Before I can begin telling you about eyepatches in the steampunk community, I should probably explain why I’m qualified to discuss the issue. I was born with cataracts. I was fortunate enough to maintain the sight in my left eye, but I can’t see anything out of my right. I would wear an eyepatch, but unfortunately since I’m not allowed to wear contact lenses the ability to accessorize with a patch is completely out of reach. Not only that, but I carry a white cane because I have no depth perception. Those of you who have worn an eyepatch probably have experienced this issue. This is what I have to talk to you about today – why on earth would someone choose to impair themselves for fashion purposes, especially given that the disability which you are using is often one that comes with serious emotional attachments. To be clear, I wear corsets, and so do a lot of other people, but rarely is the dialogue associated with a corset one in which the individual wearing it says that they wear the corset because of an injury.
I’ve talked to a lot of people in the steampunk community about their eyepatches. I ask if they can see out of the eye that they’re patching, and typically the response is “Not out of character. But my character had their eye shot out!” I often wonder if the owner of the eyepatch is aware just how much goes into the process of losing an eye, or why one wears a patch. I wore a patch when I was born because any light going into my slowly dying eye would cause me severe amounts of pain.
About four years ago I was diagnosed with calcium deposits in my cornea. After an unsuccessful surgery I was fitted for something called a scleral shell. It’s essentially a giant plastic shell that sits on top of my dead eye, and protects it. As a result, I no longer experience the intense pain and migraines that I once had. I also got to meet lots of people who have visual impairments like mine. One young woman fell on a shard of glass, another was attacked by a dog, another had been shot with a BB gun by accident. None of us are heroes. We are, however, survivors.
As a result, I sometimes find it insulting when a fully able person decides to take their abilities (such as being able to see out of both eyes) and chooses to sacrifice it for the game of character. Ableism isn’t just about using words like “cripple”; it isn’t just about how the bulk of able-bodied society assumes that we are all helpless; it’s also about taking disability and acting like it is a cool thing that we can just take off at the end of the day. I went through elementary, middle, and high school navigating social situations as a disabled kid. I come to steampunk events with my white cane in my bag (and now I have a shiny steamcane to make my costumes even more shiny!) but my ability to adapt means that I have had to sacrifice mobility. I have had to learn how to navigate throughout my life, and so yeah, it’s not all roses, and I don’t get to take off my eyepatch after an evening of playing blind. At the end of the day, I come home, take out my shell, and my clouded eye is still there.
The point to this is that by wearing eyepatches, or hooks for hands, or peg legs, people talk about their characters being heroes, not about their characters being real people who live their lives every day with the challenges that present themselves. Have you considered what it would be like to be one eyed and fence (I did it)? Have you considered how it would affect your career, your love life, your social contacts? Have you thought about what it would be like if you wore glasses and you couldn’t wear an eyepatch? A disability is not a one day thing, it lives with you, all the time, and you have to be clever enough to make changes and adaptations to live like everyone else.
The Lighthouse - An organization dedicated to fighting vision loss through prevention, treatment & empowerment.
The National Federation for the Blind
Offbeat Brides “Blind Women Get Married Too” – Elsa’s article on Offbeat Brides about the challenges she faced while planning her upcoming wedding.
“With This Steam-Powered Prosthetic Arm, I Could Be As Strong As… a Normal Person” - Jaymee Goh’s excellent article about people with disabilties in the steampunk community.
Elsa Sjunneson is a proudly disabled burlesque historian and steampunk living and working in the New York City Area.