Whenever someone gets a new pair of glasses what’s the first thing everyone does? They ask how strong they are. Then usually someone asks to try them on, giving their own verdict on what the world looks through someone else’s eyes. We never expect everyone to see the same. We understand that every pair of glasses is different and that the person wearing them is unique.
So why does everyone expect a visually impaired person using a white cane or a guide dog to be totally blind?
As I talked about in my first post, embracing my long white cane was quite an emotional process. I am now using it happily, safely and confidently.
However, people do treat me differently because I use a cane. I have to deal with the negative attitudes or incorrect ideas that many people have around blindness.
Last week my good friend and fellow disability activist Chloe experienced some of these misplaced attitudes.
94% of registered blind people have some useful vision. Sight impaired cane users like Chloe & myself rely on our canes to enhance our independence & safety. Visual impairment is a spectrum, share & repeat this message so we don’t experience discrimination. https://t.co/HRJUChFGNA
— Dr Amy Kavanagh (@BlondeHistorian) October 6, 2018
Chloe started using her white cane around the same time that I did. She’s been a fantastic support throughout the process. Chloe has her own amazing blog which I thoroughly recommend.
Like me, and many other white cane users, Chloe has some useful residual vision and can read print if it’s zoomed up to the max! Check out Justin’s post on phone accessibility to learn more.
93% of visually impaired people have some useful vision! Useful vision can range from light perception or the ability to detect movement, to vision with blurred spots or dark patches. Someone might be able to see nothing in the centre of their vision but have excellent detailed vision around the edges. Often conditions like lighting or tiredness can significantly affect the quality of vision. If I look into strong sunlight I can see almost nothing except blurred light and shadows.
It’s really important to understand that we all see the world differently.
Just like Chloe when I use my phone to answer a text, pick a podcast or tweet, I regularly get stared at, tutted at or even have comments made about me. I’m often accused of “not looking blind”, whatever that means. Just look at the responses to Chloe’s tweet to get a sense of some of these experiences.
I’ve had visually impaired friends tell me about members of the public “testing” their sight loss by purposely blocking paths or moving obstacles in their way. I’ve even had people take photographs of me in public to try to get evidence of me “faking”. Regrettably, I’m not alone in this experience.
Only yesterday a man shouted at me that I was about to walk into some stairs. When I replied I knew about the steps, he instantly confronted me, demanding how I knew there were steps if I was really blind. I pointed out the tactile paving at the bottom of the stairs and he backed down.
It feels like someone is constantly trying to catch me out for cheating at a game I’m not playing.
It’s easy to say that these are just “ignorant” views or unkind people, but these daily micro aggressions can really wear down you confidence. When someone excuses these actions, citing a lack of education or awareness as a reason, it only reinforces the attitude that it is my responsibility to educate everyone. That I have to be patient in the face of prejudice.
Imagine how it feels to be challenged for just existing. Being constantly held accountable to an incorrect standard.
Placing the burden of responsibility on disabled people to educate fails to take into account the impact or risk of these incidents. These unpleasant confrontations can discourage people from using public transport or accessing their community. Also, there is the potential for the situation to progress to something aggressive.
Disability hate crime rose by 51% in the UK last year. Although these figures do indicate that more disabled people feel empowered to report incidents, it also demonstrates the presence of harmful attitudes towards disabled people.
Unfortunately, the concerns about being challenged means that disabled people often adapt their behaviour.
I’ve spoken to many visually impaired people who feel pressured to perform “blindness”. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I’ve acted as if I can see less than I can because I’m anxious about being confronted in public.
This is a behaviour I’m trying to avoid as it only reinforces the misinformed stereotypes and is deeply insulting to the visually impaired community who have total sight loss.
It is this final point that is the most infuriating. Yes it is important to understand that some visually impaired people can read a newspaper headline and also use a white cane or guide dog.
However, it is essential to understand that total sight loss does not automatically make someone useless and vulnerable. Totally blind people have jobs, they use public transport, they play sports, they have one too many pints sometimes, they have relationships, they volunteer, socialise, shop, they have children, and yes, they can still send a text message.
Visually impaired people should be able to navigate the world without being accused of faking their disability just because they are living a full and rewarding life.
So next time someone tuts at me when I use my phone, I will try to remember that their world is defined by a much narrower view than mine. Help me widen their perspective by sharing this post.