A 20/20 Perspective on Blind Culture

Picture a blind individual. What physical characteristics or lifestyle would you associate with this person? An image familiar to most is the figure sporting the signature white cane, a pair of dark spectacles, and of course, accompanied by man’s best friend, a complimentary guide dog. Or when asked to consider the lives of the visually impaired, one might envision that of only a tragic existence in the dark, pitying the blind who are forever dependent on the assistance of others to manage their daily lives, their interactions limited only to braille and verbal cues.

However, these are all outdated ideals and fallacies that highlight only the negative misconceptions bred by society about the blind community. As a widely misunderstood and unrecognized group, it has become even more important to dispel stereotypes regarding the blind to prevent such unwarranted judgement.

Contrary to popular belief, the entire blind community does not experience complete vision loss or see “total darkness” as we might expect. In fact, only 10-15% of the population see total darkness, while most retain residual vision through light, color, or form perception. For those completely without sight, braille is commonly considered to be their distinct form of written language and communication. The majority of the visually impaired community are commonly assumed to understand and be fluent in the use of braille, a system of raised dots read by the fingers, as a code for reading material for the legally blind. Legally blind is defined as having a visual acuity of 20/200, even while wearing corrective lenses. To put it in perspective, the smallest words someone legally blind could see 20 ft. away, others with “normal vision” could see over 200 ft. away. However, fewer than 10% of legally blind people in the United States can read Braille, and only 10% of blind children are taught Braille. This is due to the increasingly popular notion that the system is becoming too outdated and troublesome to teach. Instead, the use of audio texts, technical aides for print enhancement, and voice recognition software for communication have become more popular. Unfortunately, the declining use of braille leaves more of the blind population illiterate, which is linked to the decreasing probability of employment and lower levels of independence later in life. This surge in technology that has made manifest the usage of such “shortcuts” to communication has significantly contributed to plummeting literacy rates among the blind. Braille continues to be acknowledged as the unique means of communication for the community, yet its declining usage in the past decades has begun to prompt others to question the true significance of its role in blind culture.

A common conception of the blind renders the image of a character donning dark glasses, grasping a white cane, and being led by a canine companion. Yet, less than 2% of the visually impaired use a cane for mobility, and only 10,000 guide dog teams currently work in the U.S., suggesting that less than 2% of the population even utilize guide dogs. Many also believe that one gains “super hearing” after losing vision. However, hearing does not improve biologically at all. Instead, one learns to be more attentive to surrounding sounds, which appears to improve their listening as opposed to hearing. Finally, the blind do not only pine after the cure to their impairment, and they may lead as full lives as any other. Blind blogger Rachel Finlay proudly states, “My experience with 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… My life is great and blindness and learning to accept it is part of that”. And Rachel is not the only one who thinks this way, as a 2015 study conducted by Blind Veterans UKregarding attitudes to blindness revealed that 60% of those polled would not see blindness as a barrier to being able to lead a happy life.

We have developed such a warped image of the blind as society has maintained only a vague awareness of blind culture, and the visually impaired have been often viewed as a tragic case of defect or as an object of pity. In fact, the existence of a blind culture has been disputed over the past two centuries.

The natural link between members of the community through their shared internal conflicts defines blind culture. The bonds they create over their experiences and understanding of the world connects them. A primary issue many share are the economic hardships and barriers to employment in their job search. According to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute, only 28% of working age Americans with visual disabilities had full-time jobs in 2015. In addition, the National Industries for the Blind, a non-profit employment agency, surveyed hundreds of hiring managers across the U.S, and found that as much as 54% of them believed that there were few jobs available at their company that blind employees could perform. Overall, in the U.S., by 2016, the unemployment rate for the blind was an appallingly high 62.3%. These current statistics represent the stigma against the blind in employment. Society evidently has made clear distinctions that identify and isolate them as incapable and unwanted in the workforce, severely limiting their job prospects. However, among those defying this stigma against the blind is Gary Donahue, the Washington Correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), who lived with total blindness since he was a child. He attended specialized boarding schools, eventually heading to Oxford University where he studied philosophy and languages. Donahue then landed a job as a reporter at BBC, where he made a name for himself as a journalist despite the obstacles he faced compared to his coworkers. Currently, Donahue is an outspoken activist who addresses the under-representation of disabled workers in the media and encourages them to pursue such “unthinkable” careers. Donahue advises, “It's about finding the strategies to overcome barriers when they present themselves and live an independent life that takes on the world. It's about doing those challenging, high-profile jobs that people who can see traditionally have thought might not be for us”.

How are the visually impaired educated to eventually freely navigate the world? Contrary to popular assumptions of their low levels of independence, many of them independently go about their lives by adulthood. Many will attend either a specialized blind school or integrate into public schools with the assistance of specialized instructors, to eventually attain such a level of self-sufficiency.

The Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children (WPSBC), located in the heart of Oakland, Pittsburgh, is an example of a chartered specialized school that focuses on specialized instruction and therapy for blind and deaf children up to ages twenty-one, with an end goal of smoothly integrating them into society. When I visited the facility, I noted that majority of the students currently enrolled required the use of wheelchairs. In addition, most had further mental disabilities including cerebral palsy- affecting the muscle and posture, and mental retardation, that left them both wheelchair bound and lacking communication ability. In order to help students reach their highest potential, WPSBC provides a team of classroom staff including physical and occupational therapists, certified visually impaired instructors, mobility instructors, speech and language pathologists, nurses, and behavior support specialists that work together to provide for the students’ interests and needs. This holistic method of education has been observed to be more effective than a clinical approach towards dealing with a child’s needs individually. The combination of trained teachers and special equipment offered by specialized schools creates a comfortable and optimal setting for their learning.

The blind community is still considered a minority group linked to many unfavorable yet ungrounded beliefs, but we can learn to communicate with them and treat them as equal counterparts, if we begin to understand them. Due to these preconceived notions, they begin life at a disadvantage regarding employment and advancement opportunities, and the stigma only adds to that. Even if they may be equivalent or greater in ability and education to their peers, they will still be viewed as less able. As eloquently stated by arguably one of the most famous members of the community, Helen Keller, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt with the heart”. Their visual impairment does not make them less able than any other to experience, fulfill, and appreciate the most important things in life. Let us not turn a blind eye to this ignored but complex culture.