White Cane Awareness Day on October 15th spotlights the challenges of those who are blind and visually impaired, which are many – from making sure clothing matches to crossing the street safely. One challenge not often addressed is how sighted people interact with blind individuals, like me.
Sighted people who have little or no contact with the blind often are uncomfortable interacting with them. They worry about saying or doing something wrong, and unfortunately, sometimes they do say or do something wrong.
The first fact to realize is that blind individuals are just like everyone else. They have hopes, dreams, abilities, skills and intelligence. A blind person simply wants to be treated as others are treated. They intuitively perceive the discomfort of sighted people, manifested in multiple ways, including these top three offenses:
- Ignoring the blind person. Some people are so uncomfortable around individuals with no sight that they just pretend they’re not there. A blind person knows when they’re being ignored and they feel the slight.
- Talking around them. Instead of speaking to the blind individual directly, some sighted people talk to their companion as if he or she was an interpreter. As an example, when I go to a restaurant with my wife, the server invariably asks my wife for my order, rather than ask me, which is borderline insulting. Speak directly to a person who is blind, not through another person.
- Speaking loudly and slowly. Also annoying is when a sighted person seeks to make conversation with a blind individual, but speaks loudly or slowly to them as if they can’t hear or understand. Blind people can hear and are not developmentally disabled. The best way to interact with them is to speak in a normal, conversational tone.
There are many misconceptions about those who are blind, and while not as grievous as the top three, they include:
- Blind people have superior hearing or other senses. They don’t. They use their other senses differently to interpret the world around them, like to determine the way cars are travelling by listening or reading Braille by touching, but their senses are not superior to a sighted person. Because blind people rely more on other senses, their hearing, touch, smell, and taste may improve over time. But this is by no means the norm.
- They can identify you by your voice. Not necessarily. If the blind individual knows you, he or she likely can identify your voice. But if he or she has only met you a couple times, probably not. The best option? Introduce yourself before starting to speak.
- They can’t work. Not so. Many blind people do work and want to work. The 70 percent unemployment rate of blind and visually impaired persons many times is a result of an employer’s unwillingness to give blind candidates a fair chance. Blind people can succeed with the right technology and accommodations in almost any career. Those who are blind particularly appreciate the independence, productivity and socialization that come with a job.
- Blind people can’t live independently. They can. To live independently, blind individuals tap into specialized training by professionals like Certified Vision Rehabilitation Instructors along with adaptive daily living aids and devices. In addition to ever-evolving technology like screen reader software, a plethora of innovative vision aid products are on the market, including reading pens, smart canes, digital magnifying glasses, liquid level indicators, and more. Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists teach independent travel skills to help people with no sight navigate their environment.
While we’ve addressed all the things blind people can do, there are some they things they can’t do. For one, they can’t drive. Paratransit, buses, Uber, friends and family cover their transportation needs. They also can’t navigate new environments alone without helpful tools. Guide dogs are great, but taking care of an animal isn’t for everyone. The essential tool for navigation is the white cane, enabling blind people to move freely and safely from place to place. The white cane effectively extends their hands and arms, so they may assess the situation, and move quickly, confidently and independently. Like the white cane, the Lighthouse of Broward also inspires confidence and independence by offering free training and rehabilitation to blind and visually impaired persons of all ages in Broward County.
The bottom line is this: despite their disability, blind people simply want to be treated with the same respect and dignity as their fully-sighted peers.
Jose Lopez Masso, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Development at Lighthouse of Broward, went blind at age 31 due to complications of multiple surgeries after being diagnosed with glaucoma.