Tennessee Kindred Stories of Disability

A collection of stories from individuals with disabilities, families, friends, and disability service providers in Tennessee

Wesley (18), Blind, Smith County

"I don’t tell people I’m blind for starters. I don’t feel like it’s something they need to know. Type one people, when they do find out I’m blind, are just like, “Oh okay.” And then there’s type two, who instantly switch to baby mode, like I’m completely helpless. "

  • A Student interview of self-advocate's Perspective
  • Posted on 3/19/2013


Wesley is a typical 18-year-old high school senior who is looking forward to the prom, plans to attend Nashville’s Lipscomb University in the fall, and includes sky diving on his bucket list. He is a Boy Scout who is good at math and very tech savvy. When asked what he considers his strengths, the first thing Wesley says is that he is “good with technology.”

He hopes to continue cultivating his interest in and talent for all things technological, and continue expanding his technical knowledge in college by studying computer science and business. Eventually, Wesley wants to work in a job related to computer science or programming. Part of the reason this type of work appeals to him, aside from his aptitude for technology, is the ease of making the accommodations he may need. When working with technology, he can fairly easily make things large enough to see, as he demonstrated with his cell phone.

Wesley is from Carthage, Tennessee, about an hour away from The Tennessee School for the Blind (TSB), where he lives and goes to school. He was adopted as a baby at seven days old, and has two siblings. Several years ago, his dad passed away, so now it is just Wesley and his mom and siblings at home. Wesley lives in a dorm room at TSB.  The students affectionately refer to them as “cottages”. Two students share each dorm room.

Wesley, though a typical young adult and student in a myriad of ways, does have hereditary optic atrophy. He was either born with the impaired sight caused by the condition or his vision rapidly deteriorated at a very young age - it is difficult to tell which, as a newborn baby or toddler cannot express the existence of visual impairments. Wesley’s vision impairment went largely unnoticed until kindergarten. His inability to see clearly quickly became apparent in a school setting.

Wesley’s optic atrophy has caused his sight to deteriorate to a state of legal blindness. Although optic atrophy causes vision deterioration that is sometimes quite severe, it often does not lead to complete blindness. Though, like many aspects of optic atrophy, the degree of vision loss depends on the ultimate underlying cause. It is important to recognize that legal blindness, often the result of optic atrophy, is different from what most people conceptualize as blindness. Wesley can see, yet he is legally blind in both eyes. He describes his vision as “really fuzzy” and blurry. He has trouble distinguishing colors at times – colors often blend together to him.

Wesley enjoys playing video games. Though he cannot see as clearly as others to play, he still finds playing them fun and has become quite good at it. He says he is capable of driving a car, though he can see better with his light sensitive eyes at night or on cloudy days. He also enjoys shooting. Though he complains that his mom worries and does not like for him to touch any of the firearms his family owns, he has actually won an annual Nashville shooting championship three different years. This particular championship involves rifle shooting at targets. Wesley does use a special telescope to help him focus while shooting.   

Wesley does have prescription contact lenses, which could be considered treatment, although they make such little difference he never wears them. In fact, he is a little nervous about using them. He does not like the idea of having to touch his eyes in order to get them in.

Wesley has attended the Tennessee School for the Blind for about six years now – all of high school. Prior to that, he attended local public schools. Although a few things annoy Wesley about the Tennessee School for the Blind, such as the curfew, overall, he appreciates the helpful environment and accommodations which were harder to come by at his old schools. He told me about that when he attended local public schools, administration had considered placing him in special education classes, which would not have been a good fit for him.

Inclusion in a standard classroom seemed best for Wesley intellectually. However, he still needed extra help to follow along with the rest of the class, especially at a younger age. It was very difficult for a classroom teacher with twenty-five other students to provide the extra attention Wesley needed to grasp the material. There were few accommodations and few things modified for Wesley. Although a special instructor would sometimes be in the classroom to provide extra help for Wesley, this helper was not present all the time and was rather inconsistent in when they were and were not available. Eventually, when Wesley was in middle school, his family made the decision that the Tennessee School for the Blind was a far better fit for him and he has been there ever since. Soon he will be graduating.

Wesley is very independent and in need of very little help. He describes how it can be annoying when others, although they really do mean to be helpful and nice, try to do everything for him and act as though he is incapable of doing anything for himself. This can make the person with the disability feel very limited by other people. I asked Wesley what the best way of being helpful to him is, as someone who is legally blind. He told me that the best way to be helpful, but not intrusive or annoying, is by giving verbal instructions to guide the person in unfamiliar environments. For example, in an unfamiliar room, one might say to someone who is visually impaired, “To your left, at about 10 o’clock, is a big table.” This keeps the person aware without having to physically guide them. Or, as another example, one might inform the person that there is a handrail on their left which they can use to guide themselves along.

Wesley described to me the hurtful stereotype of people who are blind or have severe visual impairments as extremely clumsy individuals who wander around knocking over everything. He did experience some teasing, name-calling and being made fun of in elementary school and prior to coming to the Tennessee School for the Blind, which was obviously hurtful. He felt isolated from most of his peers, who didn’t understand that he was not really different from them.

According to Wesley, whenever others find out that he is legally blind, they fall into one of two categories. People who fall into the type one category simply accept it and continue to treat him as they did before. People who fall into the type two category completely change their attitude towards him as well as how they treat him. They suddenly become overbearing and try so hard to be helpful by doing things for him that it is annoying. In Wesley’s own words:

I don’t tell people I’m blind for starters. I don’t feel like it’s something they need to know or something I have to tell them. Type one people, when they do find out I’m blind, are just like, “Oh okay.” And then there’s type two, who instantly switch to baby mode, like I’m completely helpless. That is a bad situation. It’s awkward and frustrating when telling someone you’re blind totally changes the relationship.

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