A stigma continues to exist around blindness, even though blind people are a vital part of society as writers, actors, engineers, artists and more. Blindness has reliably appeared at or near the top of the list of “most-feared disabilities” in polls and surveys for decades, a fact Andrew Leland relays in his debut book, The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight. Through eloquent prose, Leland vividly details his experiences with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disorder that has slowly caused his vision to deteriorate and will eventually result in total blindness. Because he still has some sight, he is able to “perceive everything with a paradoxical double vision: through sighted eyes, and through blind ones.”
Providing a raw and honest depiction of what it is like to straddle two worlds, Leland lays his feelings and the realities of his condition out on the table, in particular the impact of RP on his personal interactions. Along the way, he chronicles the backstory of how he discovered he had RP, the genetic aspects of the disease and a general history of blindness. Other chapters focus on topics such as both low- and high-tech sight-assisted gadgets for blind people, national blindness organizations and their differing philosophies, blind activists (including folks from the Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley) and medical therapies for blindness (such as the gene-editing tool CRISPR, gene therapy and wearable technology). Leland interviews myriad people with varying levels of blindness to get diverse perspectives, interspersing their accounts with statistics and expert commentary.
The Country of the Blind does not leave readers with a sense of sadness—quite the opposite. By mixing reality checks with wit, Leland’s prose exudes hope and authenticity. As he movingly writes, “As I lose my vision, I want to cultivate this picture of blindness—in Oscar [his son], and Lily [his wife], in myself, and in the world—of a blind person who’s an active protagonist in his own life.”