Every morning I wake up and put in my artificial eye.
I think of it as my armor. In part, that’s because it’s a physical defense, protecting what’s left of my very fragile nonseeing eyeball from irritation which can cause debilitating ocular migraines. Without my shell, I wouldn’t be able to work, walk my dog, or have a social life. But my prosthetic also protects me emotionally. With it, I have the power to choose how the world sees me.
The artificial eye is technically called a scleral shell. I have two: One is clear, and the other is painted to match my sighted left eye.
When I don’t want to distract or confuse people, when I want them to look me straight in the eye, I wear the painted shell. When I want people to see me as I actually am, I show off my storm-cloud eye. When I want people to believe I’m blind, I let the world see it, too.
The term “prosthetics” usually conjures up images of artificial limbs. But the disabled community in the United States is as large as it is diverse, requiring a broad range of prosthetics to help with mobility and comfort. Nearly 9 million of the 56 million disabled people use a wheelchair, cane, or walker; another 2 million wear prosthetic limbs; and 1.3 million Americans are visually impaired, and some of them wear ocular prosthetics.
Nearly all prosthetics require creating custom molds to fit a body part. Those with lost limbs, those in need of hearing aids, and those in need of prosthetic eyes all go through a rigorous fitting process.
My scleral shell takes nearly a week to make. To get mine, I fly to Seattle — my childhood home — and home of Erickson Laboratories, where Amy Wellner is one of 163 licensed ocularists in the United States. It takes her four days, six hours a day to make my eye.
Sculpting a prosthetic requires equal doses of art and science, but most importantly, empathy. Wellner wears a scleral shell herself so she understands how important it is for me to feel comfortable in my shell and that people often don’t believe you’re blind when you wear a shell that matches a sighted eye. Wellner also knows what it’s like to laugh so hard your eye pops out.
A prosthetic shell must be molded to the cavity it sits in, so the first step is to take a mold of my eye socket, and from that mold make a clear acrylic plastic shell. Wellner then shapes the shell so that when I glare over my glasses (like I do when my dog tries to drink my tea), both eyes glance over the top of my frames.
Once the shell fits properly, Wellner gazes into my sighted eye and replicates the colors she sees onto the tiny plastic shell while it sits on my blind eye. She locates the pupil, then spends the first day matching colors while giving my scleral shell its own personality. It takes a steady hand with a paintbrush, an artist’s touch.
Human eye sockets change with age. Mine changes because the eye sitting underneath the shell is shrinking, too. Every five to seven years, I have to get a new eye.
The first shell Wellner made for me was more gray. This new one has hints of the aqua color of my cataract drawn into it, an echo of what lies underneath.
When the paint is dry and the shell is finished, I look in the mirror with two matching eyes. It’s startling. This is not the gaze I’m used to. But it’s still mine.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a speculative fiction writer and disability activist living in New Jersey. She tweets @snarkbat.