Everyone has at least one superpower. Something they can do exceptionally well. Some people are good listeners, others great orators. There are people that can make friends in an empty room, and those who remain loyal to their friends for life. Some people remember faces, others facts, others numbers. There are talented story tellers who work with words. Celebrated musicians who can tell stories with sounds. You don’t have to be a vet to have a strong connection with animals, or a farmer to have a strong connection with the land. Degrees and titles rarely mark the presence of a true superpower. There are chefs among us that know there way around any kitchen, and sailors who have always felt at home on the sea. Within any sized group you will find determined athletes with great physical strength, creative artists with powerful imaginations, and curious scholars who explore the unknown. Most people have a mix of natural abilities, but the gifts we call superpowers often are tempered through training and experience. That is the case for me. My superpowers come as the result of a disease. I am legally blind.
Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) or Leber optic atrophy is a mitochondrially inherited (mother to all offspring) degeneration of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and their axons that leads to an acute or subacute loss of central vision; this affects predominantly young adult males.
I was diagnosed with LHON when I was in the fourth grade. I had a problem reading the blackboard that could not be corrected with eye glasses. There is no cure. Over the years my condition has worsened with two sharp declines, but has now stabilized. It was frightening as a kid, not knowing if I would wake up blind the next day. I can not drive. I have a hard time identifying people across a room, reading printed signs, or deciphering common facial gestures. I do not have an issue walking into people, furniture, buildings, or walls. HD video, and Retina displays do nothing for me. If I can get close enough, I can read surprisingly small print in a pinch, but in the real world getting uncomfortably close to books, menus, and name badges is not very practical. The vision in my good eye can be measured at a visual acuity of less than 20/300, but often wanders from day to day. On some days I can see a little better, on other days a little worse. I used to start each morning looking at a consistent shape to predict how that days vision would be. I learned to cope with an inconsistent primary sense, by relying more on my secondary senses to get by. This increased perception has given me a better awareness of my surroundings, and helped temper some of my natural abilities into superpowers.
When it comes to superpowers I am gifted. I have three. LHON might have taken some of my vision, but in return it left me with heightened abilities I wouldn’t easily trade for the chance to drive a car, or read a classroom blackboard.
I was one of those students that didn’t have to study for class. I can remember things about my childhood that were never captured as pictures, or told to me in stories. Over the years I feel my memory has only gotten stronger. I am especially good at recalling things that I have read aloud or that were spoken to me by someone else. I use my heightened sense of memory to navigate a world I cannot always see. Creating 3D maps in my head, because I am unable to read road signs. Of remembering the next step in a computer operation without seeing the screen. My heightened memory, combined with refined problem solving skills has made me good at my job in IT.
I would not consider myself a good listener, but when I want to, I can often hear things other people miss. I depend on my hearing so much that loud environments make me feel uncomfortable. I was never been a fan of crowded bars, or live concerts. Because my eyes are easily strained reading long passages I choose to absorb most books by listening at high speed. I can listen to most podcasts at 3x speed1:, and most audiobooks at 4x speed or greater. People ask me if speed takes away from reading, but if you have been listening to audio books as long as I have, you start to think everyone else is speaking in slow motion.
As a child I was shy of social situations. I had a hard time reading people’s facial expressions because I can not see their faces clearly. I later learned to overcome this fear. By relying on my heightened memory I can recite long passages with ease, and by not being able to see my audience’s faces I can proceed without the fear of judgement. A clouded vision has its advantages. I can stare someone straight in the eyes for prolonged periods of time without flinching. A powerful parlor trick that puts people on edge during tough negotiations.
My visual disability affects how I live. It forces me to live in the city, because I must ride public transportation. It gives me social anxiety, because I have a hard time reading people’s faces. It changes how I navigate the world, because I cannot read posted signs or menus. But being legally blind also has its own superpowers. And I am blessed with the extra ordinary abilities I have developed in response to my disability. I would be interested to hear what superpowers you feel you have. How they have helped you live your life, and how you have encouraged their growth from natural talents, to extraordinary abilities.