As writers, we rely on our unique ability to convey the visual world in words. We conjure images in the minds of readers about lush green fields, grey, decaying buildings, or velvety red berries ripe for picking.
But how do you describe green when you’ve never actually seen green? How do you create words that move people when you don’t see the world the same way they do? How do you network and expand your business when you can’t make eye contact?
You think you’re writing project is hard? You think you’re having trouble finding your voice or meeting your goals? Welcome to my world.
I’m Steff, a legally blind writer and blogger. I have a rare genetic condition called achromotopsia. In your eye, you have two types of cells – rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to light levels, and cones contain photoreceptors to distinguish colors. My eyes contain no cone cells, so I cannot see color. It’s difficult to describe what I do see – richly varied shades of light and dark, or grey in all the colors of the rainbow.
Rod cells are extremely sensitive to light, so on bright days or when surrounded by white, I see the world like an over-exposed black and white film. I have poor depth perception, and nystagmus, which means my eyes blink and move around a lot. I focus out of the side of my eye, so when I talk to you, my eyes dart everywhere and I appear to be looking over your shoulder.
People frequently tell me they feel sorry for me – they couldn’t imagine a world without color. But I’ve never seen blue or green or red, so I don’t miss them. I’m never sad about what I can’t see, because that’s like being sad about the size or my ears or how many toes I have. They’re part of me, and I love experiencing the world in a completely unique way.
We’re all presented with unique challenges, and we define ourselves by how we choose to meet them.
As I write this, my nose is about 1cm from the computer screen (that’s 2/5 of an inch, for those of you who are imperially inclined). The colors have been reversed, so I see white letters on a black background. I work with the curtains closed and the lights off. Sometimes, I lean in a little to catch something, and smush my nose against the screen. Luckily, my Mac is very forgiving.
My writing challenges mostly involve finding workarounds for technology I can’t use, covering events when I can’t see what’s going on, and dealing with face-to-face meetings and networking where people find my eyes distracting and, occasionally, frightening (the heavy metal shirt and shifty eyes make one menacing combination).
With any challenge, I think the best thing to do is acknowledge it, make it hilarious, and find some way to use it in your writing. I write monthly columns on disability websites about the amusing things that happen to me. You’ve got to see the humor in these situations; otherwise you’ll drive yourself insane.
Your challenges might not have to do with computer screens giving you a headache or children hiding from you in fear or pouring tomato sauce on your ice cream instead of chocolate fudge. Whatever they are, imagine yourself telling a friend about them, but instead of complaining, you’re trying to make them laugh.
Develop an attitude. As a kid, I stood out for all the wrong reasons. I was bullied because of my eyesight, because I was a geek, because I liked weird clothes and loud music and stooped when I walked and never said the right thing.
Now, I still have wonky eyes and weird clothes and a strange walk and I still never say the right thing, but I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I don’t hide behind that person anymore – I walk up to a stranger and say “hi, I’m Steff, and I can’t look at you when you talk to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re awesome.”
I’m no Glenn Benton, but I decided it was time I acted a little more heavy metal. As a writer, you can’t be half-assed, you can’t be wishy-washy. Your words speak for you – so make every word count.
As writers, we’re eternally curious. Every day we enter worlds we would never experience in real life, and draw from them experiences and thoughts and feelings that anyone can relate to, and we use words to bring those worlds to life.
Even if you don’t know what green is, you can use your writer’s skills to bring green to life. I memorize the colors of objects – I’m always asking people around me to describe the colors they see. You learn so much by talking to people.
I know that grass is green, but, beyond that, I know that green grass is lush and fresh and soft underfoot, but grass that’s parched or sprayed or dying isn’t green at all – it’s brown. I build up an image in my mind, an image made of words – luscious, rich, fresh, new, soft, deep, life. And I can conjure green from my imagination.
That’s the true power of the words you write. You can help the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the disheartened to regain hope.
You too can imagine green.
A note from James: Having recently drawn a colour-blind person into my life, I’ve learned new appreciation for the fact that some people don’t see the world as we do… literally. I’ve had to drawn on my words to describe what I see to this person – I can’t just say, “Oh, the house with the green shutters,” anymore. I can only imagine the challenges these people face in daily life, so thank you to Steff for bringing this point to life so eloquently.