“Are you partially sighted?” The question came to me from behind and to the right, a seat somewhere behind where my friends were sitting. I awkwardly fidgeted, not really wanting to answer but knowing if I didn’t anger, or at the least persistence would follow.
“No,” I muttered. I hoped he would realise I was blind and leave me alone, his curiosity satisfied.
“Well, you’re eyes look strange and…”
His words hit me, tearing through my defences to take up residence somewhere deep inside where I could not reach them. Immediately I felt myself curling inwards, turning my face to the window beside me. My hands frantically sifted through the contents of my bag searching for my headphones. As I was pulling them out, I heard more words.
“How long have you had the dog?”
This time I did not answer.
I’m not ignorant to the fact my face doesn’t look normal. I don’t know when I realised this for the first time; it feels like something I’ve always known. My eyes sit too far back in my skull, the space between them and my brow big enough to fit my whole thumb in. They do not focus, flickering in all directions without my control. With the diagnosis of keratoconus several years ago came the knowledge that they may grow to look even more unusual.
I have had to work to come to terms with this; it has been the most difficult part of being disabled. My blindness I can handle, the consequences of my blindness on my appearance is much harder to bear. I can learn to use assistive technology, to travel with no vision, but I can’t change my face.
I was still young enough to have a parent with me. The yearly visits to my eye consultant were as much a part of my life as going to school. They didn’t feel particularly unusual because I’d never known any different.
He had always included me in the conversation, seeking not only input from my parents but from me. This was not something everyone did. I was a child and blind, often relegated to listen to people talk about me without being given a voice.
I had been sitting on this question for a long time, too scared to ask because of the answer I might receive. Today though I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
“Is there anything you can do? To make my eyes look normal?”
I didn’t want to regain my vision, to fix the one thing most people saw as broken. All I wanted was a face that didn’t stand out.
For months, I would be angry at the answer he gave me.
I was excited that day. I had recently changed schools and today there would be a photo to document that change. I’d never felt excitement at school photos before. Up until now they’d simpley been a formality, the kind of thing you did to keep your parents happy. But this year I was doing it for myself.
At 16, I was still changing, learning where my place was in the world. I felt confident, happy with my appearance and desperate to have the photo in my hands.
“Sit down,” the lady taking the picture said. I found the bench and sat, tucking my legs under it.
She called my name and I turned my chin to her, smiling and waiting for the sound of the camera. It came, soon followed by a sigh.
“No, look this way,” she said. Her voice was exactly where it had been the first time. I shifted, a feeling of uneasiness creeping into my stomach.
“She’s not looking at the camera,” her voice was irritated now. Her words no longer addressed to me. There was more murmuring, more snaps of the camera and finally it was over.
“Well that will do I suppose. Shame about the eyes.”
I stood, my hands shaking, trying to hold my tears back. My classmates surrounded me, waiting for their turn. They had all witnessed what I was, how I couldn’t even sit for a photo without failing.
I never went to pick up my copy of the picture.
This morning I met my friends in town. We went to the cinema, buying drinks and popcorn before settling in to watch Beauty and the Beast. After it finished we laughed as we walked to the bus station, singing songs from the film and talking about our favourite moments.
We stood in the queue for the bus, buying a group ticket before boarding and settling ourselves in the seats. We were heading out of town to go bowling. A normal day for a normal girl. And then his words came.
I didn’t speak for the rest of the journey, never moving from my position against the window. It took all my strength to keep my tears to only a burning sensation behind my eyes. I have had years of practise, telling myself not to cry, to hold it in until I can be alone.
I have begun to make peace with how I look. One day I hope I will be strong enough to love my body, to love a face that can never be conventionally beautiful. That man didn’t know any of this, of course. The words he threw out so carelessly took away some of the progress I have worked immeasurably hard to make.
Every time I appear in public, whether that is buying a pint of milk at the supermarket or on television speaking about disability advocacy I brace myself for the words that might follow. Usually they are invasive, questions about why I am blind or how difficult it must be. Rarely are they needlessly hurtful.
I know that his words will stay with me forever, as cruel things so often do. It is all I can do now to try to regroup, building myself up again, from where he knocked me down.