No darkness within

October 21, 2013

Buenos Aires, Argentina

By Enrique Marcarian

No disability scares me more than blindness. I depend on my sight more than on my legs. Impaired vision determines the course of the lives of those who suffer it, changing or eliminating their ability to do so much. Nevertheless, there are cases in which a person’s strength is greater than the challenge. Two such people are Leonardo Duarte (Leo) and Eusebia Casimiro (Evi), husband and wife who live by themselves, although they are both blind.

Leo and Evi are both in their mid-fifties, and both lost their eyesight as young adults. Leo lost his as a victim of an attempted robbery, and Evi was left blind during surgery to remove a brain tumor. I was attracted to them by their personalities and attitudes in the face of adversity; they live alone with limited resources but with great will to overcome all that, in a society that does not fully accommodate the visually impaired.

For those unfamiliar with the city of Buenos Aires, traffic is unbearable and walking the streets is often like navigating an obstacle course. Although the couple conserve their visual memory, I imagine that they begin with something like a blank chalkboard in their minds. And although they can’t see, it’s as if they had a light inside them to guide them, through intuition. They can describe with about 80% accuracy different shapes and places. I believe they can sense even more than I can with normal eyesight.

Over the past few months Leo and Evi shared with me parts of their lives. I walked with them, traveled with them on buses and subway trains, and accompanied them during social events and educational classes. On the street I followed them at a discreet distance and watched as some people would move away, while others would ignore them. I was never sure whether it was to allow the couple to continue on their own way unimpeded, or to avoid helping them to cross the street.

I had to decide myself whether to photograph them, or to help them, although I usually chose the latter. When I did, I could feel others staring at me in that strange scene – two people with white canes holding my shoulders with their free hands, as my camera bag hung from one side. We formed a human train of three wagons from which I would separate from time to time to photograph. (I felt that someone should have taken a photo of the three of us.)

Leo and Evi know things that many other blind people don’t. They still remember what colors look like and they can visualize some of the biggest obstacles. Thanks to his blindness Leo discovered music and made it his means to earn a living. He offers his songs to the thousands of commuters using the city’s subways.

Meanwhile, Evi has become a wonderful knitter after attending special classes for the visually impaired. In the same school she also learned to cook, do laundry, and other tasks that make her more self-sufficient. She knits all day long until she tires. She can sense the quality and texture of the yarn, and knows how to measure it. Believe it or not, she can even tell the color. One of Evi’s favorite jokes is about her surname, Casimiro. Separated into two Spanish words, “casi miro,” means “I can almost see.”

As Evi knits Leo uses a special program to read and write on his Facebook page, check email, download music, and learn the lyrics to increase his repertoire. He says he knows about a hundred songs.

Just last May, Argentina passed a law to grant guide dogs access to public places, even in places where animals are prohibited such as movie theaters, conference centers, hotels, and long distance buses. They are even permitted on airplanes, without the need to cage them and send them to the cargo hold. The majority of the guide dogs in the country, of which there still aren’t more than 30, are trained in a center in Rochester Hills, Michigan. But although the training is free, each blind person must pay his or her trip there.

Leo has developed the ability to recognize which of his two cats is meowing at any one time. He can hear each time I press the shutter of my camera, even from far away and in silent mode. The two of them enjoy dancing although, to be honest, it is Evi who leads. When they go out they know exactly how many steps it is to the bus stop, the locations of the different stops along the route, and the combinations of bus and subways to get where they want to. Evi’s big problem is with escalators, which she doesn’t dare use alone as Leo does.

When nobody offers them help to cross the street, they do what some of us with normal vision still do – wait for silence to know that the street is clear of traffic.

Leo discovered scuba diving a year ago and it became his favorite sport. Unfortunately, bureaucratic problems will keep him away from it for the rest of the year. In the meantime, he continues to do what he loves most, sing and play guitar for others at any opportunity. His biggest fan is Evi, who confesses that her life changed after having an unhappy childhood coupled with the tragedy of becoming blind. She feels rewarded with happiness after meeting the love of her life, Leo. They met in a school for the blind.

Even today, several months since meeting them, Leo calls me or sends emails and text messages to share his latest songs and jokes he finds on the web. I thank them for giving me the courage to accept cataract surgery and improve my own sight. Leo knew I was nervous, and said to me with his particular sense of humor, “Don’t worry if something goes wrong. We’ll teach you to live without seeing. In fact, we’ll give you our spare cane.”

One of their friends who is also blind said to me, “Remember that our bodies might be blind, but our spirits aren’t.”

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