Several personal items sit atop my nondescript office desk: a red aluminum water bottle, a set of keys, my folded cane, a red cellphone, a silver and gray lamp, a box of tissues (nearly empty), a carafe of peanut butter M&Ms (almost empty), and my sunglasses. Of all these items, the sunglasses are easiest to find on the dark desk surface; their shiny lenses and large frames readily draw my eye. I wear them each time I leave the comfortable dimness of my office. I’ve forgotten my cellphone and keys multiple times, but I’ve never left the office without my shades.
The sunglasses are large, fitting over and wrapping around my prescription glasses to offer peripheral protection. They do not fit in a traditional glasses case. They are smooth to the touch, glossy, with occasional rough spots on the temples or nosepiece from their four years of wear. They complement my regular supply of cloche hats. Because I wear them over my regular glasses, they tend to make my face feel warm after an hour or so.
When I first started wearing the sunglasses four years ago, I hated the way they looked. I was convinced that they were too large to be attractive—sure that they obscured so much of my face that I no longer looked human. Despite family, friends, and strangers telling me that I looked like a celebrity, that big sunglasses were “in,” I felt awkward behind them. I felt that people treated me differently when I wore them. I blamed the sunglasses for effacing me, stripping away everything that I thought of as myself and offering A Stereotypical Blind Girl instead.
Only their extreme practicality redeemed the sunglasses for me. Reluctantly, I started wearing them inside as well as outside—in bright classrooms, grocery stores, and even onstage. Wearing them during chorus performances earned me the nickname Stevie, and, each time a chorus member affectionately called, “Come on, Stevie,” the sunglasses became more dear to me.
I started to experience the sunglasses as a creative, rather than destructive, force; they began to nurture my identity as a blind musician. I laughed when chorus members said that I looked like a rock star, wearing them onstage. I got excited when a saxophone player told me that my cane and sunglasses reminded him of Diane Schuur, a famous blind jazz singer and pianist.
However, these new feelings of positivity were “extras”—the objective circumstances of the sunglasses never wavered. Behind the shades, I felt intense and instant relief from any oppressive lights. They significantly reduced my level of eye fatigue. I felt able to function in unforeseen environments: bright sunny afternoons, classrooms where I couldn’t adjust the lighting, conference auditoriums, and countless stores lit with glaring fluorescents. I was able to dine alfresco without complaint or discomfort. I still couldn’t read menus outside, but I could enjoy the weather and listen to a friend read for me—an ideal compromise. Even when I detested the look of the shades, I couldn’t ignore these changes. The nagging refrain, “Life feels better behind the shades,” played in my head each time I prepared to leave my house. The measurable improvement in my quality of life incited me to pack the sunglasses—and choose different bags or purses to accommodate them.
The sunglasses became a point of pride, an implement of my independence and identity. I quickly learned to wear them when I needed them, a lesson solidified by positive reinforcement. Sunglasses on: discomfort gone! However, learning to wear them as a statement of identity took more time; it involved a process of self-acceptance that wasn’t written on the product packaging. Wearing the sunglasses without shame, without an oppressive need to “look normal” or avoid “looking blind,” involved a change in my own thinking. I had to accept my need for the shades and discard the idea of “looking normal.” I had to understand that “looking blind” wasn’t really about blindness; it was about stereotypes of blindness.
If you were a blind person who looked blind, that meant that you stumbled, wore mismatched or stained clothing, gazed vacantly at people, and groped for objects in front of you. As I got to know myself as a blind woman and met others in the blind community, I came to realize just how little truth resided in these ready phrases. Like processed convenience foods, the ideas of “looking normal” and “looking blind” didn’t offer any substance; they couldn’t nourish the woman I wanted to become.
Four years ago, the style of sunglasses I needed came in one size, the size I currently wear. Now, that size is called Medium, and the exact same lens color and shape comes in a Small. I have the chance to downsize, and I am going to try it. As long as the new smaller shades will offer me the same protection, I can’t resist the convenience of being able to pack them in a traditional glasses case. Since they’ll cover less of my face, I’m hoping they won’t be as hot to wear over my regular glasses.
I also can’t ignore that the look of my shades will change. These new ones will be closer to the “normal” end of the sunglasses spectrum—perhaps not as obvious as a symbol of blindness. To be excited about the new “more normal” look feels like a betrayal of the struggles I experienced, learning to love my sunglases and myself. To be sucked into the idea that these new shades will “look better” takes me out of my own perspective and puts me in the eyes of someone outside, looking at me. Is this the perspective I want?
From behind my current shades, I say no. I say that it’s important to focus on function, not form, here. I say that I need to use the tools that help me to feel most like myself, regardless of their fit with current trends in fashion. I do not want to throw away the self-acceptance I have earned. I certainly took a long time finding it, and it was not an easy task.