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I have a rare genetic eye disease called Stargardt Disease which has damaged my retina to the point where my visual acuity is poor enough that I am now legally blind. Many people upon learning that you’re legally blind assume that you are not able to see at all, which is far from the case for me. While my central vision is poor, I still retain my peripheral vision.
The definition of legally blind means that your vision is 20/200 or less in your better eye or your field of vision is less than 20 degrees. What this means in practical terms is that I can’t read even the top line of an eye chart. I can see that there’s an eye chart in front of me, but I just can’t read it.
I only became legally blind at age 59 (I’m 60-years-old as I write this), so the world of low vision is a new one for me. Since most of my friends last saw me when I was fully sighted, It’s important to me that the can understand what I can and can’t see, hence this post.
Below is a simulation to help folks understand what the world looks like to me, what I can see easily, and what I can’t.The true nature of my vision loss is hard to document correctly (blurriness, fractured-ness, constant pulsing lights, etc.), but this gives one a good idea of why, for instance, I am comfortable going for a hike in the woods un-aided, while I use a white cane whenever I venture out in a city or cross a busy street.
Reading is the biggest challenge I face with my vision. In addition to the blurriness at the center of my retina, letters are also fragmented. I also see pulsing lights at all times, so the three issues combined makes reading the most difficult task I face with my eye condition.
Crossing streets and walking in a city is another big challenge for me. In addition to the distortion at the center of my vision, I detect movement much more slowly than fully-sighted people do. Because of this difficulty detecting movement, seeing moving cars is challenging, as is being in a crowd or walking down a city street.
I am an analogy guy, so I like to compare my issues with seeing movement to that of having an old computer with a full hard drive – yes, the old computer works, but it moves very slowly. For instance, when I am a passenger in the car and my wife points out something that she sees, I cannot see it at all if the car is moving, I need to have the car stopped so my eyes can catch up to what my wife sees.
Seeing faces is the third biggest challenge I face living with Stargardt’s Disease. Similar to reading, I don’t have the visual acuity needed to see facial details unless I am close to the person. Interestingly, while I cannot make out the facial details of someone I have not seen before, if I know the person, my brain is able to use visual memory to fill in what my retinas cannot see well.
Watching television is almost impossible when I sit on the couch. However, when I position my chair mere inches away from the screen, I am able to see the TV pretty well. This is the case for most things visual for me, the closer I am, or the larger an item is, the better I can see it. So, sitting inches away from the TV works for me, as does working on a 50″ computer monitor that is inches from my eyes. To see my smartphone, I use built-in zooming functionality as well as speech-to-text tools. That’s how I read anything more than a couple of words, I let the computer/smartphone read it for me.
Hiking is one of my favorite activities, and luckily it’s one area where I am less impacted by my vision issues. Inverse to walking in the city, there is little movement when you are in the woods. Also, the lack of movement around me allows me to concentrate on my surroundings, so hiking is the one activity where my life has not changed significantly since I lost my vision.