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  • Writer's pictureAmy Timmerman

What It's Like Being a Visually Impaired Licensed Driver

In honor of just passing my latest eye exam to have my license renewed (YAY!), I wanted to tell you a little bit about what my license means to me, how I stay safe on the roads, and things you probably shouldn’t say to a visually impaired individual with a restricted license.

The meaning of my license

When teenagers first receive their divers’ licenses, it is fair to say that it is their first step towards independence. In many cases getting your license is commonly seen as a sign of growing freedom, the first of many new steps to becoming an adult.

I think it is safe to say no one thought the sixteen year-old with Stargardt’s MD would be getting her license. I had countless people decide to come up to me, without any knowledge of what my visual impairment was, and tell me that they did not trust me on the roads (even aids and teachers who were supposed to be at least a little bit more supportive). Now, I am not saying that you should be telling me that I should be allowed to drive, but I am telling you to understand what a license actually means to me before you come up to me and put me down.

Like many teens, getting my license was a symbol of independence and freedom. Unlike many teens, my license meant normalcy and consistency. Le me explain.

When I first received my restricted license (non-highway driving and day-time only), I did have the same rush of independence and freedom at first. But mostly, I felt normal for the first time in a long time. It was the first true hurdle I had to jump as a visually impaired teenager. I had to go through numerous eye exams, visual fielding testing, and receive letters from the state and my eye doctor in order to be approved for my license, but it felt like a win. I felt like I had people by my side that trusted and believed in me. When I drove my sister to school in the mornings and to my part-time job in the afternoons I felt just like everyone else. I didn’t feel like a burden to anyone.

Now, my license means a sense of consistency. No longer does my license give me the same sense of freedom it once did. There is so much more pressure and responsibility tied to it now.

Once a year I go back to the eye doctor’s office to have an eye exam and a visual field test. Now, I’m lucky - I rock the visual field test. However, the eye chart is always where I have struggled. Every year I go into the appointment with a sense of dread that the license I worked so hard for, my first real win, will be taken away from me. I no longer care about the actual getting to drive part. I care about reading that tricky 20/100 line.

Reaching 20/100 visual acuity means that my vision hasn’t gotten worse. It means that the disease hasn’t progressed and I have had another year without being classified as legally blind (vision of 20/200 or worse).

My driver’s license means that my vision is stable.

How I stay safe on the roads

I know what most people think when I tell them I have my license: There is no way that is safe. In fact, I actually take a lot of precautions to make sure I am safe as well as everyone else around me.

1. My annual eye doctor appointment.

Each year I take a visual field test and visual acuity test to make sure my eyes are still strong enough for the roads. My eye doctor must state the he feels confident in my ability to drive in order for my license to be renewed at all.

2. I do not drive during peak hours (like rush hour or when kids are getting out of school).

I avoid times that are particularly busy and when drivers are particularly aggressive.

3. I don’t drive when it is too bright outside.

The lack of contrast can make it more difficult to see traffic lights from far away. I prefer driving when it is overcast and lights are easier to see.

4. I don’t drive when the weather is poor.

Similarly to #2, I avoid driving at times that tend to have people driving more erratically or during times when there is a higher chance of there being an accident.

5. I drive with someone else in the car.

The most effective tool for me is to drive with someone else in the car. They are able to let me know what is happening further ahead, what street to turn on, and if there is something like a pothole that they are worried I wouldn't notice in time.

Things not to say

I understand that not everyone is comfortable with me driving and that’s okay. Frankly, I’m not comfortable with half of the sighted people on the roads driving the way that they do. While I understand your discomfort, here are some common questions and statements that would be better off being kept to yourself:

I don’t trust you driving on the road.

I have heard this so many times I have lost track. From aids, to teachers, supervisors, absolute strangers, and family, everyone tells me that. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. Please know that this statement is actually pretty hurtful. I am doubted so much as someone with a visual impairment that I don’t need more just so you feel as though your opinion has been heard.

Furthermore, you do not need to trust me on the road. My eye doctor trusts me, the state trusts me, and more importantly I trust myself. I have always viewed driving as a privilege and not a right. I know when it is safe for me to drive and when it isn’t.

Can you even see the cars?

While I know where this is coming from (considering I am usually an inch away from my phone to read a text), there is no way I would have been allowed to renew my license if I couldn’t see the cars. Reading something far away is difficult but think about it this way; cars are way bigger than letters. When I move the center point of my vision I can look around my blind spot at areas I may have missed.

Why don’t you just use Lyft or Uber?

Don’t get me wrong, I use ride-sharing apps a lot, especially when I don’t want to inconvenience anyone by asking friends or family to give me a ride, but these rides are expensive and can be dangerous. Plus, like I said earlier, having my license is more about my own visual stability than the ability to actually drive.

Have you ever hit anybody?

I find this last question particularly offensive. No I have never hit any person, any animal, any vehicle, or any thing. If I had, I would not be driving. Period. I will never put my pride at being able to drive ahead of the safety and wellbeing of anyone. I know my limits and I know when I should and should not be on the road. As I have gotten older, that time has become more limited and I am more selective about when and where I drive, but when the time comes I will have no problem giving up my license. I would not put the safety of others at risk.

Please, be aware and be safe on the roads! Sign the pledge to stop texting and driving!

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