Going Blind & Catching Up with ANDREA YU:
An Interview with TIM TERAN
June 11, 2021
A year after the start of a global pandemic, Andrea Yu, who is a student with City Access New York interning with A Closer Look Inc., spearheaded a series of interviews with characters from Going Blind (2010) to find out how they fared through a year of COVID-19 lockdown and where they are now in their sight-loss journeys.
This week, Andrea spoke with Tim Teran about life with low vision and adjusting to uncertainty during the pandemic.
To listen to the interview, use the audio player below. A transcript of the interview follows.
To view the film, Going Blind, click here.
ANDREA YU: Hello, this is Andrea Yu, host of Going Blind and Catching Up. This week we talked with Tim Teran about life with low vision and adjusting to uncertainty during the pandemic.
TIM TERAN: Hello Andrea.
AY: So you gave your story on how you adopted with your low vision. So how have you been since this pandemic started?
TT: Well, I think because I’ve lived with low vision my entire life that it hasn’t impacted my life as much as it might others, because I don’t drive – never have driven – for example. So in Connecticut, I walk everywhere, like I walk to town and get groceries, that sort of thing. I live in both New York and Connecticut. I’m lucky.
After the pandemic started, I think New York became a little creepy to me in a sense that everything was fine with indoor activities, and then spring-summer-outdoor activities, and all that goodness of reflecting on life and how precious it is and what it means. But at the end, I feel like being cautious sort of became wary and wary of others and their behaviors, so I found myself always looking around in public and since I don’t see so well, that doesn’t necessarily mean I know where people are. So it’s been a little odd to feel uncomfortable. If you add that to the fact I don’t see well – trying to figure out what people look like behind their mask is impossible.
9 out of 10 times, I will go by someone who will know who I am, but I won’t know who they are. With low vision, that happens from afar all the time. It becomes exacerbated when you can’t even recognize some of the bigger details on their faces.
AY: But with social distancing now, how has that been going?
TT: Well, there you go. That adds to it, right? So with 6 feet away, it’s hard to tell “Who is that person?” I’m somewhat comfortable in my skin in the sense that I know I don’t see well and I don’t hide it from anybody, so I’m happy to say “You know, I hate to say this, but I can’t tell who you are behind your mask.” Sometimes it feels a little awkward, because it feels a little rude. But I’d rather do that and get that out of the way, then carry on with the conversation.
AY: Right. So now that we are all in quarantine though, how have you been adjusting with your low vision?
TT: Well, as my wife will tell you, I spend too much time on the computer. I think we all have screen overdose from the pandemic. In that respect, I think the difference in the pandemic to me, the biggest issue for me from a vision standpoint, is it’s that much harder to recognize people, and I love people. It kills me when I’m walking down the street or I’m in the country, walking down the road and I see someone and I say “hello” just ‘cause I say “hello” to everybody, and I don’t know who it is. It’s just that it’s a little disconcerting and I kind of feel uncomfortably rude, which is why for me, the thing I’ve got to do is say “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell who you are with your mask on.” Unfortunately, because so many people can’t do that, it doesn’t become a hardship in the sense that “it’s because of my low vision, I can’t tell who you are.”
Because enough people do it, I don’t feel like it singles me out or calls me out as having a particular challenge or what have you.
AY: Speaking of challenges, have you also been facing challenges with your work?
TT: Well, you know, so much of my life, I have worked globally and I’ve been using video conferencing since they called it that, not Zoom, for 20-odd years. So, in some respects actually, if you have low vision, Zoom is a godsend, because you actually are closer to that person than you would be if you were in the room with them.
In the past, I could sit across the conference room 7 or 8 or 15 feet away, but I couldn’t see their facial expressions. I could hear them, but I couldn’t read their facial expressions. Of course, I’m getting hard of hearing, that’s becoming difficult, too. Thank God for hearing aids. But I would tell you in some respects, Zoom makes it easier for me to have a call with someone ‘cause I can actually look at their faces with details that I normally wouldn’t see in a conference room or if I was seated across a table from them.
AY: Oh, that’s good. Very accommodating them. So then, would you say you’re adjusting to this pandemic well?
TT: Yeah, I mean the other thing that I find in a way that is a good thing is – you know, there are people who’re challenged for so many reasons and they are typically irregular, if you will. They’re not normal. It’s being challenged in our society in particular is different. It’s not the norm, as opposed to perhaps a culture where everybody is an individual and therefore, whatever you are is what you are. Because the pandemic has created a blanket challenge to everybody, people are much more accommodating, understanding, and compassionate than they are when there wasn’t a pandemic.
Here, for example, I might go to a deli. The most hated thing is when there is a menu board, I can’t read them. When I don’t know exactly what I want it is really frustrating, because I’m saying “Can’t I try something new?” but I can’t read the damn board. Sometimes in the past, when I ask the question “What’s special today?” and they’ll say “Look at it, it’s on the board” and they’ll point above. And I’ll say “Okay, I’m not gonna ask that question again, because that’s gonna single me out and make me feel really uncomfortable and clearly they don’t want to answer.”
Now, I find people are much more accommodating and saying “Oh, well the specials today are [fill in the blank]” or “I’m interested in an omelette. What kind of omelettes do you have?” and once I look at the board, they’ll tell me. For some reason, people are feeling much more compassion about saying “Well, let me help you!” You know, there’s so many bad sides to the pandemic, but we do live in a human community and I think that challenges and disasters bring the best in people out, for the most part. And so, that’s a change for me. I’m much more comfortable saying “What are the specials?” in a store where I can’t read or if I’m in a grocery store and they have a board for the “meat specials” or the whatever specials behind the counter or are farther away than two feet in front of me. I can ask the question. I’m more comfortable, because I’m more believing that they’re gonna be okay answering the question and not feel that they’ve been put upon.
AY: Right, so have you gotten the vaccine yet and if so how has it affected your routine?
TT: Well, I got my second vaccine yesterday. It is quite new. And it’s funny, because I went home yesterday afterwards and I was exhausted. I think it was just – the anxiety of waiting ‘cause I kept saying to myself, “I don’t know whether I’m staring into space because I have a reaction or I’m just absolutely exhausted and relieved.” So “will it?” I guess is more accurate, ‘cause I haven’t had it yet, yes.
Our hope is to take a small trip down South to explore the Smoky Mountains, where we have never been and then I’ll feel much more liberated to do so – not that we won’t be careful to wear masks and do social distancing because that’s the right thing to do. But we’ll feel like it’s okay for us to do that. Our worry will be that – God forbid – they’re wrong and even after you get vaccinated, you carry the stuff and people who you come in contact with might actually get it from you, that would be a horror for us. But I feel more liberated than that. We’re beginning to think about, you know, as Dr. Fauci would say, is having small gatherings with other people who have been vaccinated. So there is some sense of liberation.
I don’t think there has been enough said about people’s personal feelings and what’s been going on, and certainly for those who’re less than perfectly sighted. One of the reasons we moved to Connecticut and not stayed in New York. We left March 5th, 2020 and moved up to our house in Connecticut and went back a few times over the summer. I just found it to be anxious-provoking because I live on the subway in New York and I love it. I mean, I could do it literally with my eyes closed probably. I’ve done it my entire life, you know since the age of 8 or something like that. So to me, the city is about exploration and being out and around and obviously, wonderful museums and restaurants. And then having taken all that away from you… Those are the sights and sounds and smells and taste of what makes New York like nothing else. So that was really challenging.
When I talked about the fact that I went from cautious to wary, you really felt that when you’re out on the streets or when you’re taking the subway. Because once you take the subway away from New York, that city is built for the subway or the subway is built for the city, however you want to look at it. Once you’re uncomfortable doing that – and it’s hard when you can’t see – ‘cause there are parts I don’t know well and trying to read the subway maps is virtually impossible from my perspective – that really just tainted my whole love of the city right now.
I believe New York will come back. God willing, next year will be better, then we’ll have no more surges in the virus and people will feel comfortable. But I don’t think people recognize that this is a year that has taken a toll on people’s trust of others, which is why I say you get wary of others. No, New York is wonderful relative to Florida where people are just idiotic in their brazen lack of respect for other people and the way that they behave. New Yorkers, I think are pretty good, from what I can tell. I haven’t been back much lately to the city, although I’ll go back in the coming two weeks. I haven’t been back since probably November. It was just so sad to me. I didn’t want to be there. Let alone that it was just uncomfortable, since I couldn’t eat in a restaurant or I wouldn’t. It just made it too hard. Sitting outside in a restaurant, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, seeing how close were people next to me. That’s not the joy of being in the freedom of being in that city.
AY: How is it in Connecticut, since as you said before, a lot of people have been accommodating to you?
TT: I live in a town that has extreme left and extreme-right human beings, so we have everybody from people who’re incredibly compassionate to people who still think it’s China’s fault and they did it on purpose. So I live in a very bipolar world. By in large, it’s been pretty good. It’s been isolating from the physical-social standpoint. You know, I think the guy who originally rang the alarm in 2010, I think he’s from University of Minnesota, about potential pandemics said “We should really stop talking about social distancing and talk about physical distancing, because we should never be socially distant.” We’ve tried to make a point of making sure that we’re never socially distant, but we’re physically distant. It played a toll on my family at Christmas. It was just my wife and I. Usually, we have my grown sons and their girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever the case might be, and maybe my brother and his wife, and my more extended relatives. This year, it was just my wife and I. It was fine, we made it work ‘cause we were socially near and physically distant. But it’s very hard.
AY: Yeah, a lot of people don’t get to see their friends or family as often, which is quite sad.
TT: It’s absolutely true. Andrea, are you from the New York area or are you from someplace else?
AY: Oh yeah, I’m from New York.
TT: Yeah, one of the things about New York that you probably love like I do, and I’ve always loved, is the vibrancy, and that vibrancy is missing right now. There’s still a sense of wariness in the air, ‘cause people are just not sure what the future is gonna bring now. I think we certainly sit on the “dawn of arisen” of some sense of normalcy coming back and if the President is correct, hopefully by – I don’t know if by July 4th everyone will be having barbecues – hopefully by August, people will be comfortable hanging out and feeling that’s an okay and right thing to do and that will be a wonderful thing, and there will be terrific cause for celebration for being back in the saddle again, so to speak.
AY: Right. Since this pandemic, people have been going less often to their doctors. So how has that been affecting you and your eye care?
TT: Well, fortunately in my case, I had my last eye checkup just before the pandemic in December of ‘19 or ‘20. So I’m probably due for one now, but my situation is ocular albinism with nystagmus and astigmatism. And so, for better or for worse, it doesn’t change that much, except for my near-in reading which probably means it’s now time for bifocals again, because the more you rely on them, the worse your eyes get. But I haven’t needed to go to a doctor for that.
AY: So basically, it seems you are adjusting well to this pandemic, and that’s really great!
TT: Well you know, because I’ve had to adjust to a world in which I don’t see well my entire life – I think one of the things that perhaps, and maybe this is even more true for people who have not always lived with low vision but get it over time, is there is the power of adapting that you, in my case, had to learn from birth. You just weren’t like everybody else, you couldn’t see like they could. Perhaps others had to learn because they no longer see like they used to see. That allows you to adapt to situations where you’ve never had to adapt before in a more, I don’t want to say courageous way, but in a more open way. You’re not gonna fight it, because you can’t change it, so let’s adapt to it.
So I don’t know whether it’s that people who have had to deal with significant life challenges actually do better or worse. I would imagine that they actually do better. They’re more open to adaptation. Those who have adapted to life changes in the past probably do better. Those who have not adapted well probably do worse than the person who doesn’t “have a challenge that they adapted to.”
I’ve read a lot of stuff about change and encouraging corporations to adopt cultures of change. It’s the scariest thing on the planet, because as human beings, we’re not taught to embrace change. We’re taught to try to develop structures and routines. It’s why we have cognitive maps to reduce the challenges of getting around, and those maps are based on routines. So if you embrace change, you’re not looking to embrace routine, you’re looking to find something different that is to then incorporate that into the world. That’s a scary thing for most people, ‘cause people are taught and we’ve grown up in school and in business the manufacturing mentality of: you learn the thing, and then you learn how to do it faster and better over time. You don’t learn how to do other things. Maybe, I’d argue the only place in high school we learn that stuff is in the physical sciences, where there’s a “action and a reaction” and you learn what to do, what that reaction means. That’s not how we’re taught in humanities or in business.
AY: I never thought of it like that,
TT: Well good, I’m glad this is something that’s thought-provoking! I mean, I’m a big believer in change, but you have to be open. You also have to be honest with yourself that says “okay, change is scary.” So either embrace it, and a lot of people don’t. There was a Winston Churchill comment that says “You have enemies? Good. That means you stood for something different.” It’s why people are stuck in paradigms, because we don’t look for information and observation as being “different” and why it’s different. We look for support it to support a worldview you have.
It’s understandable, because without structure, you live in a world with chaos and notwithstanding the physics theories of Chaos Theory. Society needs structure. True change is destructive to structure, and creates new structures. It’s hard work and most people don’t want to work that hard. People mostly would rather keep on doing what they’re doing than doing something different, ‘cause it’s scary and they don’t know it. But I’ll circle back and say if you had to do that because you’ve had a challenge that you’ve had to overcome that you didn’t have 10 years ago, then you’re more open to change and you’re more comfortable with it and accepting and figuring out how to navigate it than if you’ve never had to do it. Which is why I come back and say I believe that some people who’ve actually had life challenges probably do better in a pandemic than those who haven’t.
Again, the hidden thing we don’t know is the mental toll that has been put on people. It’ll be interesting and I don’t think we’re gonna know until some semblance of normalcy comes back in terms of the workplace and things like that, and the social place is to how comfortable people are engaging again. I think that it may be generationally different, because I still think the people who are in their 20s and 30s still feel, for the most part, they are Immortal, and I think people who are, whether they are Gen X or boomers, they know they’re not immortal, ‘cause they’re getting older and they obviously have experienced the fact that the pandemic has been unevenly impacting people of their ages, so will they be more or less quick to move on? I suspect the answer will be yes.
AY: Yeah, they would have more of an understanding of what it was like, or what it is like.
TT: And their fear factor will be high up.
AY: Right. Well, it was very great hearing from you and I’d have to say, you’re a very deep thinker. A lot of people can learn from you.
TT: You’re very kind.