October/November 2022 MODSocietyMag_RDC_OctNov - Page 51

Growing up in Charleston , West Virginia , James Tate Hill was a typical ’ 80s teenager — hanging with friends at the mall , watching Tom Cruise movies , listening to Prince . But at age 16 , life changed drastically for James Tate when he was diagnosed with Leber ’ s hereditary optic neuropathy , which left him legally blind with his vision reduced to the blurry lines of his periphery .
Soon , friends grew distant and teachers stopped encouraging James Tate to excel , convinced his disability would diminish his ability to achieve academic excellence . He felt he had no choice but to pretend he could see just as well as he had before — just as well as anyone else .
“ I was forced to reinvent myself at age 16 ,” he says . “ I was a pretty average 16-year-old , and this seemed like a step back . So in a way , it was a desperate attempt to hold onto what little I had , and the result was that I continued to pretend to be the average person .”
James Tate detailed his struggle — which included masquerading as a fully sighted person for 15 years — in his memoir , Blind Man ’ s Bluff , which was released last year . He now lives and teaches in Greensboro , and he says pretending to be able to see seemed like an easier solution than admitting he needed help . But it ended up being the more complicated choice .
“ I was a poor copy of average instead of embracing my authentic self and trying to move forward as the real me ,” he says . “ And hijinks and disappointments ensued . But I think we ’ ve all been there — disability or not . I think it ’ s pretty common to hide parts of ourselves and in doing so , put forth a sort of copy of ourselves into the world .”
During that time , James Tate attended and graduated from college and pursued a master ’ s degree in creative writing , which brought him to UNC-Greensboro . He dated and made friends , all while constantly working to conceal his blindness by listening for approaching cars before crossing the street , arriving at restaurants early so he wouldn ’ t have to find his date and displaying books he ’ d listened to on tape on his shelves .
But by age 30 , James Tate ’ s ruse had become too heavy a weight to bear . His writing career had stalled , and his marriage crumbled . He knew something had to change , so he decided to make the terrifying but ultimately necessary choice to admit his disability .
“ It was liberating , and I had a lot more energy without the exhaustion of hiding a huge element of who I am ,” he says . “ And in a way , I let go of the anger . If you ’ re not letting
yourself be angry with ableism or parts of the world that are not made for you , then that anger just ends up turning inward . And it ’ s very liberating to direct the anger into places where it should go .”
Anger and frustration are common emotions for those living with disabilities . Over the years , strides have been made that help ensure equal treatment , including the Americans with Disabilities Act and technological advances that make some aspects of life easier for those with impairments . James Tate says the world still has work to do in eradicating ableist culture .
“ You end up recognizing what so many people with disabilities know . Not only is the world not built for you , but a solid percentage of the world would like to pretend you are not in it ,” he says . “ And that goes back to so much of why I hid my blindness — it was just instinctive emotion and self-preservation .”
But as James Tate began to be more honest with himself and others about his blindness , his life began to change in positive ways , as well . His writing career began to take off , and he published a novel , Academy Gothic , which featured a main character living with vision loss . James Tate took on roles as editor for literary magazine Monkeybicycle and columnist at Literary Hub . He also met and married his current wife .
After writing multiple essays about his experience with vision loss , James Tate began to realize that a memoir would allow him to fully tell his story . In writing Blind Man ’ s Bluff , he infused what could have been a sad tale with humor and created a more nuanced and realistic picture of life with a disability .
“ I realized that I had a lot left to say , and having achieved a level of self-acceptance that allowed me to write about that huge element of my identity in fiction , I finally felt ready to tell that story in nonfiction ,” he says .
The book has received major praise , including a glowing New York Times review , but for James Tate , some of the most satisfying attention comes from others who live with disabilities and recognize a bit of themselves in his story .
“ It ’ s been maybe one of the most gratifying reactions , having strangers sending me emails through my website to say , ‘ I have experienced this , or I have experienced something similar to this , and I just wanted to let you know I appreciated your honesty and vulnerability .’”
– Jennifer Bringle , editor-in-chief