S1: Episode 30 - Karen Petty

Episode Information

[Intro Music]

Narrator: Welcome to My Heart is Not Blind. Narrative histories about blindness and perception. A traveling exhibition and book published by Trinity University Press, supported by Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, edited and hosted by Michael Nye. Stories are often found, resting along the edges of surprise and revelation. Every person, every place is a map to somewhere else. episode 30, Karen Petty.

Karen: I am legally blind and I lost my sight. At six, I was given an antibiotic and I had a severe allergic reaction to it, known as Stevens Johnson syndrome. It created the loss of vision. I no longer have the cells that create tears and without tears, there’s extreme damage done to the cornea. My parents told me that it looked like I had actually been in a fire. There wasn’t any real fear. There wasn’t any questioning. I think you just take things as they come. No one ever told me that I was going to be blind. I think I figured out on my own that I wasn’t going to see as well. I remember clearly walking down the street one time and I passed what I later learned to be two trash cans, and I remember thinking maybe they were kids and maybe they just weren’t talking to me.

And then my mother told me later, no, they were two trash cans, which was probably more devastating to my mom than it was to me. I don’t remember being upset about it. I just remember, I knew I had to acclimate. My mother died when I was seven, and she died in childbirth with my younger brother. It was a pulmonary embolism. It changed the course of our lives in many ways. I lost a lot of the carefree security and you grow up in a different way. For me, going to a school for the blind was a good thing. Not only academically, but just for all the other social opportunities that provided to me to be a leader in a school environment. However, when I was mainstream back in high school, I had some experiences where students made fun of me. They would try to hide your books.

It was unkind, it was unpleasant. I can remember asking my parents to please, please send me back to a school for the blind that this was not what I wanted to do. I think it definitely made me more compassionate toward others. I do not see people by face. I may identify somebody if they walk in and have on a bright yellow shirt. However, if somebody else has on a bright yellow shirt, I’m in trouble. So to help alleviate some of the confusion, I tend to say legally blind because I have a small bit of vision and I find the world gets very confused. If you don’t see something, people may say, oh my word. They’re really blind. They’re in denial. But if you do see something, then they may think, oh my word. They’re faking it. They can really see. So really, you just gotta get over worrying about what they think and just do what you need to do to be safe.

I have a beautiful guide dog named Jewel. Having a relationship with a dog is like any other relationship that you have in life. It, it builds over time. It is like having a dance partner. They know your routine. They’re keen observers of our behavior. Oh my goodness. We get questions all the time. I was in the airport asking for assistance, and somebody asked me, do I tell you or do I tell the dog? And I just said, well, why don’t you tell me and I’ll tell the dog. Oh, my other favorite one was, I love to go talk to kids at schools. This one child asked the question, he said, so when you drive, does your dog work the gas pedals <laugh>, you know, but he was just, he was funny.

I was in Oregon and we were hiking, and there was a waterfall, and you could almost hear the different drops hitting the pool below how much water there seems to be. You could smell the dampness, you could hear the sounds of the wildlife around. You know, just paying attention. Being mindful. Blindness is not a horrible, miserable life. Life is still good. When you’re blind, you just learn to do things differently. You make accommodations. You accept that things are gonna be different. If you’ve seen one blind person, you have seen one blind person. Our past, our histories are unique, our interest, our goals, our dreams are all uniquely ours. As a person, just as every other persons are unique to them. Next time you have the opportunity to meet with somebody who is blind, acknowledge them as the blindness. Just being a part of them and get to know them as a person and give them the dignity to be a person first who just happens to be blind.

[Outro Music]

Host:  No one knows the life of another, and every story is incomplete. When I was with Karen, she told me about her younger brother Phillip. As a result of her mother’s death. During childbirth, Phillip was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Karen said Philip could never walk, never talk, was always in a wheelchair. He was unable to feed himself and required full care. He could make his index finger press some button to make his computer talk. We had a special communication using boards and letters. Cognitively, he was fine. He went on to graduate from college. He was a prankster, funny, and we were close. When Philip was 18, as a result of a blood transfusion, he acquired AIDS. It was a horrible disease, and he died. If I could ever say that anybody drew a bad hand in life, it was Philip. He taught me that being blind is easy compared to what he had to live with. He taught me how to take time to listen. And if you listen long enough, you can give anyone the dignity to be heard. Karen’s kindness is the size of an ocean. Her insights and wisdom stretch toward the horizon.

Join us next week. Two new episodes will be released. Please subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can also go to my website, michaelnye.org/podcast for portraits and transcripts. Thank you for listening.