Let’s clear up some assumptions about blindness.
When people see me with my white cane or guide dog, the average bystander operates under a certain set of assumptions to interact with me. While I’m not offended by these assumptions, I do feel a responsibility as a member of the blind community to debunk a few myths about blindness.
Myth #1: We can’t see.
People are often puzzled when they see me, cane in hand, using my eyes to look at my phone at the store but then feeling around to locate my giant shopping cart. It is confusing, even to me at times.
Many don’t realize there’s a spectrum of blindness. It’s estimated that only 10 percent of those in the blind community are completely blind without any light perception. The other 90 percent have varying degrees of vision, ranging from seeing shapes and shadows to being able to read print.
Chances are slim that you’ll come across a stereotypical Ray Charles with dark sunglasses, a smooth singing voice and white cane. Considering a little over 7 million Americans have a visual disability, it’s more likely you’ll end up standing next to a person in line at the store who appears fully sighted but isn’t. If they’re among the large percentage who do not carry a cane or use a guide dog, they’re probably the one who just rolled over your toe with their cart.
Myth #2: We are nice.
In their attempt to connect with me, many people tell me about individuals they’ve met who are blind, often with a wistful sort of tone, like they’ve mingled with a pixie.
So it took me quite by surprise when a friend was telling me about this hotshot blind attorney he referred to as “a real asshole.” Considering blindness crosses every gender, age, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class, a blind asshole attorney really shouldn’t surprise me at all.
But I think sometimes I fall into the same line of thinking many do: I’m tempted to idealize anyone who’s experienced challenge, like thinking someone who’s gone through the pain of losing a close family member is automatically a brave person who’s pushed through pain to wisdom and kindness. In reality, they may have just pushed toward being a bigger jerk. The same struggle that pushes some toward greatness pushes others toward greater levels of bitterness.
Upon further discussion, my friend offered another perspective: “I don’t think blindness has anything to do with him being an asshole. He just is one.”
Myth #3: Our guide dogs know the way to Target.
Roja. Courtesy of Joy Thomas.
While I wish my guide dog, Roja, were a four-legged Siri, it just isn’t so. I still need to know how many blocks to walk to get to my destinations and which directions to turn. This is why I can often be seen with my iPhone, listening to Siri navigate while also holding my guide dog handle as I give guiding commands to Roja. It usually works really well, unless of course Roja is confused when I tell her to turn left into a fountain that Siri insists is Aliso Creek Parkway.
Myth #4: We are extraordinarily talented just for performing regular tasks.
Photo by Huntstock via Getty Images.
It always occurs in the frozen food aisle, usually while I’m grabbing an icy package of brown rice. “You are so amazing,” a voice booms next to me.
“For picking up rice?” I smile, not wanting to embarrass the person but also not wanting to be awarded an Emmy for navigating Trader Joe’s.
“It just seems like you have this store memorized,” they continue with admiration. And the truth is, I do. It’s a really small, well-organized grocery store. Honestly, your two-year-old could probably memorize it after a few trips. Maybe even your cat. To me, that’s not talent. It’s just life skills and repetition.
Myth #5: We see dead people.
“Can I ask you something?” asked the twentysomething receptionist as she scheduled my next massage appointment.
I braced myself.
“So do you have like a sixth sense?”
Ironically, it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the question. Okay, okay, so it’s usually at astrology-friendly places like spas that I hear this, but it does happen.
“Oh, you mean, do I see dead people? Well, sometimes…” I could sense the receptionist’s excitement building, so I knew the end of my sentence would come as a disappointment. “…like when there’s an open casket at a wake or funeral. Other than that, no.”
Myth #6: Wearing a blindfold is like being blind.
Sometimes curious people who are sighted tie bandanas over their eyes and attempt to walk around to see what it’s like to be blind. This is a bad idea because…
- It’s dangerous.
- It’s inaccurate.
When people do this, they are, at worst, endangering themselves and, at best, getting a misrepresentation of what most people who are blind experience on a daily basis. When someone is born blind, it’s all they’ve ever known and they’ve had years to develop skills to perform normal daily tasks differently. For people who experience sight loss later in life, it’s often gradual, so they’ve had time to adapt and get training. No matter how we arrived at blindness, we don’t start each day new to our disability and unskilled.
Myth #7: We can all be Batman.
Photo by De Agostini Picture Library / De Agostini via Getty Images.
There are some adventurous people without sight in the media these days. Some run marathons. Some climb mountains. Some are Batman. Yes, Batman (or, for the comic book fans among us, we’ll go with Daredevil). Thanks to podcasts and news stories about Daniel Kish, a man who uses tongue clicking to echolocate (like a bat), people think this is a skill someone without sight can easily develop. When stories like this air, blind people everywhere cringe as friends and family call them excitedly: “Did you hear the news? You can drop your cane and just lick your way around!” (Certain friends confuse licks and clicks. Easy mistake.)
Myth #8: We need to be cured.
As the wife of a pastor for many years, I’ve been prayed over more times than Emily Rose. Don’t get me wrong: I feel very cared for and loved when people pray for me, but sometimes it’s uncomfortable when I haven’t asked for it. It implies something is defective about me that needs to be changed, and I don’t feel that way.
Complete strangers ask me if I’ve heard of New Miracle Treatment or Best Eye Clinic Ever. Yes and yes. You don’t get to be thirtysomething with a degenerative retinal condition without having done your homework. I’m in a database for clinical trials in the US, experienced alternative treatment in Canada, and am aware of gene therapy and bionic eyes. I support the efforts of organizations working to find a medical cure for blindness, but they’re not what I live for.
I’m not trying to sugarcoat blindness; some aspects (like not driving!) really suck, but thousands upon thousands live beautiful, fulfilling lives without sight. The happiest people I know who are blind are the ones focused on diving into life. They play at parks with their children (unless Siri has directed them to a fountain, but kids like those too). They go on long walks with their spouse (mostly to scenic places their dog leads them to, like Target). They bite into savory cuisine (like frozen brown rice). They sip their favorite beverage and laugh with their friends (about pixies and asshole attorneys). They’re not on the internet for 10 hours straight searching for cures, because they don’t need to be cured to enjoy their lives.
Myth #9: The views expressed by one person who is blind represent those of all persons who are blind.