What It’s Like to Live With Low Vision

Kathi Wolfe’s recent essay in The New York Times, “A Smirk, a Smile, a Clenched Fist: What the Movies Taught Me to See,” identifies very clearly how a person living with low vision learns about images and eventually incorporates them into their lived experiences. Interestingly, she relates how for a person with low vision viewing something in the movies is a more powerful learning opportunity than experiencing it in real life.

Living with low vision, I often must imagine the small details presented visually, since I cannot see details that fully sighted people might take for granted. Each subtle gesture, facial expression, or silent visual moment carries so much meaning, from joy to sorrow and everything in between. Every day I think about the little things in people’s body language that I might miss. I instinctively “fill in the blanks” of my world. Like Kathi, my experience includes not being able to see the faces and expressions of emotions of the people with whom I interact. In business meetings and social gatherings, I can’t pick up on subtle cues that convey how others might be feeling, such as a slight smile, frown, or an eyeroll. But I can guess, based on what I hear, previous experience, and other non-visual clues.

Like Wolfe, watching TV and movies gave me the opportunity to get really close to someone’s face on a big screen and see how their expression matched the words they were saying and the tone, diction, and cadence of their speech. I eventually memorized pairings of expressions to speech patterns and assumed that other people did the same. Being able to view these nuances close up provided a glimpse into how people might look and act in real life. Most important, I’m able to listen for the tones in people’s voices to discern their emotions. The enhanced visual experience provided in movies is increasingly available through optical devices, technological, and other advances in interventions available so that those of us with low vision can make best use of the vision we have. These innovations create a similar opportunity and build on what movies and television have provided for many.

Enhancements of visual images and audio cues, whether through media or the use of low-vision interventions, have helped to heighten my awareness of verbal and nonverbal cues in communicating with others. I often strive to put my own emotions into conversations, displaying my understanding of the importance of allowing someone to feel heard. The moments of silence between us are filled with visual images that allow communication and understanding beyond words. Because of this, people living with vision loss have an inherent disadvantage. Visual enhancements help, though they do not fill in all the blanks. Therefore, imagining a person’s gesture or facial expression because of the sound of their voice is extremely important in navigating our ever-changing world successfully. Because these little things mean a lot.

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