May 16th, 2012
1978’s movie “Ice Castles” is one of the most iconic of films featuring figure skating. It focuses on Alexis Winston, a promising champion skater who loses her sight after suffering a serious concussion following a jump gone wrong.
As much as I love this film, I came to recently realize, as someone with substantial sight loss due to traumatic brain injury (the same cause of Alexis’ sight loss), that the film is not quite so complimentary to those with sight loss as it appears. And, as with everything else, it is in the details that the problems arise.
Watch “Ice Castles” and you spend several minutes looking through Alexis’ eyes. We see a shadowy world of a little light and shadows. This feels right to the audience and does reflect some types of blind experience-but optical blindness, not neurological!
Optical blindness is very different than neurological blindness; the experience is very different. In optical blindness, the eye develops a defect that prevents the full, normal visual signal from being transmitted through the optic nerve to the visual cortex. Optical blindness can take many different forms-from glaucoma to macular degeneration to cataracts and beyond. In each of these disorders, the eye cannot sense and/or transmit the full visual signal-in part or entirely. It is the optically blind that experience blackness or just the “light and shadows” we see Alexis experiencing in the movie. Optical white noise fills in the gaps.
Neurological blindness, typically caused by a tumor or traumatic brain injury, experiences sight loss very differently. In neurological blindness, there is nothing wrong with the eyes themselves. The problem is in receiving, interpreting, and cognitively processing the signals from the eye. The experience is an absence of sight-a void in the visual experience. Nothing fills in the gaps (not darkness, not light). An area or aspect of sight is simply not there.
In my case, nothing exists outside of what I am directly looking at, though I can sense movement near me that is not in my tunnel field of view. These movements are felt on a pre-conscious level; my eyes see it, but what they see never reaches my stream of consciousness. In my tunnel vision, my acuity is good, but not perfect; there are depth cues I have no perception of-which is why color is my primary depth cue.
Alexis Winston could not have seen light and shadows if her sight loss were brain-centric like mine. Instead, she would have felt movement, not seen it and would have lacked any conscious awareness of large sections of her visual world; it doesn’t exist in your universe after such brain injuries.
Perhaps it is time we stop our current “one size fits all” concept of sight loss and recognize that every individual experiences sight loss differently. It is time to assume ability in the blind and visually impaired. We do not all see or not see alike nor need the same things-except for confidence in our abilities to work and live independently.