It is surprisingly common for people to assume that you can see out of an artificial eye. This is not true. An eye prosthesis does not assist with the physical problems of eye loss like perspective and field of vision. So if it doesn’t offer any physical advantage why do we invest so much in making a prosthesis?
This question arose when a young man in his early twenties asked why he was wearing an artificial eye. His argument was that he believed he was deceiving people. The deceit continued until he was comfortable enough to share with them that he wore an artificial eye. He suggested that revealing his artificial eye was like confessing to a lie. He thought that the better the eye, the greater the element of deceit. While this might sound strange to some people what he was feeling shouldn’t be dismissed.
In some societies people are more accepting of difference. In the west we have the ability to make cosmetic changes to improve how someone looks. This is done as common practice and it is rare to see someone without an artificial eye. In other parts of the world it is far more common and therefore more accepted. We explained to the young man that people wear an artificial eye so that who they are is not defined by the loss of an eye. It means that people can get to know you before you choose to tell them about your loss.
First impressions are made up of elements such as dress, hair, speech, makeup and posture. Each factor is made up of decisions and choices people make. Each crafts an image of ourselves for the purposes of communicating something about us to other people. In this context the artificial eye is another part of a type of costume that each of us put on every day to create an overall impression of who we are. Would we regard hair, make-up or clothes as dishonest?
For some, the loss of an eye can trigger a dramatic loss of confidence as well. Surgery creates a point of difference and this can alter how people respond to us. They may only see the difference rather than the full person. It is quite common to meet people who go into hiding after surgery. They do not want to attract unwanted attention. They feel embarrassed about how they look. They no longer feel confident in the world. The fitting of an artificial eye reduces the stigma associated with the loss of an eye.
For others the fitting of an artificial eye means fitting back into positive social patterns. For example parents report that once a child loses an eye they are often not spoken to by other adults. People address the parent or caregiver rather than the child. The child is spoken about in third person. This invisibility factor sends a powerful message of non-acceptance to the child. The fitting of an artificial eye means that people no longer feel rejected because of their difference.
The job of the ocularist is to create the illusion that the eye is still there. Once in place a good prosthesis doesn’t look any different from the other. This means that the event of eye loss is over for everyone else. Any sympathy or empathy extended by loved ones diminishes once the prosthesis is fitted. The recovery from trauma can take a lot longer. People often need support to get back to a level of confidence they felt prior to surgery.
An excellent prosthesis is helpful to recovery but it is not the recovery itself. The healing process is on-going. So why do we make artificial eyes? We do it to be helpful to people in their recovery. In the context of a major loss it is a small offering.