‘Blind. It’s what I am’: Leland Smith’s story

Leland Smith’s peripheral vision isn’t affected by Stargardt disease, which is why he runs close to the wall.

Emily Blobaum

On any given weekday, take a look at Leland Smith as he runs at State Gym.

His shaggy, dirty blonde hair bounces with each long stride. His fists swing consistently between his hips and chest.

His breathing is controlled, inhaling and exhaling every few steps.

He is displaying proper track etiquette, running along the inside of the track, right up next to the wall.  He’s looking straight ahead at the track in front of him, eyes wide open.

But look a little closer, before he steps onto the track.

Watch how he climbs the stairs up to the second level of State Gym with ease.

Watch him stand at the opening of the track, listening to determine how busy it is.

Then, watch him gently place his white cane on the floor, seconds before taking his first step onto the track.

Smith is blind.

Smith, junior in bioinformatics and computational biology, has Stargardt disease, which is as he describes it, “an old person eye condition at a young age.”

Stargardt disease is a juvenile form of macular degeneration caused by a reduction of photoreceptor cells in the middle of the retina. It’s estimated that one in 8,000 to 10,000 people have the condition.

Smith was born sighted, but began losing his vision at age six. He was then sent to Dr. Edwin Stone at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Smith said Stone saw a yellowing of the retina, and then recognized it as being a sign of Stargardt’s.

Smith isn’t totally blind, though. He said his peripheral vision isn’t affected, which allows him to see things to either side but not straight on, which is why he runs so close to the wall.

“You just have to be aware of your surroundings,” Smith said.

He doesn’t usually run outdoors, because the environment is variable. Potholes, cracks, branches and curbs are a lot to memorize, he said.

Additionally, Smith longboards, kayaks, rollerblades and plays video games.

“I honestly do a lot of things,” he said. “One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say that they couldn’t handle being blind.

“What would you do if you went blind right now? Sit around your house and do nothing? It’s human nature to adapt.”

When running, Smith focuses on using his sense of hearing.

“People always make sounds,” he said. “You can hear the openings in the gym.” 

And while Smith doesn’t run with his cane — because he’s “not about that life” — he uses it for just about everything else that requires navigation.

Smith chose to use a cane four years ago — the summer after graduating high school.

He signed himself up what he called “blind training” at the Iowa Department of the Blind, knowing that it would save him stress in the long run.

He decided that he would spend the summer working on living and non-visual skills so by the time he entered college, he would be able to focus on school, worrying about how to do calculus instead of worrying about how to navigate campus.

Blind training — which was from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day — taught Smith essential orientation and mobility skills.

He wore sleep shades the entire time, citing that visual skills are best learned when not using your vision at all.

Smith took classes in computers, braille, home and personal management and woodshop and learned how to travel with the white cane.

By the end of training, he was confident in navigating through crowds, traveling by bus to specific locations and walking with his cane without tripping or falling.

He no longer has to slow down and shuffle his feet when he knows he’s nearing stairs because he’s able to find them with his cane first.

But one of the big lessons he took away from the Department of the Blind was that sometimes, the cane isn’t for your benefit, but for other people.

Part of being blind comes with asking for directions. When taking the bus, Smith usually asks the driver which route he’s on and will often ask other people where certain buildings are.

“If I didn’t have a cane, it would be a lot more awkward,” he said.

Smith used to be “super shy” and didn’t like asking people for help, especially if he didn’t know them.

But then he realized that being blind is the perfect excuse to go up to cute people to ask for directions.

“I get to use my disability to give me those experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I know how to make situations fun,” Smith said. “I realized a long time ago, [being shy] is a hindrance on me. How else am I going to share my experience? It doesn’t pay to be shy.”

Sometimes though, Smith experiences the stigmas attached with being blind, like when he’s standing at a crosswalk, listening for traffic.

“They’ll automatically go for the extreme and think I’m totally blind. They’ll try to be over-helpful and will drag me across the street,” Smith said.

Or people will talk loudly when trying to get his attention.

“They see the cane and think I can’t hear either,” Smith said.

Smith said that one of the hardest things about being blind is not the blindness itself, but other people’s perceptions of what it is like to be blind.

He said people will often see the disability, but not the person.

“I’m blind, but I’m still a student, a gamer, a gym rat… all of those other identities on top of being blind,” Smith said.  

And he doesn’t consider being blind to be a disability, but rather a trait.

“Eventually you stop seeing [it] as a disability. It just becomes part of your life. So to go up and say, ‘I’m so sorry you’re blind’ or ‘I’m so sorry you have a disability,’ that’s really insulting,” Smith said. “That’s like saying ‘I’m sorry that you’re tall.’”

But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Being Leland involves being blind,” he said. “They kind of go hand in hand. You take away the blindness, and you take away a lot of what makes me pretty awesome.”