As a blind woman who worked as a street performer for eleven years, I have experienced many wonderful moments with the public. I’ve also experienced some awkward, painful and infuriating ones. The ministrations of faith healers were particularly aggravating. Before writing this piece, I sought comments from other blind people. Their opinions are as diverse as blind people themselves. No one wanted to be named. Here are pictures from a life that I view as worthy of celebration, not healing.
I was born legally but not totally blind in the ‘50s, when being blind was less acceptable than it is today. I was raised in a working-class, Christian family, where the undercurrents of belief suggested two seemingly contradictory perspectives. First, I got the impression that my parents viewed my blindness as a punishment. Second, there was some element of the healing power of Jesus.
Neither of these perspectives was spelled out. I just picked them up the way children get their ideas about where they fit into the worlds of family, neighborhood and church. My spiritual life has undergone many twists and turns since then.
Evolution of a Perspective
My school days were filled with bullying. Some teachers thought I shouldn’t be in public school, while others were sure I was faking my vision loss. My dreams of doing something with music, fostered by an early spiritual experience, were evaporating in the light of irrefutable evidence that I wasn’t qualified.
My voice was good enough for the second grade chorus, but I couldn’t get the hang of the risers in less than thirty seconds and was dismissed. At eleven, I suspected that I had a mental deficiency causing me to block my own vision. And, not for the last time, I considered suicide.
By twelve, my piano sheet music was too complicated to memorize using a bright light and my deteriorating vision. Had God changed His mind? Or, perhaps, I needed to do something else first — get normal sight. It was obviously impossible to be successful without it.
Years before hearing televangelists, I somehow knew I had to believe it would happen. Every morning for months, before I opened my eyes, I thanked God for restoring my sight, imagining the bright and detailed world that awaited me. My eyes, however, opened to dimness and confusion.
Progress and Compromise
At fourteen, I was devastated without music in my life. I asked for and received a guitar. Though I was too shy to share them, I started writing songs, beginning the inexorable link in my life between music and language.
In Junior High and High School, the bullying became more physical. The increase in work coupled with declining central vision necessitated a prioritizing of my work — literature and science were in; history and math out.
What About Braille?
Braille and recorded books were never discussed. I was legally blind in a world where it was more important to read and navigate with your eyes, regardless of how many mistakes you made, how much time it took, how sick you got or how many other things fell by the wayside, than to learn nonvisual skills.
The overt bullying stopped when I entered college. Nevertheless, I had lost the reading vision in my better eye that summer and was ill-equipped to take full advantage of the college experience. For the first time, however, I used recorded books and readers.
What Provoked This Dredging Up of Childhood Misfortunes?
I use LinkedIn to promote my novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill, as well as vision loss issues. I have over 5,000 connections and a rather inclusive approach to invitations. If someone invites me to connect, I usually accept. My profile makes it clear that I am blind, and I assume they’ve read it. Though they may be sighted, their family and friends might include someone who is dealing with vision loss.
One of my connections wrote the following message to me.
Hi Donna, as you read this message instantly receive your sites in Jesus name. Amen.
Reawakening the Dream
After graduating from college, I tried to make up the deficit. I trained with my first guide dog and learned Braille. I would pursue my dream of being a self-supporting musician — initially, as a street performer.
I had my own apartment, kept an organic garden complete with a compost pile, baked whole grain bread and made everything from soup and spaghetti sauce to hummus, pesto and spanakopita. I started performing at schools, churches and other venues. I wanted my audiences to have a comfortable experience with a blind person and learn a bit about how we do things. I released the first two of my three albums — Rainbow Colors and Harvest.
“If I had healed you back then,” said the voice I thought of as God, “You would have never known that blindness didn’t have to limit you.”
A Street Performer’s Experience
Between ’78 and ’90, I worked regularly as a street performer in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station, a center city train station serving commuters from the five-county area. I also had a permit to perform at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River. I sang mostly original material and met people from all walks of life who shared their joys and sorrows with me. It was a transformative experience.
Of course there were unpleasantries along the way. I was robbed twice. A classical guitarist, who believed I was in his spot, threatened to break my fingers. And, a deranged soul tried to spray me with Lysol … to disinfect me from AIDS. Well, you get the idea.
Some people stopped to tell me about the healing power of Jesus. I tried politeness, but the rage and humiliation boiling inside me occasionally burst through with comments like, “What makes you think I want to be healed?.” Why couldn’t they accept me the way I am? Did they really think that blindness was the worst part of my life?
When I performed at local folk clubs, however, the story I told most often, which always got a laugh, involved a group of non-Christian zealots. They explained that all I needed to do to get my sight restored was to eat nothing but raw foods for the rest of my life. I patiently listened and then said dryly, “I don’t think it would be worth it.”
Back to My Overzealous LinkedIn Connection
His message made me astonishingly angry. I wanted to explode. But, it would have been counterproductive. I considered ignoring the comment, but the intervening decades since early adulthood had left me at the point where I could say this.
I hope you will not be offended by this response. I long ago stopped asking Jesus to restore my sight. It seems rather selfish to have my sight restored when so many others remain blind, and others still, who currently have sight, will lose their sight without knowing that life without sight can — with some adaptive equipment and skills — be happy, productive and fulfilling. My purpose on earth is to spread this information, not to run from the challenges and opportunities that blindness brings.
Other Opinions & Issues
Somehow, I still feel badly about this response. Was I being too prideful? One blind gentleman said, “What if it works?” Several said they thought it was their responsibility to encourage others in their faith. Some confessed that these encounters made them feel horrible or angry.
One woman, an urban dweller, expressed the idea that it boiled down to “others wishing that you, basically, not be you.”
I’ve had perhaps a dozen experiences in my lifetime with faith healing zealots (all young women) approaching me, all of whom asked if they could pray over me. Depending on my mood, I either allowed it, with a mindset of “Oh, this will make them feel better,” or, “No, thank you, but I appreciate your offer.” Only in one case did the zealot attach my blindness to sin, and it didn’t mean anything to me.
A Sign from a Fellow Blind Author
With so many of my blind brothers and sisters being so uncomfortable with this topic, I had misgivings about going forward with this piece. I’ve been reading Outside Myself, a young adult novel by Kristen Witucki. The story is told by two blind people, who meet through a library for the blind. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different. Imagine my surprise when I came across a scene where the twelve-year-old blind protagonist had an experience with faith healing.
I’ll have more to say about this excellent book in the months to come, when I’ve had an opportunity to truly digest it. But, for now, I will leave you with a couple of links and my assurance that Witucki tackles the issue of acceptance with an abundance of depth, bredth and sensitivity.
Outside Myself by Kristen Witucki
Outside Myself is also available in accessible formats for readers with print disabilities through Bookshare and NLS (the National Library Service for the Blind & Physically Handicapped).