Editor’s note: Today’s post is about overcoming assumptions people with vision loss face. Our new peer advisor, Sanho Steele-Louchart shares his experience as a blind mobility specialist.
Overcoming Assumptions: A Blind Mobility Specialist’s Perspective
Blindness is a quality of our being. It’s as integral to our identities as our nationality, language, and personality. In fact, it’s often so fundamental to us that we begin to forget that we’re blind. Blindness is simply a part of who we are.
To the sighted, however, or to those transitioning from sightedness to blindness, blindness is often understood to mean a lack of awareness of one’s physical surroundings. This is especially true regarding keeping ourselves and others safe. Blindness is assumed by many to present problems with self-management, child-rearing, navigation, and many other functions of everyday life. There’s a pervasive notion of, "Well, they can’t see it, so they can’t do it."
Unfortunately, this assumption doesn’t only happen among the inexperienced. How many of us still struggle with our well-intentioned family and friends who feel the need to do everything for us? It’s well-intentioned, certainly, but ultimately stems from the belief that blindness impairs one’s ability to perceive and organize information. "You wouldn’t know when…" and, "You wouldn’t know where…" seem to be the two most common fears embedded in this issue.
When I decided to become a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, I learned that the presumed link between blindness and a lack of awareness didn’t always stop with just family and friends. On the contrary, there continues to be a surprisingly large contingent of mobility specialists who assume that a totally blind mobility instructor is a danger to both themselves and their students. Two common fears from mobility specialists are, "You wouldn’t know when the student was walking into danger," and, "You wouldn’t know where the student was in a loud, congested area such as a busy intersection or shopping mall."
I could write forever about how totally blind mobility specialists can and do instruct with competence, aptitude, and insight, but that’s a conversation for another time. For now, suffice it to say that there are certainly techniques that a totally blind mobility instructor can use to keep themselves and their students perfectly safe. So how is it that some sighted mobility specialists hold onto the idea that individuals who are blind can’t be safe instructors? Or, more broadly, why do those well-intentioned family members insist that we can’t serve ourselves at family dinners, load our groceries into the car, or monitor our children at the playground?
I propose that the problem and the solution are remarkably similar, but simultaneously worlds apart.
Problem: "They can’t see it, so they can’t do it."
Solution: "You can’t see it, so how can you do it?"
There are two key differences here. First of all, the problem is a statement, while the solution is a question. Curiosity goes a long way in dissolving ignorance and bias.
Secondly, note that the problem involves talking about someone, while the solution involves talking with someone.
I believe, as do many people who are blind, that the challenges faced through vision loss are social rather than physical. I also believe, as do many others, that communication is key.
Blindness is not synonymous with a lack of awareness. It is also not lesser to or greater than sightedness. Blindness is a parallel experience and that experience is overflowing with a rich, vibrant dimensionality all its own. So I offer you a gentle suggestion: The next time you find yourself making statements about blindness—pause, breathe, and start asking questions. We’ll be happy to talk with you. After all, we’re all learning.