Social studies teacher Stephen Laird can recognize the curious looks students give him when they first notice his nystagmus, his “dancing eyes” that involuntarily move back and forth.
Like his eyes, Laird moves back and forth in front of the room. The fluorescent lights irritate his eyes. When a student raises their hand, Laird doesn’t see it. He’ll crouch over the desk and squint at a student’s handwriting. They’ll look up at his moppy hair that makes Laird blend in with the teenagers in the building.
And then they’ll see something else.
They’ll see the quick side-to-side movement of his pupils that serves to announce what he says is essential to who he is: since birth, Laird has had a visual impairment called ocular albinism. It’s just another part of his identity, like the fact that he teaches history in room 306, is an avid fan of the Cleveland Browns and spectator and researcher of all things boxing. His ocular albinism is a part of himself he can only describe using the words “second nature.” With one of the worst cases specialists have ever seen, Laird is rendered legally blind.
Nystagmus is only one of the symptoms of ocular albinism. Laird lacks pigmentation in his retina, so his eyes can’t process sharp light images. Laird says his condition, although frustrating at times, doesn’t merit the same sympathy as someone who loses their sight later in life. Laird’s ocular albinism is a genetic mutation that female members of his family have passed along to the males. Because he’s never experienced perfect vision, the way he sees the world is how he always has and will see it.
“For all of my memorable life I’ve been aware that I’ve had this vision problem,” Laird said. “I’ve always gone to the eye doctor regularly, I’ve always used visual aids whether it’s magnifiers to see small print or it’s binoculars to see far distances. It’s just second-nature to me.”
His condition may be second-nature to Laird, but is still unusual to his students. He can hear the giggles when he holds a textbook or worksheet two inches from his face in order to effectively read it. He laughs it off when ornery senior American Government students leave chairs in the middle of the floor for him to trip on. When he walks the halls of East, he can’t clearly see the students who greet him with a wave and a “How’s it goin’, Laird?”
When he was a student, he struggled to read from a distance even with the use of visual aids. He feels that because of the tendency for educators to group students into a category based on impairments, teachers doubted his ability to succeed academically with weak vision. Now as an educator himself, he says he’s adapted to every issue his impairment presents in his career.
“Family or friends have occasionally questioned me in regards to whether or not I would be able to teach,” Laird said. “To them I just say ‘In everything I’ve ever done I’ve adapted,’ so I never had a fear about teaching at all or thought [my condition] was going to affect me.”
Because of his experience with ocular albinism, Laird hopes to increase teacher awareness about students with exceptionalities, whether a visual, speech or learning impairment.
“People looked at me differently because of my impairment rather than looking at my ability,” Laird said. “I want to make teachers aware that just because someone’s different doesn’t mean they can’t succeed. I just want to be that story because I do think teaching students with exceptionalities is the new frontier: fostering every student, not just some.”
His condition affects his daily life outside of the classroom as well. Laird has never been able to drive, and has to be driven by his fiancée or parents. Tasks like grocery shopping can be difficult. He can’t see what’s on the shelf from a distance that someone with normal vision would be able to. Oftentimes, his fiancée is startled when Laird uses the panic button to find her car afterwards in the parking lot, he is unable to find it without the sound of the alarm leading him.
“[My fiancée] is very understanding [of my condition],” Laird said. “[My ocular albinism] has never been an issue for her. It produces challenges, but I don’t just depend on her. We depend on each other.”
To watch TV in his home, Laird has to sit on a pillow right in front of the screen. This can be irritating to someone who hasn’t missed watching a Cleveland Browns football game in eight years. Nonetheless, his vision hasn’t kept him from closely following games. If he’s attending a game, he constantly asks his friends or family watching with him what the score or time is, squinting into his binoculars to the activity more closely. In addition to his love of the Browns, he is a self-proclaimed “die-hard” boxing fan. Laird says his passion for this particular sport lies in his ability to compare boxing to his life, and more specifically, his ocular albinism.
“When you’re in a boxing ring you don’t have anyone else to help you, you’re alone,” Laird said. “In a sense that’s kind of how life is, you’re dependent on yourself and your own ability. In some way everyone’s life is a fight to do something. I understand that type of adversity and commitment it takes to overcome and become something great. I’ve had to do it my whole life.”
Laird says watching clips of boxing matches on YouTube or cheering on the Browns brings him a sense of peace, but his classroom is where he encounters his true passion.
Nearing the completion of his second year of teaching at East, Laird says he looks forward to teaching from the time he leaves the building at 4:00 p.m. to the time he arrives the next morning at 7:00 a.m. He says it’s like no other job he’s had in his life. He loves history, but his greater love is making a difference in the lives of students. His love of teaching overshadows the challenges his impairment presents.
“I want to build minds, share the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned,” Laird said. “[My goal is] expressing those to students and helping them become lifetime learners and helping every student in that classroom succeed. That’s what drives me.”