October Interview: Understanding Begins in Presence

Jennifer Pearlstein, age 26, is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at University of California -Berkeley. Outside her professional life, she enjoys reading, running, and spending time with her dog. She has recently started a blog on issues related to vulnerability and identity.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I describe myself as having low vision. I was diagnosed with a form of early-onset macular degeneration at age 17. My vision progressed passed the threshold of legal blindness within a couple years. My central vision is very poor – I see a gray fuzzy blur when I look directly at something. However, I have functional peripheral vision.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I recently received orientation and mobility training and have since begun using a cane. I generally use an ID cane at times when my vision is weak, such as at night or when the glare from the sun is particularly bad. I also gravitate to using my cane when traveling in unfamiliar places, shopping alone, and various other contexts in which it helps me for those around me to be aware of my low vision. My dog is a trained service dog (not a guide dog), performing tasks centered on helping me navigate crowded spaces, perceive depth, and regulate my low-vision related anxiety. Although I still use him in lieu of a cane when traveling and hiking, I do not use him daily anymore; primarily because he required guidance and attention that distracted me from my environment.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I started working with the Department of Rehabilitation about a year ago, and they have been instrumental in introducing me to resources. Beyond technology, Braille, and orientation and mobility, working with the DoR has enabled me to connect with others experiencing low vision and blindness. The practical aides of technology – many of which I truly could not succeed professionally without – and the connection to others in the community makes the DoR a phenomenal resource.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

I see the most harmful and annoying belief as having two parts: first, that people experiencing blindness or low vision are defective and second, that overcoming the limitations imposed by blindness is incomprehensible and inspirational. The ramifications of these beliefs range from outwardly and obviously offensive (i.e. strangers making derogatory comments) to the subtle and unintentional (i.e. family, colleagues, and friends referring to my way of completing tasks as unfathomable and remarkable). I realize the intention is generally compassionate, and I acknowledge how challenging it is to strike a respectful balance between acknowledging how a disability impacts individual identity while simultaneously not defining an individual by the presence of a disability. Nonetheless, this belief stigmatizes the blind as being different from “normal.” Perceiving the way the blind navigate the world as incomprehensible further denotes an “us” – the sighted, and a “them” – the blind.

I think correcting this belief involves a shift towards showing blindness as part of normal experience for millions of people. The media and popular culture generally (1) ignore people with disabilities, (2) portray people with disabilities as decrepit and (3) depict disability as an experience foreign and impossible to imagine. Publicly revealing the blind are just people. We are friends, parents, professionals, athletes, and artists. As is the case with any marginalized group, the blind are underrepresented politically, culturally, and in the work force. Until we are seen, we will continue to be misunderstood.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it

I am generally most attracted to nonfiction, especially memoirs. However, I am also a fervent Harry Potter fan. When stressed by life, I gravitate to rereading the series. I grew up reading these books, and feel nostalgic when reading them. I cherish the characters, disappear in the magical wizarding world, and deliberate on the broader implications of the themes. I appreciate the series both for its entertainment value and for the important messages embedded throughout.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I aim to graduate with my PhD!

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I feel centered by mindfulness. I find reading, practicing, or learning more about self-compassion, non-judgment, and focus on the present grounding.

I am most attracted to these themes in the context of individual authenticity One example that comes to mind is Kay R. Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Dr. Jamison powerfully reveals her personal experience with bipolar I disorder while simultaneously sharing her professional expertise as a clinical psychologist. I admire her for taking the chance to be exceptionally vulnerable. I get the privilege of revisiting this gem often through my research and clinical work and every time I reread this, I gain a more profound understanding of the science and phenomenology of bipolar disorder. Works like these that weave together informative content and portray a unique facet of human experience are particularly striking to me.

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