We have all seen the image of that typical blind person, a person with dark sunglasses swinging a white cane back and forth or walking with a dog guide. We can tend to wrongly assume that all people with vision loss only read braille, or have an extraordinary sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing. People sometimes think that a person who has vision loss is totally blind and can’t see anything. But is that truly a complete or even accurate image of a person who is visually impaired?
Communicating and educating the public about vision loss is the challenge that I undertake every day, living as a person with a visual impairment and working at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta, Georgia. I know that talking about blindness is not glamorous, exciting, or even sexy, but I strive in my personal and professional life to educate people on our ability and not our disability.
One of the first things I do in educating the public on vision loss is to stay calm and not assume that people are unkind or malicious. Sometimes when people engage me in conversation about my visual impairment they can say and do things that are not appropriate. They might speak louder than they usually do. They might grab my arm or hand and “lead” me around. These and other behaviors can be annoying but I try to keep in mind that most people have had little to no interaction with someone like me and just honestly don’t know. That is when I share what needs to be done and the best way to interact.
Initiating the conversation is key. Since most people are usually not familiar with how to interact with me, I assert myself and communicate what I need and want. I don’t wait for them to figure it out. Whether it is a simple introduction stating my name and giving a handshake, to asking for directions, I am the one to start it off. I find that things go over much better for me in the long run, and people seem more relaxed and even a bit relieved that I have given them guidance on what to do.
Another thing I do is share my personal journey so that people understand the kinds of things I deal with. I want them to know that at the end of the day I am a human being just like them; I just do things a bit differently. For example, when I go grocery shopping, I ask for help at the customer service counter. Once the person comes over to help I talk to them explaining the items I want to purchase. I share how important it is for me to touch and feel the products to ensure that I am getting the right items. I explain how important it is to read the price and labels on items so that I don’t have to bring it back later if it is wrong. Through this interaction people slowly begin to understand my life and how I operate as a blind person. They observe that I purchase some of the same items they do and feel a sense of connection that might not have been there previously.
When making adjustments to vision loss, it can be challenging to have conversations like this because you are dealing with your own situation and now you have to have a deeper level of engagement with people. But it must be done if you want your interactions to go as smoothly as possible. I have found that when I don’t take the time, either due to tiredness or frustration, I end up with the shorter end of the stick. So I take a deep breath, put a smile on my face and plunge forward!
One of the most essential things I share is that not all people with vision loss are the same. We are as diverse as a box of crayons. We don’t all think the same, or operate the same. Society wants to paint a broad brushstroke on people who are blind, but it is not realistic to do so. Sometimes people will start off the conversation with me by saying “You don’t act like my blind relative/friend/neighbor/co-worker.” I respond by saying that we are all different in how we deal with life. Just like not all women are the same, or all Southerners are the same, or all tall people are the same, neither are people with visual impairments. I explain that it depends on the person’s vision and comfort level. It also depends on when and how they lost their vision, and how much support they have. All of these factors play a big role in how they live and function.
The most important piece of advice I can give is to empower yourself. Learn as much as you can about your own visual impairment. Talk to others who have lost their sight and build a circle of support and friendship. Communicate with friends and family so they can understand. Then when you are out and about dealing with the public, you will be better equipped to have a pleasant interaction.