Ability, Disability, and Inability

Mon Jun 28 2010

Sometimes, people have a hard time telling whether I’m looking at them. I’ll be talking to someone, and the person standing to their left will start answering. Or the person I’m talking to will wait for the person to their left to respond.

This is because only one of my eyes works.

When I was a teen, I developed a cataract in my left eye, and at the age of 16, it was removed. For a few years, I used contact lenses. The one in the left eye had a very strong setting (+something) and the one in my right eye was for my regular nearsightedness. Because the lenses were right on top of my eyes, the images projected on my retina were about the same size, and I was able to see stereoscopically.

Wearing hard contacts is a pain. So in college, I gave them up, and just wore glasses. In retrospect, this wasn’t such a good idea. I made a lot of bad choices in college, and as things go, this one was not the worst. (The worst was going to college when and where I did, but that’s a different story.)

Over time, my brain stopped processing data from my left eye. I still see shapes and colors. I can see the outlines of facial features at 3 feet, but at 100 feet, I can’t distinguish trees from each other, and large structures appear as colored blobs.

I don’t have stereoscopic vision, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have depth perception. Stereoscopic vision is just one way of seeing depth. I rely on the relative size of objects, shading, movement, experience, and common sense. It’s not usually a problem except in specific circumstances. If you hand me a pencil over a uniformly colored table, I might reach slightly ahead or slightly behind because I’ve misjudged where in space the pencil is. When I pour wine in a dark restaurant, I usually place the neck of the bottle against the glass. Otherwise, I might end up pouring in front of or behind the glass, onto the table. (As I said, experience is a big issue in helping me determine depth.)

Through years of disuse, my brain and body have decided that my left eye deserves very little attention. I use it for peripheral vision on my left side, and because I can still see shapes, I do get subtle cues about what’s around me.

I’m comfortable with my monocularity, and never felt disenfranchised by the stereoscopically able. Until this year.

The 3-D Movie

I took my son to see Avatar. It was playing on a real movie screen and on a 3-D screen. The only time that worked for us was the 3-D showing. Even though I don’t see out of my left eye, I still needed the 3-D glasses so that the movie wouldn’t be fuzzy. But because my left eye still sees some light, I was going to have to watch the movie with one eye closed. Otherwise, the slightly different images would drive me nuts.

I can’t imagine that the 3-D effects made the movie any more enjoyable. It certainly didn’t add anything from my point of view. Watching a movie with one eye closed is annoying. And on top of everything, the movie was pretty bad.

When it was the odd movie that featured a bit of 3-D here and there, it didn’t matter to me. More and more movies, however, are coming out in 3-D though. So far, they tend to be animated or action movies I’d skip anyway, but it’s only a matter of time that someone makes a decent film in 3-D. That’s likely to be the end of movies for me.

Maureen Dowd wrote a column about the prospects of 3-D at DreamWorks. No doubt Jeffrey Katzenberg is biased, but I get a sinking feeling when I read stuff like this:

Katzenberg says that “if you look at the history of film, there have now been three great revolutions. The first was silent to talkies. The second was black-and-white to color, 70 years ago. And this is the third great revolution, a quantum leap. We’re at the top of the waterfall with 3-D. And this is going to cascade down into virtually every facet of our lives where we are encountering video imagery or even photography.”

And to make sure everyone gets the memo, Dowd ends her column with:

Just as we had to be dragged into acknowledging that sound and color made movies more realistic, now we must get accustomed to films where, with apologies to a colleague, the world is not flat.

Maureen’s being a little disingenuous with that “we.” She never experienced the transition from silent to sound, and while she may have seen movies that were intentionally filmed in black and white, she never experienced the change herself.

But I imagine that for the deaf, the hard of hearing, and the color blind, neither sound nor color enhanced their movie going experience. I would guess that if anything, it detracted from it.

I’ve come to accept that, as I get older, some things will pass out of the range of my ability. The other day my son said to me, “I can put my big toe in my mouth.” It never even occurred to me to ask him how he knew that or why he’d tried. I already knew.

“Can you do that, dad?” he asked.

“Not since I was your age,” I said.

I used to boast that I could work in 10-point text on a 1600x1200 pixel display. Now I work with 12-point text at much lower resolution, and still sometimes I have to lean close to distinguish a period from a comma. I find that I’m saying, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you,” more often. My memory has become pockmarked with odd lacunae.

It’s true, I only see a few movies a year. My fondness for sitting with strangers in the dark isn’t what it once was. Nonetheless, I still feel left out, left behind, slightly discarded. And I find this particular loss of ability frustrating. Because of a change in technology, not nature and not age, my idiosyncratic eyesight, which was never more than a minor inconvenience may turn into a disability that would prevent me from watching movies.