Like many of my friends and colleagues, I often spend time with sighted individuals who hold some misconceptions or myths about blindness and blind people. I’m always happy to answer questions, and it’s not surprising that I often receive the same ones. This is because, despite the fact that there are nearly 30 million individuals in the United States alone who are classified as severely visually impaired, most people haven’t had the opportunity to interact with someone who is unable to see.
I always look forward to joining new groups and meeting new people because I know it will always be interesting to see how they respond. I love that my close family and friends just think of me as Sylvia… and hope that the world will eventually see those of us who are blind as just the individual people we are rather than having a prime focus on our blindness. I own my blindness, as it is a big part of me, but it is just a part of me, just like the color of my hair. In fact, it is very much like the color of my hair, changing all of the time… less and less sight everyday.
Table of Contents
Before I start, a little lesson about the spectrum of visual impairment. When people hear the word blind, they think totally dark, nothing, black. Well, this is the case for very few of us who consider ourselves blind. There is a spectrum for those who cannot see well and whom glasses cannot help. I am not providing legal definitions here, as you can always go and look those up to learn more, but here is the gist.
Low vision describes anyone who has great difficulty seeing but still has functional vision. This is a large group. People with low vision may or may not use or even need to use a white cane or guide dog, assistive technology, or other adaptive strategies, but many do.
Legally blind is a term that confuses a lot of people, because of the word “blind”. It refers to a person with 20/200 vision or a significantly reduced field of vision. Let me describe that in terms we can all understand. A person with 20/200 vision must stand 20 feet away from the same thing a person with 20/20 vision can to be able to see it.
Reduced peripheral field is also a component of vision. Most people have at least a 120 degree field. If you stand and look straight ahead and hold your hands out to your sides and have a normal visual field, likely you can see your hands. A person who is declared legally blind could actually have a 20/20 visual acuity (what they can see), but if they have a less than 40 degree field they are legally blind. You have likely heard the term tunnel vision, this is what that is.
I have always been legally blind, and I did not use a white cane, guide dog, or any assistive technology until I was almost 30 years old. But, I have a condition with progressive visual acuity and peripheral field loss. No functional vision may have some light perception, but this vision does not really provide any other function. That’s me about now. That light perception does help with some navigation, but it is unpredictable and certainly not reliable, so not something I count on.
So, do not be surprised if you meet someone who is “blind” who you did not realize was blind, or who uses their phone visually (likely with a screen magnification program), picks up something from the ground, avoids you when walking, and even makes eye contact. Just remember, do not make assumptions.
My top 10 favorite myths about blindness:
10. Blind people experience a heightening of their other senses.
FALSE. We all wish this were true. Research shows that most of the information people take in is visual; however, if your visual pathways are not working or super-misleading then you need to find other ways to get information. Therefore, you do start focusing on your other senses, and can train yourself to use these other senses more effectively. Anyone can do this, and should.
Gretchen Ruben recently wrote a book called “Life In Five Senses” that talks about this very topic, and it is an excellent read and exploration of heightening our senses. I challenge all of you to take a sensory journey. For example, how many times have you known you were near a certain bakery because you smelled the sweet aromas? Or, realized a cake was baked fully just before the timer went off because you smelled it? Or, knew it was going to rain because you felt a change in the wind? Go ahead, try it.
9. Blind people can hear better.
I know, hearing is a sense too, but this one deserves it’s own point, as it is by far the one I hear the most. Absolutely not.
People who are blind cannot all of a sudden not hear better. In fact, a substantial percentage of people with visual impairments are older people, who also experience hearing impairment along with their vision impairment. Yes, this makes it much more difficult. What does happen is that you train yourself to listen more carefully. Before you get too excited, this does not mean people who are blind are better listeners. I am still working on that one. 😊
But, those who work on listening for information around them can get a lot of information about where people are, attitudes through tone of voice, if someone is looking away or down when speaking to you, vehicles coming down the road you are about to cross, etc. But, this takes a lot of practice, and the more one is out there living life and using these skills and “listening” the better they get at it, unless of course they experience hearing loss.
Everyone has the opportunity to develop this skill. Think about when you are in a crowded room and hear a voice you know from across the room and immediately recognize it in all of the other noise, this is essentially what I am talking about… listening for information. Meanwhile, be careful, because I can hear eyes roll 😊.
8. Blind people can’t use a computer or phone.
Yes, much of the information in the world is visual, especially print information. But, fortunately some great assistive technology in the form of screen magnification and screen readers is now available and incredibly helpful, at least it is when companies make sure to make their sites, signs, images, etc. accessible. I can use technology to do work, read, and many life tasks.
7. People assume I will know their voice after speaking to them once.
This is amazing to me, but yes, it happens all of the time. I can only recognize the voices of those I interact with on a regular basis. I don’t have this magical memory box of voices in my mind that says “Oh, that is so and so.”
So, when you come up to me please just say, “Hey, it’s “ so I actually know who I am talking to. Otherwise, you never know what I might do, you might get a big hug you were not expecting because I think you are someone you are not!
6. People assume I know every other blind person in the world.
NOT. I literally had someone come up to me in an airport and say, “I know this guy named Tom in Germany who is blind, do you know him?” Really?
Now, the reality is that I do know a lot of people who are blind, since I have worked in the blindness field for about 25 years, but by no means do I know everyone. And, honestly if someone asked me with the assumption that I know someone I am probably going to say no (even if I happen to) just because I do not want to perpetuate that myth. More often than not, the person you meet who is blind probably knows no one or very few other people who are blind. That is much more common.
5. Blind people are not safe.
Yes, all of a sudden if you cannot see you are dangerous and a hazard. You might fall into a pool or fountain and drown, walk out into traffic, fall off a cliff, cut off your hand when cooking, burn yourself when around a stove or a fire. I know, that is ridiculous, but there are those who think this way about blindness.
Well, research shows that people who are blind actually have fewer accidents than those who are not. We tend to be more careful as we are more aware of the potential hazards. We also usually have skills that enable us to cross streets safely, cook, cut, use tools, work, and if we knew how to swim before blindness or learned while blind then we are no more likely to drown than anyone else.
So, stop worrying about us and get out of the way and let us do what we need to do. And, if we spill something or fall, it is likely not due to blindness, it is more likely we were just being clumsy like anyone else might be… or maybe had a little too much to drink 😊.
4. It’s assumed that blind people don’t work.
Or they can only work with other blind people.
People who are blind are doing all kinds of jobs in all industries. No, I do not know any airline pilots or truck drivers, but I do know people who were pilots and truck drivers before vision loss. Obviously they could not do these jobs anymore, but people who are blind can do almost any job with the right education, skills and technology.
I do happen to work in the blindness field, which has been a marvelous experience. I have had a very rewarding career helping others who are blind or losing their sight learn to live life fully. But, most people who are blind do not work in the blindness field, and I think we could use a lot more good role models who are blind actually working in the blindness field.
And, of course, the unemployment rate for people who are blind is much higher than for those who are not blind. It can be difficult to find employers who believe in the capabilities of people who are blind and who are willing to make the adaptations or provide the technology that would make them equal employees.
So, I encourage you, if you are in a hiring position, recruit some people who are blind… and ask them how they will do the job… you will find you have some of the best problem solvers in the world.
3. It’s assumed that losing sight means you lose all abilities or can’t enjoy the same activities.
People who are blind live full lives, work, and play. We know how to cook, keep our homes clean, use transportation to get places we need to go, shop (online or using customer service assistance in the brick-and-mortar shop), use computers and machinery, put stuff together, and all of the other things people do every single day.
We might just do some of the things a bit differently-using adaptive strategies or technologies. We read (large print, Braille, or audio books), watch movies (yes, watch or see is the right word), spend time with friends, volunteer in our communities, play games, including video games, exercise, travel, and so on. Some do more of these activities than others and are better at some than others…. Wait… that sounds like the sighted among us too… precisely.
2. When people meet my sighted husband, they assume that he takes care of me.
They always say to me, “Oh, you are so fortunate to have someone to take care of you.” And, they tell him how great he is to take care of me. I can tell you, and he will be the first to admit, he is the lucky one here. I am super capable and although there are things I do rely on him for, he relies on me for far more. I could not see well when we married 30 years ago, but I could see a lot better.
We had no idea that I would eventually lose so much of my sight, and it has been an adjustment for us all, but as with everything in life, every challenge, we adapt and work with our strengths to make it all work. I know many couples who have a blind partner, and none would say their blind partner is a burden on them.
In all honesty, my husband has said his life has been enriched because he has had the opportunity to learn a lot and to meet a whole group of wonderful, even amazing, people he would have never met without me. And, of course, he gets every day with my sense of humor 😊.
1. You are so amazing and inspiring.
People who are blind do not want to be considered amazing because we can do ordinary things, like dress ourselves, cook, dance, get from one destination to another independently, etc. We, like anyone else, want to be considered amazing because of who we are. I will say though that I am happy to be told I am amazing and inspiring.
I think anyone who has a life challenge like blindness and gets out there and fully lives life in a world that that does not make it easy is courageous… and that includes me. Being blind is not easy, but it is doable, and millions are doing it in inspiring ways, and I want to be one of those. If I can impact or inspire someone to do better or live more fully, then call me inspiring all day long. That will be amazing.
I hope these myth-busters have given you more perspective on blindness and the challenges and triumphs people who are blind live every day. Take time to learn more, and always know that although blindness is a challenge, it is one that many of us are living well with and believe anyone can.
The next time you “think” something about blindness or people who are blind and what they can or cannot do, think about it before you ask… because you too might just realize it is a myth … and that you are be offensive or ridiculous. At least realize we are laughing at you for thinking we have magical powers one minute but could drown in a fountain the next. 😊
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Connecting With Sylvia:
Sylvia Stinson-Perez is an experienced and well-recognized and regarded professional in the blindness field. She has served as the Executive Director/CEO of a non-profit agency, as the project director for major federal grants at a university, and as senior leader at a national blindness organization.Sylvia has also been actively involved in local, state, and national boards and advocacy groups. As a person with lived experience, she has dedicated her career to making a positive impact in the lives of others who are blind and low vision. When not engaged in work or volunteer activities, Sylvia enjoys travelling, crocheting, reading, and cooking.
- Blurred silhouette of a hand reaching out.
- Cloud of words related to myth and reality, fiction and facts.
- Latino blilnd man holding his white cane in his right hand and using digital assistant on his cell phone in his left hand.
- Sylvia is wearing a blue dress with a lighthouse behind her as the sun goes down.