blindness

What It's Like Growing Up as the Only Sighted Person in a Blind Family

"I didn't know other people could see what I was doing until I was in kindergarten. I suddenly felt very exposed."
09 January 2020, 9:30am
blind family

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Sandra Muis is 31 and she grew up as the only sighted person in a blind family. Her mum and sister have aniridia, which means their eyes do not have irises, while her dad went blind at 18 because of diabetes. She now works for an organisation supporting blind people in the Netherlands, the same one where her parents met. She told us what it was like to grow up in a blind household.

Sandra and her dad. Photo courtesy of Sandra Muis

Growing up in a blind family makes you experience the world in a different way. For example, I didn’t know other people could see what I was doing until I was in kindergarten – and that was quite a shock. At home, I could pick my nose or take extra candy from our jar, but in kindergarten people noticed what I was up to and scolded me. I suddenly felt very exposed.

When I was in elementary school, kids started bullying me and calling my parents "those blind people". Once, a boy in my class drew a picture of my dad walking straight into a street light. That sucked. It made me realise that my parents were different – and that I was as well, because of the way I was raised.

Sandra's family. Photo courtesy of Sandra Muis

High school taught me a couple more lessons. I didn’t realise that you are supposed to make eye contact during a conversation until a guy mentioned it to me. After all, my parents had never looked me in the eye before.

High school is also where I learned that looks matter – and that I had absolutely no fashion sense. I was still walking around in head-to-toe Disney outfits. My parents never cared about what they looked like; they preferred practicality. Nowadays, we all dress up for special occasions because I enjoy it. At Christmas, my sister and I wear cute dresses and my parents wear holiday sweaters. I tell everyone what they look like, and now they enjoy it too.

It was hard for me to fit into the regular world, because I didn't know what I was supposed to look like. I didn't learn about it at home, but noticed that it was important. It made me hyper-aware of my appearance. In that way, I've always been in a battle with my own identity.

The truth is, I used to be embarrassed of my mum. She always walked with a cane, she kept her hair short and wore a hat. She looked a bit odd sometimes and needed my help getting around. With time, my mum put more effort into her appearance and now she says she likes doing that. As for me, figuring out what to wear and how to present myself is still a struggle.

Sandra Muis. Photo: Gwen van der Zwan

I've been guiding my parents since I learned how to walk. When my mum picked me up from school I always had to hold her hand – not just because she didn't want to lose me, but because she also needed my help walking down the street. I used to feel guilty for being the only sighted person in my family. I always felt like the odd one out: at home with them, and outside of it with other people.

One thing I definitely missed growing up was having a car, like my friends' families all had. Instead, we always had to rely on public transport, which took a lot of extra time.

When I turned 18, I decided it was time for me to move out. I'd always cared for my parents and sister, and I felt I needed to start figuring out what I wanted my own life to be like. I still help them – I go see them twice a month or so. Sometimes, when I go there, I find them sitting in the dark. Of course, they don’t really need light, so I always turn it off when I stay over and I go to bed before them, but it's such an odd thing to see.

Looking back, though, I'd still say I had a pretty happy childhood. My mum always tried to sort her problems out on her own and put as little weight on my shoulders as possible. I have many pictures and recordings of all the fun things we did together. Of course, I always had to set the cameras and everything up by myself, but I know that my family still loves listening to those videos.

My mum still takes a lot of pictures and saves them all in a big folder. I sit with her sometimes and describe them to her, so she can appreciate all the beautiful memories we share, even without seeing them with her own eyes.