I’ve worn corrective lenses since the first grade. Our school had green chalk boards and the level of contrast between the yellowish chalk and the boards was good, but I struggled to make out the letters just as we were beginning to read. I ended up in the front row of the classroom and I thought at the time that it was because I exhibited poor behavior. That’s why the others were in the front row. Being within reach of the teacher tended to improve behavior somewhat. I tried to behave, but I was also struggling to see the chalkboard.

My first pair of glasses were a bit of a miracle to me. All of a sudden I could see things that I hadn’t previously seen. My father had excellent vision and didn’t need to wear glasses. He was a pilot and we heard over and over again how important it was for us to eat carrots to maintain our night vision. I ate a lot of carrots in pursuit of better eyesight. I wanted to be a pilot. I knew that those glasses would keep me from having an unrestricted medical certificate. By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was pretty sure that I would not make it to the astronaut program. There were just seven astronauts at the time and none of them wore glasses.

Our doctor didn’t wear glasses. Our dentist didn’t wear glasses. None of the pilots who worked for my parents wore glasses. Our mother did wear glasses and she had a pilot’s license, so I thought there was some hope for me, but I remember being worried.

At 15 I got my driver’s license. It had a restriction stating that that I needed to wear corrective lenses to drive. By that point in my life I owned not one, but two pair of glasses because I had become quite accomplished at breaking glasses frames and seemed to need the reserve pair to wear while the main pair was sent in to the optician for repairs. It was a good thing, because that year I also had my first flight physical, which came back that I needed to not only wear corrective lenses but have a spare pair present when operating an airplane. It was also that year that I discovered that my father had memorized the entire Army Medical Corps eye chart, including the color blindness test book. Maybe his vision wasn’t perfect after all.

A couple of years later the same doctor told me that there was no point in my filling out an application to become a smokejumper. There was no way I would pass the eye test for that occupation. For what it is worth, I’d ridden with that doctor in his airplane. He wasn’t a very smooth pilot. He horsed around his airplane and over controlled it. Landings with him in a Cessna 180 were an adventure that was less than pleasant. He never ground looped the bird, but I never thought of him as a good pilot. I was working at the airport at that point and knew how often most of the locals flew their planes. The good doctor wasn’t flying anywhere near as much as I was at that point.

As an adult, I was diagnosed with an eye condition called keratoconus. I knew a bit about the condition, because I had an aunt who was among the first people in the country to have cornea transplants. She had experienced serious deterioration of vision and wasn’t able to drive a car or do many other tasks. He had huge magnifiers just to read before she had her surgery. She also wore contact lenses instead of glasses. Sticking with similar theories about the condition by which she had been treated prior to her transplants, my ophthalmologist recommended hard contact lenses to increase pressure on the corneas to slow the progress of the condition. Those contact lenses hurt, and at first I could tolerate them for only a couple of hours a day. I worked my way up to wearing them most of the day, but it was sure a relief when I could take them out at night and put on my regular glasses. After about a decade, I decided to give up on the contact lenses. By then, I had switched to a new kind of soft contacts, but still struggled with them. Interestingly, my keratoconus stabilized at about the same time, and I have not required further treatment. Plastic lenses have lightened the weight of my glasses significantly and I do very well with the glasses.

It is interesting that through the various adventures with eyes and eye doctors, I have never thought of my condition as a disability. Lots of people wear glasses. With the exception that I never became an astronaut or a smoke jumper - career options that probably wouldn’t have worked out for me for other reasons - my life has not been restricted by my vision. My vision can be corrected to 20/25. That means I’m reading the street signs in time to make the turn and only slightly closer than my wife whose vision is a bit better than mine since here cataract surgery. We’re different enough that we aren’t likely to have switching our glasses go unnoticed.

My vision does, however, give me a clue to understanding those who live with disabilities that are more significant than mine. Disability is a range, not an absolute condition. Most people who have been identified has having a disability have far more things that they are able to do than the list of things that they cannot do. They have plenty of abilities, just not all of the abilities that some of their peers possess. A person who cannot walk can still see, think, read, reason, cook, build and do math. I have friends who are paralyzed below the waist who can snow ski, waterski, drive vehicles and are fully employed in meaningful work.

Evaluating others in terms of their disabilities is rarely useful. We need to focus on their abilities. Look at what the individual is capable of doing, rather than what she or he cannot do.

All of us will have some decrease in ability as we age. We will also retain some abilities. The more restrictions I experience, the more I want to define myself by what I am able to do.

So, for the record, I’ve got 20/20 vision in my right eye. And no, I haven’t memorized the chart.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!