#79 A Word About Eyepatches: A Personal Essay — Guest Blog by Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa's steampunk'd folding walking cane, made in accordance with walking canes for the visually-impaired. Designed and crafted by Michael Salerno.

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.

An image of Elsa's eye.

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.

Additional Reading:

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.


Filed under Essays

14 responses to “#79 A Word About Eyepatches: A Personal Essay — Guest Blog by Elsa Sjunneson

  1. Jaymee Goh

    Elsa, thank you for this important perspective. It really does behoove participants to remind themselves that what they treat as a costume that can be discarded at will, whereas for some people it’s a continued disadvantage in our societies.

  2. Jen

    Thank you for allowing me to me rethink my piratey ways. Well, not the pirating of course, but the ways in which I pirate. Yarr.

    The last time I donned an I patch was at a pirate party thrown for my birthday at my work place, a day program for adults with intellectual and other disabilities. (the folks I work with are the best, everyone wore green and they played Duran Duran all afternoon.)

    One of our participants, however, is going blind. She quite enjoyed the Yarrrring and the waving of the pirate swords, but she is actually quite scared at the prospect of going blind. She does alright at this point, because she knows her way around, and while there are ways in which she is intellectually disabled, as with all our participants she is more clever than most people (including herself) give her credit for.

    Okay, now I’m late. So, the rewrite and the more thinking can’t happen right now. But thanks again for this article. Well the more thinking will happen on the way to where I’m going, but you understand.

  3. oh my gosh your eye looks like mine! I also have a shell too (I dont wear it since its not fitted properly). Thank you for posting this. I am sharing this on my facebook so others can read this as well.

    • Elsa Sjunneson

      My painted shell is not fitted properly either – so I don’t wear it frequently as the eye shifts and stares off to my right more frequently than in the direction of people I’m speaking to!

      But my clear shell is! So I wear that one more frequently.

      I’m glad this articulates something you want to share, feel free to add me on facebook – more one eyed friends are great!

      • I have only ever read about other one eyed people (Rex Harrison is one). So finding someone with an eye very similar to mine who is into Steampunk and shares my views on eyepatches is awesomely amazing.

  4. This is probably not a helpful comment…

    For your future Steampunk Eye-patching needs, consider wearing a patch and a prescription monocle. If you have an old pair of glasses or can get a replacement lens for cheap, the glass used in most glasses is a plastic composite and can be dremelled into shape to create the necessary rounded monocle look. This might be difficult for those without depth perception. However, ask a friend to help and you could create something not only useful, but Steamy cool too.

  5. Thanks, Elsa. I usually just try to imagine myself as Odin whenever my body decides that it would like to reject my right eye, and I do my best not to get too worked up about the various monocular pirates out there – but it’s nice to know that there are other people cringing a bit at the thought of an eye patch as a fashion accessory worn by anyone who doesn’t need one.

  6. Rachel

    Pirates often wore eye-patches for work reasons (keeping one eye adapted for light) as far as I have heard; so eye-patches are not just for accidents or troubles folks have had since birth.

    If anything I would have to say that seeing so many people with steampunked eye-patches, canes, “prosthetic” limbs and so forth should make steampunks MORE aware and sensitive of disabilities: NO ONE would/should ever assume at a steampunk event that the person wearing the patch/prosthetic/using the wheelchairs/crutches/cane, etc is faking it, as very often I’ve seen steampunk and such accessories used by folks who need them beyond the weekend or event (such as Elsa’s cane by Mr. Salerno).

    Consider that, if you would. People are brought together over art and creativity, rather than being pulled or kept apart by perceived differences. If you have had bad experiences, talk to those people. But at the end of the day, everyone is doing things in the name of a good time: the reason folks choose to be a hero is because the majority do not chose to be “just another guy” in their fantasies (why do some chose to depict criminals, prostitutes, or the transient?). Those things which were described (learning to fence while having no depth perception, how these things affect EVERYTHING you do socially and emotionally) are worth exploring even as someone who has not actually had to go through those things but who can IMAGINE and RESEARCH and create a compelling tale and character that they enjoy inhabiting.

    I see and can appreciate this personal essay’s POV, but there are more sides to these coins. In the name of equality and sensitivity we should not push people from learning about their fellows and their plights and triumphs. Or else there is the risk that folks would not acknowledging those things, keeping the able-bodied in the dark, blinded to our arrogance.

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  9. Brad

    I just found out I have a condition called “Adie’s Pupil” . I’m 43 andin less than 2 weeks my right (dominant) eye went from 20/20 to near 20/300 and a room with ordinary light is comfortably to painfully bright. I’m looking for a patch or something that will let me see but darken the world enough for me to see normally. Any help is appreciated. I can’t do contacts.

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