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In 'The Country of the Blind,' western Mass. author makes 'peace with whatever comes next'

On a warm day in June, Andrew Leland walked down a sidewalk in Northampton, Massachusetts. He swung a white cane from side to side, tapping the sidewalk in front of him. Then someone walked by and said hello.

"Hey, Michael," Leland replied. Leland said he used two of his senses to identify his friend.

"I don’t know the exact degree, but I would say I have probably 4% of a normal visual field. But that 4% ain’t bad," Leland said. "I feel like his voice probably got me 40% of the way there and then I caught some of his face and that probably pushed me the rest of the way."

Leland has been slowly losing his eyesight for more than 20 years. In college, he was diagnosed with an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa.

Leland said his doctors have declined to say exactly how the trajectory of his vision loss will play out from here.

"I know for a fact that my vision is changing," he said, "and by changing — it's only going one direction."

Leland said since he's not totally blind, that impacted how he felt when he first started using the cane.

"I just felt like such a fraud and I felt like I barely needed it," he said. "I've been using a cane kind of everywhere I go for the last six years or so. When I moved to Northampton, I decided, 'OK, I'm a cane user now. I got to just own it.' And it was hard. It was like a cold-turkey situation or tough love on myself. But in those 6 years, I've lost a lot of vision and now the cane is essential."

 Author Andrew Leland walks down a street in Northampton, Massachusetts, June 12, 2023.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Author Andrew Leland walks down a street in Northampton, Massachusetts, June 12, 2023.

Leland said he's had some surprising reactions from others on the street. Sometimes there’s skepticism or intense curiosity. He recalled the particular reaction of one man in New York.

"I saw as I walked by that I had kind of caught his attention," he said. "And, he was like, 'You can see.' And my reaction in the moment, I said, 'Yeah, I can, so what?'"

Years later, he still hears the man's words in his head.

"It plays on my insecurities about being a fraud or, you know, why am I pretending to be a blind guy?" he said. "Even as the years go on, I get more and more comfortable with the idea that I am one."

In his new book, "The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight," Leland wrote that he's got an important choice to make.

"I can cling to the old image I have of myself, or I can let it go and try to make peace with whatever comes next," he wrote. "I'm trying to find a new form that fits me, even if the shape it takes is utterly unlike the one that came before."

"On a very practical level, the old me drove, the old me rode bikes," he said in a recent interview. "I walked confidently around in the dark, although that is a very distant memory at this point. On a deeper level, I've worked as an editor and a producer for a long time. But it wasn't until I started going through this and writing about it that I actually felt like I had something to say. So, I think, in some ways, blindness made me a writer."

“The Country of the Blind” documents his personal journey coming to terms with his loss of vision. He also traveled across the U.S. to interview blind artists, vision-impaired producers who add narration to popular TV shows, and blind engineers working on new assistive technology.

Leland himself uses a computer that reads everything on his screen for him and he’s learned Braille. He comes across as someone who's fully accepted his blindness and even embraced it — or tries to.

Author Andrew Leland reads the cover of a Braille book of poetry in Northampton, Massachusetts, on June 13, 2023.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Author Andrew Leland reads the cover of a Braille book of poetry in Northampton, Massachusetts, on June 13, 2023.

"I'd love to be able to just drive my kid around on my own like rambling around western Mass., like popping into different, odd roadside attractions and curating our playlist," he said. "I can do that. We can do that as a family. But I do think there's something special when it's just a parent and a child."

With blindness, Leland said, he finds alternatives.

"Like we ride the bus together or ride trains together or just go on walks together," he said. "But there are certainly times when I'm shake my fist at the heavens and say, 'Why can't I have the roadside attraction version too?' But, you know, that feeling passes."

Leland’s book has gotten a lot of attention; an excerpt just ran in The New Yorker. And he said he hopes the book helps change how readers think about people who are visually impaired.

"Ultimately, I would hope that people come away with this feeling that, yes, there's all these fascinating and important ideas and histories around blindness, but that in this fundamental way, a lot of the estrangement and stigma that we feel around blindness is totally unnecessary and harmful, and that you can just sort of think of this person as a person and take it case-by-case and not have such a big difference in your mind as you approach them," he said.

As in his book, Leland said he's been thinking about what kind of blind person he wants to be.

"There really is a fork in the road and you can say, 'I'm a person who happens to be blind and blindness does not define me,'" he said. "Or you can say, 'I'm a blind person.'"

"I think for me, right now, it's really important for me to say, 'I'm a blind person,' and to find the value in that. If I'm hanging out with my family and we're eating dinner, it would be annoying to me — if not offensive — for somebody to describe that picture and say, 'A woman, a child and a blind man are eating dinner,' right? Like, I don't want that to be me."

"But in general, in a lot of my life right now, it's extremely valuable for me to accept the blindness that's there," he said. "And that's the kind of blind person I want to be, is one who can let go of it when I need to, but also own it with pride when I need to."

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education and politics.

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