Not by Sight

Photo by Juan Pablo Ramirez.

Photo by Juan Pablo Ramirez.

How going blind shaped one woman’s self-image.

The leaves outside her classroom burn amber and there’s a chill in the October breeze, but for Betsy Shallbetter, it’s already snowing.

The blizzard in Shallbetter’s vision hasn’t let up since a surgery to remove a tumor left her blind at 17. She was months away from high school graduation when she walked into surgery, unaware of the effect it would have on her 20/20 vision. She returned to her South Minneapolis home unable to see in her right eye and partially blind in her left. And while she’d just gotten her driver’s license, she now used a white cane to get places. She could make out movement, but was unable to see the faces and expressions of her friends and family. She used to love reading, but the books she used to love were printed in text hundreds of times too small to read. Everything was dark and fuzzy. Grass looked orange, hair green. And the snow wouldn’t stop.

Most of all, Shallbetter was left without the ability to see herself, much less the world around her. Suddenly Shallbetter was one of the nearly 10 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired and need to assess their image by something other than physical appearance.

Photo by Juan Pablo Ramirez.

Shallbetter uses a white cane to guide her way as she takes a stroll. Photo by Juan Pablo Ramirez.

Shallbetter is now 51 years old and teaches high school students the same age she was when she lost her vision. As a teacher of history and family and consumer science at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind in Faribault, Minnesota, Shallbetter’s students follow a typical high school curriculum, but they also study how to be successful in everyday situations including using a stove, balancing a checkbook, and applying makeup. Students at the academy also work on developing strong, confident self-images. No small challenge when the stresses of high school are aided by the fact that many students don’t know what they look like or even what their surroundings appear to be. Thankfully, they are not alone in this journey. Shallbetter has been there herself.

As her white cane guided her down her high school hallway, all Shallbetter could imagine was a sign above her head flashing ‘BLIND’ for all of her classmates and teachers to see. It was Shallbetter’s first day back at school following her surgery. It would also be her last. Guided by her sister and her white cane, Shallbetter’s face was free of makeup and she had no idea how she looked, but she knew exactly how she felt and that was no longer good enough; half of a person. “My closest friends didn’t even let me know they were in the room. They didn’t know what to say,” Betsy says. “My personal image was like zip—nothing there at all—I was at the bottom of the bottom, totally rejected by people I thought were my friends.”

Self-esteem and image issues are prominent between both the sighted and blind communities, although many issues arise specific to blindness. To address these specifics, Illinois’ The Hadley School of the Blind holds a course called Self Esteem and Adjusting with Blindness. Jennifer Ottowitz, one of the course’s instructors, helps blind students cope with the very issues that Shallbetter struggled with on her return to high school. “Lots of folks have trouble recognizing themselves as a person. It’s a character that you have, but it does not define who you are,” Ottowitz says.

Ottowitz’s class is structured as a series of stages that helps students recognize the person they are and the core values they hold now are the same as they were before they were blinded. “[People] can think a lack of vision can be a lack of intelligence, or that a person who has limited vision is unsafe or needs to be taken care of,” Ottowitz says. “One of the things I tell students is that they’re more than just eyeballs with feet. We’re just people and we can’t see so well.”

This is a realization that doesn’t come instantly. Every person adjusts at different rates, and it took Shallbetter two years before she left what she described as “the middle of Angry Land.” After finishing high school at home, Shallbetter began attending Normandale College in Bloomington, Minnesota. At first, she compared walking down the hallway with her cane to Moses parting the Red Sea, but after several months her classmates began warming up to her. Then, on a 12-credit course in Europe, Shallbetter’s classmates begin guiding her to landmarks and helping her feel them without her asking. This experience led Shallbetter to realize that she had to take control and communicate. It was three weeks into the trip that she realized that she really wanted to touch and experience Europe. “I was rejecting my own blindness and not coping,” Shallbetter recalls, remembering how easy it was for her to slip back into thinking “Why me?”

Shallbetter reads through the use of her fingers. Photo by Juan Pablo Ramirez.

Shallbetter reads through the use of her fingers. Photo by Juan Pablo Ramirez.

The oven has been turned off and the ingredients put away. The four students in Shallbetter’s FACS class gather around the table with the pizza and cake they made. The students come from diverse backgrounds: among the four, two are completely blind and one is spending the year studying abroad from Russia. Many of the students commute from their homes around the state to board at school during the week. On top of the busy noise of the classroom, Shallbetter talks to her students about their image. “There are more people that see the white cane before they see you,” Shallbetter tells her students. “It can mess with self-image and make you think ‘I’m different.’ We want to be equal.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 1.26.22 PMThe noise barely lets up as she talks, a point that only supports Shallbetter’s observation that teenagers are teenagers, no matter the situation they’re in. Shallbetter is one of only three blind staff members at MSAB and fights hard for her students. Her teaching reflects her own motto: “You can be independent. You have to want to be, but you can.” Through her teaching she helps students find independence and value through performing tasks that might have once seemed impossible. “Every one of those kids, they can chop, they can cut, they can slice. They can cut their own damn steak.”

It’s the weekend and Shallbetter is curled into a recliner in her living room. Light streams in through a stained glass window and the walls are covered with paintings done by friends and family. The woodsy smell of cigar smoke fills the room as Shallbetter’s husband, Paul, talks about his own blindness. “Apart from my birth, my salvation, and my beautiful wife, my blindness has been the greatest gift from God I’ve ever received,” Paul says. “The day I lost my eyesight is the day I started to see. I truly listen, I truly smell, I truly touch.”

Still, physical appearances can be harder to maintain when you’re blind. Shallbetter rarely wears makeup because she has a hard time applying it evenly, which leads to comments. For her, it’s not worth the hassle. But she does ask friends and family members if she looks alright. She reads Lady’s Home Journal in braille to gather fashion tips, although some descriptions– including an article pronouncing “lettuce as the new color of the year”– can be confusing.

The lack of fashion information inspired Stephanae McCoy to create Bold Blind Beauty, a blog that provides the blind and visually impaired with fashion and beauty tips. After McCoy was pronounced legally blind in 2009, she turned her anger and struggles into inspiration. “We live in a sighted world,” McCoy says. “To some degree, physical appearance is important.”

To combat this assumption, her blog includes more product details and descriptions than a shopping site catered to the sighted. And though her site helps the blind with their physical appearance, McCoy’s mission is much more than skin deep. “If there’s a way to help them feel better about themselves, then that will help them feel more secure and beautiful,” she says. “Self-confidence is the most important and when that comes through, you’re beautiful.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 1.26.43 PMOttowitz, the teacher of Self Esteem and Adjusting with Blindness, agrees with the importance of physical appearance to the blind, but notes that self-image relies on other characteristics. “Self image is probably based on internal characteristics—instead of facial features, clothing, or hairstyle. Self-image is more personality related,” she says. “It’s not saying that blind people don’t care about their image, but they focus more on the internal vision of self-image and self-concept.

Although Shallbetter is well adjusted, happily married, and in the job she’s always wanted, she’s not immune to the frustrations of blindness. She wishes she could pick up a piece of print and read it without using her computer to blow it up 500 percent. She wishes that she were seen as capable, especially among the half of her family that still sees her blindness before they see her. She wishes for a magic cure to take away the snow in her vision. She wishes the little vision in her left eye wouldn’t eventually be lost. Shallbetter has spent years being seen as a blind person instead of Betsy. While her adjustment has gotten easier since her return to high school and her college trip to Europe, she still faces the stereotypes of blindness while remembering her worth and self-image. “I am more than a white cane,” she says.

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