By Jule Ann Lieberman CLVT/CATIS ATP
In the last issue of The PCB Advocate, I described for the benefit of those who have never experienced sight, what it may mean to experience low vision or vision loss. This article will attempt to provide some ideas to share when your sighted friends, family members, and the curious public ask about your blindness or vision impairment.
In a recent episode of one of my favorite shows, NCIS, a central character of the plot was blind. The NCIS agent was interviewing her as she was nearby when a suspected murder attempt was occurring. To set the scene here for those who did not watch this episode, the blind woman was camping with her sighted brother along the shores of a lake. A car at high speed left the road nearby and splashed into the lake. She tried to jump in the lake to rescue whoever was in the vehicle but was stopped by her brother.
Now flash forward to the NCIS agent who approached the witnesses. When he spoke to the woman he said, “What did you see?” She replied that she had seen nothing because she is blind. The agent then stammered and said, “Oh, I am sorry.”. The woman then said, “No need to be sorry. I am OK with being blind”. He then asked her if she had really tried to jump into the lake to rescue the car’s occupants despite her blindness. She responded, “I can swim and thought I could help.” The audio description let me know that the agent seemed amazed.
Forward again to the headquarters where fellow agents were discussing the case. Another agent questioned if there were any witnesses. The original agent said, “Yes, but she is blind”. A third agent then spoke up and encouraged that it may be worth his time to interview her again.
The scene moves to her apartment where she is working on hanging a Braille-print map of the US on the wall. The agent also sees a framed law degree hanging in the apartment. As she places the map on the wall she puts a marble on the top of the frame to determine that it’s level. He comments that she did a better job hanging it straight than he could have done. These two images told the viewers that indeed, a blind woman can live independently, decorate as she would like and possess a law degree. When she was asked what type of work she did she described that she worked on legislation for a Representative of the US Congress.
The story progresses to the point where the agent and the woman return to the scene of the crime. As they walk, she is using a white cane. When the path narrows and becomes a little difficult, she asks if he could guide her. He first reaches to grab her arm and pull, but she says,” It is easier if I hold onto you.” He changes position into correct human guide technique. Soon he asks her the inevitable question that all of us have been asked at some point, “Do you see anything?” She replies with a simple explanation that when contrast is best, she can see some large shapes and some colors due to Rod Cone Dystrophy (also my diagnosis).
If she had never seen before, her answer would have been quite different. As I described in my last article, vision is light reflecting off an object. Without light there is no sight. So, if she indeed had no light perception, she could have said, “I do not see light or dark, there is no sight at all.” If a further explanation was necessary, she could have described a room without windows or lights. Likewise, if she had light perception, she could have said, “I can see light. I know when the lights are on or off. I can’t see enough to identify objects, but usually there is enough to help me find my way.”
The typical sighted person may think that they cannot imagine what it is like to have no vision or low vision since they rely on this sense for much of their life experiences. We who are blind or have low vision understand that we experience daily life through different sense channels. In the NCIS scene, the agent asks the woman if she has better hearing or sense of smell since she is blind. She states that her hearing or sense of smell is no better because of her blindness, but she pays attention more to these alternative senses much more than he probably does. Of course, she helps solve the crime by demonstrating that the sounds of the cars passing nearby created a thumping sound as they crossed the metal grate. At the time of the alleged car chase, she only heard one car go over the grate.
When the typical sighted person curiously asks you, “So, what do you see?” try to be descriptive in your response. If you see no light or dark, tell them so. If you see more than that or different levels during various times of day or conditions, you can describe that in terms of what objects you see and when. While this may not solve the overall curiosity about being blind or vision impaired, it may help you explain your needs better when you are seeking assistance.
Sometimes I think the questions come from lack of exposure to a blind person or someone with low vision who is living and enjoying life. Some typical sighted people fear that losing their sight means losing life and enjoyment. I try to keep this in mind when I am asked to explain my vision or lack thereof. When a question comes at an inappropriate time, I politely say that I do not have enough time right now to explain or I simply say this is a conversation for another time. As I am out in the public working, riding trains, buses and airplanes I encounter the curious public on a regular basis. I will admit sometimes it gets tiring to have to explain my vision status. Because I have good face-to-face conversation skills and I wear tinted spectacles I may seem to have no visible signs of blindness other than my dog guide or white cane. Often, I get the comment, “You don’t look blind.” Out of frustration one day, I just asked the question, “What does this ‘looking blind’ mean to you?” The response I was given is that I look too confident to be blind. To me this means that some sighted people have an expectation of blind people looking fearful and helpless. My follow up was similar to the blind character on NCIS, “I am OK being blind.” When asked why my glasses don’t correct my sight, I typically say that my glasses keep me safe from injury, and the tint helps with both glare and contrast for me to make the most of what little vision I have. I do find it interesting though, that when a person loses a limb or sense of touch people seem less curious as to what this person experiences. Perhaps it doesn’t occur as frequently, but I am certain all disabilities are asked questions similar to those asked of the blind and vision impaired in regard to how they function in the world.
I used this example of the blind character in NCIS for two reasons. First, it was an attempt by the media to correct some misconceptions of the life and abilities of people who are blind or vision impaired. Second, to provide an example of what responses a blind person may give to the curious questions they may encounter. I have no doubt that countless examples can be given by fellow PCB members and hope this helps you feel more comfortable when dealing with the curious sighted public.