Eye Health cannot just be about Avoidable Blindness

By Shruti Pushkarna

Gratitude. Given all that’s been happening around us in the recent times, this is one word I like to begin and end each day with. Because I truly believe, I lead a good life (well, in most parts). In fact, a lot of us do. But somehow we forget and take things for granted. Until something surprises or shocks us into believing otherwise.

When I look at news from around the country and the world, it feels depressing. Rapes, drugs, derisive politics, looting, lynching, suicides, untimely deaths, incurable illnesses. We consume all such content on a daily basis, which makes us question our belief in humanity or the intrinsic goodness in people.

But this also gives us a chance to pause and wonder, ‘is it really all bad?’ Now before you dismiss this piece as fluff and self-righteous, let me quickly steer your attention towards another word. Awareness.

Being aware is different from being informed. I’m well informed that two-thirds of people in India live in poverty, but am I aware of it when I shell out money on unnecessary acquisitions? Probably not.

So why am I mouthing these big words? Well for one I can, because it’s my column. But on a humbler note, I want to cite some instances that got me thinking of these expressions in the first place.

Today is World Sight Day, an annual observance to draw attention to blindness and vision impairment. Most messaging built around this day is about preventive eye conditions or avoidable blindness. This year’s theme #HopeInSight also advocates for similar ideas. There is a global photography contest for the occasion to highlight the importance of vision and create more awareness about eye health.

But does hope in sight somehow imply there is no hope in blindness? I’m intrigued by what eye health really means. Why are we obsessed with the remedial? Clearly there is enough evidence in form of Covid-19 to tell us humans that we cannot predict and prevent everything.

I can’t read a book, see the screen or identify someone not too far away, without my high-powered glasses. My sight has consistently deteriorated since I was in Class 3, I think. And after thirty, it kind of plateaued. But is there a guarantee that it will remain stable? No. Would I like to do something about my eye health? Yes. Can I do something about it? I’m afraid not. So I’m outside the whole ‘avoidable blindness’ purview. And so are approximately 63 million people in India.

About time, we wake up to this, create awareness about their challenges and show some empathy. The theme should actually be #HopeInVision because sight loss maybe irreversible but vision helps you see through life.

I promised a few paras earlier to share some personal experiences. So, I’m going to cut straight to that. Last year in June, my organisation hosted a conference to raise some important issues related to mid-life blindness prevalent in the country and advocate for better support as well as resources for those affected. The one thing that stood out for me was: what is it like to lose a little bit of vision every day? I simply couldn’t fathom the pain or the frustration. One of the speakers, highly qualified, a professor in Delhi University shared with the audience how despite having accepted his disability years ago, it was still hard to adjust to the idea of his eye sight getting a wee bit worse every morning.

And that’s when it struck me. Gratitude. People lead tougher lives than we can imagine.

A couple of years ago I was in Ahmedabad at the Blind People’s Association, for work. The campus has a unique exhibit, first of a kind in India called ‘Vision in the Dark’. Spread over 2000 square yards, the project was created to sensitise sighted people. What it means to walk, smell, eat, converse and live in pitch darkness.

I was thrilled to experience such a zone and just as my guide started reading out instructions, taking away my phone, asking for my health condition, I felt a slight shudder. Of course it didn’t help to know that one of my colleagues quit the tour midway because she panicked. But my curiosity overruled.

A few steps into it, my mind began to adjust to the idea of holding a rope/ handrail, feeling things around and most importantly using audio cues to move forward. I passed through a temple, a garden and then I stopped at a bridge. I felt scared, because I didn’t know how steep this bridge was, unless I kept going. And the tour guide played his practiced trick right at that point. He sent out a flurry of confused signals, saying, right, left, up, down, not there, this way, that way…phew!

And then it struck me. When was the last time I was really aware what it means for someone to walk through darkness, relying on another’s guidance? I had helped a few strangers and colleagues navigate before, but I always spoke from an ableist visual standpoint, confusing my right with theirs, forgetting to verbally indicate how many steps up or down.

In that moment, with total absence of light, I felt aware. To what absence of sight means. To what it feels to stretch your hand out in the dark, groping your way around, hoping your next step won’t land you in a ditch or something worse.

Here’s my appeal to everyone and especially my friends in the media on World Sight Day 2020. Blindfold yourself for half an hour and try to accomplish your daily business. I’m sure you’ll sense some of what I did back there.

Gratitude and Awareness can be our own lethal combination to destroy ignorance, apathy and narcissism crippling our society.