health macular dystrophy

On Being A Legally Blind College Student

by Shabnam Ferdowsi

You can’t tell, but I’m legally blind. I started noticing my vision problems when I was 11. Nine doctors and six years later, in my last semester of high school, we figured it out. I have a genetic condition called Macular Dystrophy that causes extreme near sightedness and central vision loss. In simple terms, I can’t see much detail more than a few feet away from my eyes and I can’t focus on any one point, among other minor symptoms (like my deep loathing for fluorescent lights for one). There is no cure yet, and glasses don’t help.

So I just deal.

I’m going on ten years since my first optometrist appointment in 6th grade, so I’ve become pretty good at dealing. I enlarge the font on my phone, turn on the zoom functions on all my electronics (thank you Apple!), sit in the first chair of the classroom, and tell as many people as I can.

I used to be embarrassed. When people say “hey” from across the quad or as they bike by, I can’t tell who it is or if they’re even talking to me. So I ignore it, and it used to eat at my self-esteem like nothing else. Since my central vision is low, I can’t focus on any one point so when I’m talking to people, I can’t physically make my eyes look them. So I just look in that general direction, which used to look terribly off when I was just getting used to this whole thing. I’d be talking to a friend who was standing five feet away and she’d constantly turn around as if to see what I was looking at, and I’d just want to tell her, “I’m looking at you, damnit!” I hated going out alone anywhere because I couldn’t read signs or menus. Of course, I definitely would not ask for help. Help is for the weak, I thought.

But the thing is, my eyes are weak. There is nothing I can do about it. I’m not normal and I just need to own that. So here I am.

I’m a legally blind photographer who loves going to concerts, making videos and meeting people.

I auto-focus, so that answers any photography questions you may have. I cannot manually focus, and that causes all the problems videography may have. I used to go through whole shoots thinking I was focusing it all right, but then I’d throw it onto a screen and HELL, non of it would be focused. It’s discouraging, and I used to wonder all the time if I should quit. But screw quitting. I’ll put it on a tripod. I’ll make friends who shoot, start a team so I can direct and they can focus. I’m making it work for now because I’m not taking no for an answer.

Yes, I’m technically handicapped and thus can’t get a regular license. Yes, it royally sucks living in LA. 90% of the stress I ever have comes from late busses. The other 10% comes from grumpy bus drivers. I hate this city for this reason. I’m not planning on having a typical nine-to-five job. I’m going to be moving, shooting and meeting people all over. I’ve been wanting to shoot in Venice Beach for over two years, but who wants to spend 2 hours on a bus there and another 2 hours back? No, thanks. So I’m trying to get out as soon as I can.

But then again, I love this city because it’s home. I love it because it’s diverse. I love it because my camera loves golden hours and palm trees. I love it because I’m building a network of people who care for and are passionate about the same things I am.

I make it a point to make sure everyone I meet knows what my situation is. I’ve decided that asking for help is not giving in, but rather accepting this life to be able to live it to the fullest (if I may be cliché). So now I’m going to start asking for help, because I’m sick and tired of getting stuck (physically and not). And if people think it’s too weird of me to ask them to read the entire menu out loud, or drive me back from the concert since buses don’t run past midnight, or to simply tell me who’s waving at me form across the room, then I’m not sure if we’re real friends.

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