What Playing Volleyball Without Depth Perception Taught Me About Accepting Constraints

Photo by Steve Bernacki on Flickr, meme’d by me

This story also ran in the winter edition of Albinism InSight.

I was maybe 14 years old when I realized I could politely decline to play volleyball. In terms of revelations this might seem like a minor one, but it was a milestone. It marked the first summer day in a stretch of many I’d spent with family in the Midwest, anxiously chasing a volleyball around my aunt and uncle’s backyard. It seemed so easy for my cousins. Enjoyable, even. Yet I was endlessly apprehensive playing it, and being able to opt out was a profound relief.

It’s difficult to hit a ball when your depth perception is lacking, as it tends to be for people with albinism. And it hurts a lot to get hit in the face with a flying ball. I’d discovered both these things through experience, fruitless chasing a ball that was yards away from where I thought it was or, more painfully, underestimating that distance and getting clocked.

Getting to the point of refusing to play volleyball took me a while, though, mostly because I enjoyed it aside from all the ball-hitting parts. I’ve been athletic since I was a toddler and had never found having albinism to be particularly limiting. And my parents never told me I couldn’t do something because of my vision. So I assumed I could.

After a while, the anxiety I felt playing sports was impossible for me to keep tamping down. And it wasn’t just sports — riding my bike around my neighborhood with my brother and sister gave me the same sweaty hands and nervousness. I tried to explain to my siblings why I didn’t want to go, unable to articulate or rationalize my anxiety. And then my mom stepped in, gently reminding my brother and sister that I don’t always see things well and how that can be scary.

Oh, I thought. Yes. That makes sense. I thought of the rushing traffic in the neighborhood and how small I felt on my bike, unsure of how far away an approaching car was. I remembered dashing after a volleyball, uselessly diving for it when it was six feet away. And I realized something: I could keep doing these things if I wanted to, regardless of my vision. But I didn’t have to.

So I started declining offers to play sports and began appreciating dancing in a new way. I’d taken dance classes — ballet, jazz, tap — since I was tiny, becoming increasingly serious about it in high school. I knew I loved the physicality of it, the music, the rigorous technique and the creativity. Now I appreciated a different aspect: The floor was perfectly level. There were no unexpected obstacles, no flying balls, no hoops to put things through or bases to hit. The most important frame of reference for where I was in space was internal: where my limbs were in relation to the rest of me, whether I could balance on one leg or jump or turn.

There are still times I feel that creeping anxiety from the volleyball court. There were the rehearsals on football fields for performances at sporting events where I was squinting at everything, feeling like all points of reference were far away. But I knew I would figure out ways to compensate, small tricks I’d been doing all my life to adapt to environments I couldn’t always see that well. Sometimes I even play sports still, jumping in on kickball games with colleagues and laughing with everyone else as I simultaneously try to catch a ball and cringe away from it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about how my vision alters how I do things. More importantly, I’ve learned not to worry about those moments where I feel limited. I know I can adapt enough to do the things I really want to do. And I know that places like dance floors exist, where the field is level for everyone.

Photo of me, by me, with the self-timer on a camera

Hannah Birch is a journalist based in New York City. She has also written about battling bureaucracy at the DMV as a person with low vision. You can email her about low vision, accessibility and design or not playing volleyball at hannah.birch@propublica.org. Find her on Twitter at @hannahsbirch.

Albinism InSight is a periodical from the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, a wonderful source of information and support for people with albinism and their families.