me there may be others in the same boat who might benefit from hearing about it.  Especially, if they’re thinking being a writer isn’t an avenue of pursuit, because they deal with low vision or a similar vision impairment.

So, to you, who may be struggling with that and think it prevents you from pursuing writing, I can tell you, you’re wrong.  You just have to figure out how to get around it.  Easier said than done?  Meh, not so much.  The trick is to find some assists that work for you.  Okay, to be fair, if low vision is a new situation for you, the first step is to admit you may need some assists.  After that, it’s easy.  Well, easier.

How did it happen?

For me, I didn’t start out this way, so it was new.  It came up slowly.  And I’m very stubborn.  I didn’t want to accept this was something I needed to figure out how to work around if I wanted to continue doing what I loved and only did so kicking and screaming.  Well, actually it was more I ignored it and pretended it wasn’t happening for a long time and just never mentioned.  I can tell you, I could have saved myself a lot of aggravation and crashing into things had I just put on my big boy pants and figured out what could help me sooner.

I freely admit, I’m often my own worst enemy, so I don’t recommend following my particular journey.  Trust me, you can do it better.  Why did I drag my feet so much?  I’m extremely independent for one and the thought of anything getting in the way of that gets me all snarly protecting my territory, but mostly?  I’m a dumbass.  Seriously, don’t be me.

bleached old carThe last time I drove a car was the Victoria Day holiday weekend in Canada, May 2007, during a 3-day film shoot with our production company.  I scared the holy crap out of myself on the return trip when I reached the busy Toronto downtown core while returning the rental van.  I hadn’t driven anywhere that busy for months and I remember it slamming home to me how I had no business being on the road that day.  Other vehicles seemed to pop into view out of nowhere leaving me no time to react.  It wasn’t until that moment that I accepted how much of my field of vision was actually missing.  I never got behind the wheel of a vehicle again.

That one hurt to let go, because I love driving.  I was always that guy who drove everyone home no matter how far they lived, just for the driving fun.  “You live how far?  Kapuskasing, you say?  Bonus.  It’s only 9 or 10 hours, practically on my way home.”  But trust me, it’s just safer for everyone else I knocked that off when I did.

In the past, I commuted a lot for work, often putting a year’s worth of a regular person’s miles on my vehicles in a month – my Pop is a car guy and constantly gave me shit for it.  Due to the excessive travel, I drove a series of substantial and safe old beaters he dropped restored motors into for me that I systematically rode-out until they fell apart around me.  Lucky for me I had a hook-up.  I never thought about low vision or was remotely worried about losing my vision while clocking those countless miles.  I took it for granted I would always be able to do it.

During that same time, I spent the bulk of my freelance time editing and rewriting for other people – mostly because it was my best thing and I enjoy doing it.  A lot.  Admittedly O.C.D. and a perfectionist, I have a need to make things perfect, because I think they’re supposed to be.  Or the universe will implode.  Ask my buddy Marty – he routinely busts my chops for straightening the patio furniture at the office to align it with the wood slats on the deck while ensuring all the chairs are tucked in an equidistant amount of space from the table tops. Knock three times, turn around, touch the light switch five times…

Anyway, I had a sharp eye, was driven to create perfection in the output, and could speed read entire pages in a blink.  Low vision?  pffft.  It made me fast and accurate and is a skill other people pay for.  Even gained me a nice word-of-mouth reputation and I never had a problem picking up jobs when I needed them, which was awesome.  I was so fast, I could redo an entire 90-page script between a Friday and a Sunday night in my spare time or a 120,000-word manuscript in three or four days in between other jobs and four children.  It’s my favourite thing and I still love it.

The first time I noticed how bad the void in my vision was, was a rather illuminating experience – excuse the pun.  To that point, I didn’t even realise I had one.  My brain had been tricking me.  It filled in the space, stitching together the edges of my view, so I never realised I was missing a chunk.

Something missing

I was downtown and on my way back to the subway.  Now, this is a place I’ve been to about a billion times, so this wasn’t unfamiliar territory.  I walked up to the bank of doors to get into the subway station, nothing crazy, just heading back the way I came.  Only, instead of grabbing the door handle I aimed for, I missed it completely and actually punched the metal door, fracturing one of my knuckles.  Lessons learned?

  1. There was a void in my field of view I was to that point unaware of
  2. I’d lost most of my depth perception.

Good to know and suddenly put a lot of things in context.

To that point, I had actually thought I was just a natural klutz.  I’d been mis-stepping and crashing into things for years, always on one side.  In my last house, I fell out the front door – flat-out, right off my feet and hit the ground on my back knocking the wind out of me – multiple times, because as I stepped out, I missed the edge of the raised step that I bloody well knew was there.  I routinely, and I mean for about seven years, missed the entrance to the kitchen by several inches on a regular basis and slammed my foot into the corner of the wall.  I’ve fractured the baby toe on my right foot about eleven or twelve times now, my big toe about three that I recall.

Did the same thing with my right hand, the one I broke the knuckle on.  My baby finger, middle and index fingers of that same hand are the winners of repeated fractures from swinging my arm into various door jambs, poles, signs, supporting beams and whathaveyou that I always manage not to miss by several inches.  I regularly fall off the edges of curbs if I have to go around something on the sidewalk, though usually try and walk with someone on that side who nudges me over.  I don’t need a dog yet, I have seeing-eye-friends.  I’ve sprained my right ankle five times, tore the ligaments in my foot and ankle twice, popped my right knee out three times (twice falling down the stairs) and dislocated my right shoulder twice (catching myself while falling down stairs) during various crashing and falling incidents.

It wasn’t until between 2006-2007 that I learned I had a cataract in my right eye and confirmed I was losing overall vision in the left – despite having my eyes tested often, no one identified the cataract before that.  And I learned it was growing fast.  I was in denial about that for a bit, but got over it.  While tracking the growth of this thing, I later found out that laser surgery, while would do the trick to remove it, would also destroy what vision I had left in the process.  So that was out.  I have a special prescription on my glasses that’s different around points in the right lens that allows me to take better advantage of the vision I have left around the oddly-shaped void.

The upside?  At least knowing there’s a reason I’m a giant spaz makes me aware to leave space more often and results in less injuries.  Well, most of the time.  lol

Life adjustments around low vision

low vision - smaller field of viewNowadays?  Not so much with the speed editing.  Low vision, missing chunks of peripheral field and a giant void in my direct field of view means I can’t speed read – can’t absorb a whole page.  I no longer see all the words at the same time and I don’t see them in the correct order, either.

Or more accurately, my brain doesn’t sort them out for me to understand in the correct order.  They swim around and then after a delay, appear to lay themselves out in an understandable way.  And I can only see a few at a time.  Annoying and it slows me down.  Still compelled, it takes me multiple passes before I reach accuracy, so I can’t pick up those tight deadline jobs any longer.

But I still edit, because I have to.  I have a need.  So I make it work.

I also don’t relax well as a rule, so any spare moments I wasn’t working, I used to fill up with a multitude of hobbies like calligraphy that also need a sharp eye.  Okay, and I’m also compelled to do everything at the same time, so used to have about sixteen or seventeen work and not-work projects running simultaneously.  I wasn’t kidding–not so much with the relaxing.  But anyway, the point is, I never gave a thought to coping with low vision or not doing whatever I wanted in those spare moments.

Now?  I have to choose my activities a bit.  I have to think about what I can spare attention to in between other things that I also have to think about spending attention on.  But I still do them.  There’s only so many things I can look at in a day before it’s over, so I make it count.  My eyes and brain get tired and I battle constant headaches, mostly from eye strain and prolonged concentration, but you know what?  I still do calligraphy or detail painting when I’m in the mood.  I have to use a magnifier, some glasses and strong light, but I still do it, because I enjoy it.  Why would I stop?  I just approach it differently now.

Low vision and writing

If I want to do what I love to do, I do it.  I just have to think about doing those things one or two at a time, so I don’t lose my place.  But low vision doesn’t prevent me from doing any of them.  If I want or need to read a print book for pleasure or study, I make sure I’m sitting under a light and have my glasses on and am prepared to wash the end of my nose later after dragging it across the paper pages so close to my face.  I find that kind of amusing, actually.  Gives a whole new meaning to having my nose stuck in a book.

I increase the font view in my word processing program, so I can read what I’m writing or editing.  No one else sees that, so who cares?  It’s going to be whatever font size is required in the finished product, so it doesn’t matter how I got it there.  I use the magnifier on my OS to better view things when I surf the ‘net.  Um, that’s what it’s there for – d’uh.  I have an actual magnifying glass in my desk drawer in case I need to locate something small on my desk – also why it’s there.

I use a separate monitor with my laptop – a big one – also so I can see what I’m doing.  It’s pulled up close to the edge of the desk, so I’m on top of the screen.  It does the job.  I’ve adjusted the contrast and brightness on it to give me the best visibility for my personal best viewing – other people find it too bright, but it’s just right for me.  I use password management software to assist me with my logins, so I’m not squinting to see text fields.  Luckily, I’m a touch typist, so that’s not such a big problem, but if I have to go to a Braille keyboard at some point?  If that’s what it takes to keep going, I’ll do that, too.

You know why?  Because I’m a writer and low vision or not, I need to write.  I have to.  It really doesn’t matter what assists I need to work with.  If they let me get it out of my head, maybe my brain won’t explode.

If you’re in the same boat, just get with the program.  How bad do you need to write?  If you can let it go, I’ll tell you, you were never a real writer, anyway.  Because a real writer, one who was born with it and it’s an at-the-molecular-level need to churn out words, will do whatever it takes to make sure they can still do it.  Desperation is the mother of invention.  Don’t let low vision slow you down or get in your way.  Be inventive, be creative and do whatever you need to do to keep the words flowing.

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