In my 29 years on the planet, it took me 23 of them to properly admit something to myself: I’m blind. It shouldn’t be a surprise but just like for sighted people, I didn’t grow up with a realistic idea of what being blind meant.
If you’re thinking, “how can she possibly not know she’s blind? You either can see or you can’t.", join me for my first point.
Not all blind people … are completely blind
It seems strange but it’s true. According to VisionAware, ‘of people who are legally blind in the US, only 15% have no light perception’. Being blind is one end of the sighted spectrum which ranges from those who have no usable vision and likely use a mobility cane or guide dog, to someone like me who makes use of what vision they have with additional aids to make things easier, to someone with 20/20 vision.
In terms of being blind, I can be invisible. I can walk down the street and no one would know that I’m blind. Blind or low vision individuals don’t always want to, or know how to, access resources or adaptive devices, so not using a cane or guide dog to get around is not uncommon. There could be blind people around you and you wouldn’t even know it! What does a blind person look like anyway?
Not all blind people … have other disabilities
My eyes don’t work properly but the rest of my body does, including my brain. You’d be surprised by the number of people who have talked to the person I’m with, or talked to me like a child and looked astounded when I reveal myself to be an educated woman. There seems to be common misunderstanding that if you have one type of disability, you have many types of disabilities. It’s true that there are people with a variety of or multiple disabilities, health conditions or mental health issues, but that's not always the case. And my blindness only affected my education because of a lack of accessibility or teachers’ confusion over how best to accommodate me. Disability and IQ aren’t intrinsically linked.
Not all blind people … have superpowers of hearing, smell, or anything else
I can hear where something has dropped on the floor with a great deal of accuracy. I can find my way around familiar places in the dark or with my eyes closed. I can find things in my bag by touch alone. But these aren’t super powers; they’re a set of skills I have developed to cope and compensate for a lack of sight. Fully sighted people don’t rely on these skills, you don’t need them. They aren’t magical, they're just different.
On a much deeper level, this feels connected to a belief system surrounding people with disabilities that is worrying. I have albinism which is one of those conditions that people fear, mythologize, or both. In Tanzania and other nearby African nations, people with albinism are maimed, killed or have their bodies exhumed to be used in preparations or rituals to bring good luck. Under the Same Sun is an organization working to combat this, but many with albinism still live in fear and are often forced to stay hidden in order to survive. Changing stereotypes through discussion and education about disabilities continues to be an important way to break down these stigmas and social barriers.
Not all blind people … ignore their appearance
Blind people care about their appearance. Not everyone, but it’s not true that because we can’t see ourselves very well (or at all) that we don’t want to take pride in our appearance. Sure, you’ll have to tell me if I have dog hair on my coat or lipstick on my teeth, but don’t be surprised if I’ve got makeup on or my outfit is well put together.
Everyone will do what makes them happy, and for some people that means focusing on different things other than how they look, but don’t assume that just because I’m blind I don’t care. I’m willing to accidentally poke myself in the eye with a mascara wand just as much as the next woman!
Not all blind people … want to be “cured”
I don’t want to be cured. And I’m not saying that to lie to myself. There was a time when I would have given anything to be ‘normal’. I used to pray for my disability to be taken away. Which is how I can say with confidence now that I don’t want to be cured. If someone said I could wake up with full eyesight tomorrow I would more than likely say ‘no’.
My experience of disability has shaped who I am as a person. It’s made me resilient and resourceful. It’s made me curious about the world, determined to succeed and develop a willingness to try to understand others because I know what it’s like to be misunderstood and misjudged. So don’t offer to pray for me, or tell me what your friend tried that worked, and don’t for the love of all the cat-eye glasses, tell me that you feel sorry for me.
My life is great and blindness and learning to accept is part of that. Other people would take a cure for their blindness and I support that wholeheartedly. For me, I’ve worked hard to accept my blindness in a world of misconceptions, and I'm now a proud blind woman who's working to change those misconceptions for myself and others.
If you're interested in more thoughts on a few myths about people who are blind you should check out the wonderful Molly Burke and her Youtube video on this topic.
Guest blogger Rachel Finlay is the Access Manager for the Rick Hansen Foundation's BC pilot of our Accessibility Certification Program.. She's a bookworm who likes knitting, tea and politics.