I baffled the DMV with a form for my low-vision condition. And then all this happened.
“I don’t know what this is,” she said, sliding the form back to me. “I’m not a doctor.”
Thank you, I thought. I realize that. You work at the DMV.
The form was what’s called an 80L, which is what people with low vision need to submit in order to get a driver’s license in New York. You take the form to your eye doctor, who evaluates whether you’re safe to drive. If the answer is “yes,” the doctor fills out the form, you mail it to the Medical Review Unit in Albany, and then you go get your license.
I have an eye condition called oculocutaneous albinism, which affected how my eyes developed. My retinas — they’re at the back of your eye, helping you, among other things, see detail—were late to the party. Think of having underdeveloped retinas like using a shitty camera phone from the early aughts: You can see general shapes pretty well, but there just aren’t enough pixels to see small details, like text that’s far away.
(Albinism includes other issues, like nystagmus, foveal hypoplasia and photophobia, that also affect acuity, depth perception and light sensitivity. Basically, I trip and squint a lot. My mom tells me it’s cute. And I’m guaranteed to fail that eye test at the DMV every time.)
Doctors in three states now have concluded it’s safe for me to drive more or less unrestricted. They fill out the paperwork I need and then I steel myself to make it through a situation that feels designed to make me fail: walking DMV employees through an edge case.
That’s where the woman refusing my form at the DMV comes in, and where I can offer some advice about getting what you need from terrible systems. And if you happen to have low vision and want to get a driver’s license in New York, this post is definitely for you.
Know as much as you can in advance
Understand as much of the process from start to finish as you can so you’re able to tell if someone’s bluffing or, more likely, uninformed. Sometimes that’s not possible. Each state handles low-vision drivers differently, for example. So every time I get a license in a new state, I have to learn a new system. That’s the next step.
Figure out as much as you can quickly
If the system is new to you, observation of what’s right in front of you might not be that helpful. For me, a phone call did the trick. When the DMV employee told me my form was for the Medical Review Unit, not the DMV, I asked her to call that unit for clarification on what to do. She refused. So I called them myself.
Luckily I was connected with someone who explained to me how the process is supposed to work. Anyone who’s an expert in the system you’re battling is an obvious power-up in these situations. Look for them wherever you can.
This is important. While my Medical Review Unit guy was talking to me on the phone, I was taking notes. I latched onto keywords he let slip — the names of computer systems the DMV would use to look up my records, the date they received my paperwork, the letter codes of the restrictions they would place on my license.
After I got off the phone, I used these keywords in conversations with DMV workers who told me they didn’t know what I was talking about. I deliberately slipped in terms they were familiar with as if I were familiar with them, too. And it worked. They stopped arguing and did as I asked. Take away the ambiguity and people lose their ability to hedge with an “I don’t know.”
Speak directly and stand your ground
At one point, the DMV employee I was talking to called over her supervisor. “Why are you refusing to take the eye test?” the supervisor asked me, hands on her hips, like I was being argumentative. (Having an 80L precluded me from taking the test at the DMV. I knew this; they didn’t seem to.) “Because I have a low-vision condition and someone with a medical degree is better qualified to evaluate my case than you are,” I replied, without sass but also without smiling or apologizing.
Don’t get pushed around. As much as you can, know what you are and aren’t obligated to do in a given situation. Don’t get talked into unnecessary hassles.
Know when to lay off and smile
Don’t be a jerk. If you’ve had to bareknuckle a conversation back on track, ease up as soon as you can. No one likes being told they’re stupid, even (or especially?) when they’re acting stupid. Congratulate yourself for getting your way and move on.
Follow up with the people who helped you
After some tactful maneuvering, I was eventually able to walk out the door with a driver’s license in hand. Then I immediately called the guy in the Albany office and gave him my heartfelt thanks for his help. He responded with warmth and good grace.
That became the conversation I remembered at the end of it all. I added to my collection of “wait ‘til you hear what happened to me at the DMV” stories. And I’d affirmed yet again how, for all the times dumb systems thwart smart people, sometimes smart people can win.
P.S. If you or someone you know has low vision and wants to know more about getting a driver’s license in New York, let me know. (Twitter is a good way to get in touch.) I’m more than happy to tell you what I know.