If you’re a sighted person, you likely have misconceptions about blind people. That you can close your eyes and suddenly understand what it’s like to be blind. That a blind person you see about to cross the street needs your help doing so. That a blind person knows nothing but darkness.
Spoiler alert: None of the above are true for all people with blindness.
“Rather than making assumptions, engage with blind people like you would anybody else,” says Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. “Show curiosity about them. And if you want to know if there’s something they need, ask them and don’t assume.”
More than 3.4 million Americans 40 years and older are blind or visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 21 million people have other vision problems and 80 million have diseases that could blind them, such as cataracts and glaucoma.
Here’s a look at what members of the blind community wish you knew.
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Occupation: President of the National Federation of the Blind
Is saying ‘blind people’ OK? Or is ‘visually impaired’ better? “A lot of blind people say, ‘Well, I’m not impaired; I don’t see myself as impaired’ even though the term visually impaired may be in a technical sense, correct. Part of using the word blind is really owning what blind means, and that blind doesn’t have to have the negative connotations that it does in society. Obviously, some people who do have some remaining vision, prefer to use other terms to help express that. But what I’ve found is that a lot of blind people – most – have some remaining vision, even if it’s just light perception. By using the word blind, it’s their way of owning that. The amount of vision they do or don’t have is not what defines them. It’s just another characteristic.”
What’s a big misconception? “A lot of people think ‘well, if I close my eyes, there’s a whole bunch of things I don’t know how to do, that must be really hard for blind people.’ But that’s not how blind people live. We’ve learned to live without vision, we’ve learned the techniques that blind people use to be successful. The things that people perceive as being really hard, aren’t hard, because we’re doing them on a daily basis. We’re not newly blind people traveling around the world.”
On accessibility efforts: “There’s really not many adaptations that we need in the world to be successful and to fully participate. People have tried to invent special textured floors for blind people and textured walls. If the medical websites were just accessible or the businesses we want to attend, that would be a huge leap forward. We don’t need textured walls, we use a long white cane, which is a very simple piece of technology, but it does what we need it to do. People try to make the world more complicated than it needs to be.”
Keep this in mind: “Blindness can impact anyone of any gender or nationality. Anybody can go blind. We often say if you live long enough, you will be a blind person.”
Don’t assume anything: “I encounter people in society all the time, who just because I’m a blind person, they assume I need help. If I’m standing at a street corner, trying to answer a call on my phone, invariably, someone’s gonna come up and try to drag me across the street. Even though I’m not trying to cross the street. I’m trying to answer the phone. So I would say, be naturally curious about blind people and feel comfortable talking to them about their blindness, the things they may or may not need, but recognize that blind people are interesting for many other reasons.”
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Occupation: Senior Director of Communications at Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind
Location: Washington, DC
Familiarize yourself with the terminology: “Low vision is a term that means even with conventional methods, like contact lenses, or eyeglasses, LASIK surgery, your eyesight’s not corrected to 20/20. So for me, and for other people who have low vision, we might choose to use different devices that enhance the remaining sight, such as a desktop magnifier or magnification software that will magnify information on the computer monitor, or perhaps using bold line paper or a permanent marker to bring us a greater color contrast so that information is shared efficiently and correctly.”
What’s a big misconception? “Not everybody who’s blind or visually impaired will use a long cane for mobility. Some people might use (a) dog guide, or they might choose not to use a long cane or a dog guide, maybe they’re using the support of a human guide, or maybe they have enough usable vision where they are not using a mobility device to travel.”
Not all blindness is the same: “It’s very diverse. It’s very varied per individual. It depends on their genetics and the eye disease or the eye condition that they have, it might allow for them to see things differently, it might require that their accommodations be different than their next door neighbor who is also visually impaired.”
You don’t have to watch all your words carefully: “Someone who’s blind, you can still refer to, ‘Hey, did you watch that football game last night?’ or, ‘Hey, you’re going to watch the Washington Wizards game tomorrow night or Thursday night?’ Again, even if that person has limited to no sight remaining, it’s still socially acceptable and encouraged that vision-oriented words are part of that communication.”
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Blind people don’t always need to be take care of: “I worked at a program at the Colorado Center for the Blind as a counselor for blind teens and I met a 16-year-old who had never been allowed to even touch the oven or stove. Once I found this out, we spent the next 10 minutes touching the entire appliance and, even though she was a long ways away from cooking a gourmet meal, it took away so much of the fear that had been built into her and didn’t have to be.”
Blindness does not define you: “I wish people knew that being blind is not your whole life. Regardless of who I meet, it always seems to be the topic of conversation. I am not my blindness. I work, get aggravated at the rising cost of housing, travel to foreign countries, exercise, try recipes I found on Pinterest, and so much more that has nothing to do with the fact that I am blind.”
What brings you joy? “My favorite thing in the world is to travel, and I have a goal to visit every country. What holds me back is what holds most people back – my wallet. I have traveled solo to England, China and Turkey, and my next trip is to the Baltics. It’s definitely interesting to go to different countries and experience their views on blindness.
I also love running, and ran the NYC Marathon in 2014. Other than that, my everyday joy comes from finding new shows to stream and working on writing my novel – which I’ve been working on for a decade. Proof that I can procrastinate with the best of them.”