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Even I . . .
by Tammy Luebbe
From the Editor: Tammy Luebbe is a student at the adult orientation facility of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind. She intended this article for a sighted audience, and it does an excellent job of addressing many of the misconceptions members of the general public have about blindness and blind people. The remarkable thing about what she has written is that she has made so much progress in embracing the attitudes and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind in less than a year. This is what she says:
What do you think when you hear the word "blind"? If you are like most of society, you think of blindness as total darkness, and the dictionary will support that belief with its definition of "lack of discernment, lack of sight." Actually blindness has a range of meanings from total absence of sight to the inability to see distinct features. Blindness means that you must use alternatives to sight to complete the activities of daily life. Legal blindness is defined as vision of 20/200 or less or a central visual field of no more than twenty degrees. When you hear of a blind person or see one, what is your first reaction? Is it to think, "that poor, pitiful person"? Do you immediately feel sorry for him or her? Do you have a compelling urge to help? Why do most people react this way? Because most of us believe that a blind person is helpless, certainly not as capable as a sighted person. I am going to tell you my story, not to evoke or reinforce this notion, but, I hope, to shed some light on the world of blindness.
My story begins in December of 2000. I noticed that I had a blind spot in my vision, obvious when watching TV. When I watched infomercials, I was unable to see the 1-800 part of the toll-free number. I went to my local optometrist and was referred to a retinal specialist. I had a surgery that was supposed to resolve the problem, but it was unsuccessful. At that point I had lost the vision in my left eye but still had vision in my right eye. In May of 2001 I started developing the same blind spot in my right eye. I received several injections of steroids and then laser treatments to stop the progression of my disease. Not until June of 2001 was I diagnosed with serpigenous choirditis, a rare disease whose etiology is unknown, but it is believed to be an autoimmune response of the body in which the retina is identified as foreign tissue and is attacked and destroyed.
Since June of 2001 I have been blind. The length of time between my being able to see and no longer being able to was two weeks. I went from being an active participant in our lawn-care business and a totally independent mother of three with a career in nursing to being totally dependent. In a matter of two weeks I went from being able to do anything to being unable to complete the everyday tasks of living. I was unable to turn my stove on, run the dishwasher, operate the microwave, or even dial the phone. I spent six weeks isolated, withdrawn, and depressed. I believed my life was over and that there was nothing left for me. I lost my job, my insurance, and most of all my self-confidence. Fortunately for me I was given the number of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
I contacted them, and my whole world turned right side up again. I began their adult rehabilitation program believing that I would never be whole again. My hope at the beginning of this program was just to learn the necessary skills to live. But they have given me much more. The Center's philosophy is growing stronger in me every day. I believe in it so strongly now that I want everyone around me to understand it. My mission has become to live by it and educate others about it. This philosophy is based on the premise that blindness doesn't have to be anything more than a personal characteristic. It is not a handicap, but merely means that I use alternative methods to complete the same tasks that sighted people do.
But because I do not do everything like sighted people, they conclude and believe that I am inferior to them. Sighted people laugh when I maintain that as a blind person I am discriminated against. Most people believe that discrimination is based on color, religion, or sex; but there are other kinds. As a blind person every day I fight society's views of blindness and the limitations it places on me. People I encounter every day--family, friends, instructors, and strangers alike--demonstrate that they believe my blindness makes me inferior. This is not intentional or done deliberately to make me feel bad, but it makes every day a constant battle, trying to educate people and change society's view of blindness.
I want you to consider your own responses and try to evaluate them from both sides. If you see a blind person walking towards a door, what is your first reaction? Is it to step in front and open the door, or do you think nothing of it, letting him or her locate and open the door independently? From personal experience I will tell you that most people run as fast as they can to open the door. Why? The typical response is, "to be helpful." But you have to look deeper than that. If trying to be helpful were really your motive, wouldn't you run to the door when a sighted person with one hand occupied was trying to open it? Why is it so important or necessary to open that door for the blind person? The answer is that most sighted people believe that blind people are incapable of doing it for themselves.
Similar acts of kindness such as helping blind people across streets, guiding them to the bathroom, offering to tie their shoes, and many more such things happen every day to blind people. This stereotyping of us as helpless is not limited to the general public; even a number of professionals believe blindness renders one incapable of performing the simplest task. I have had a doctor tell the nurse to come in to help me get dressed after an examination. I wondered if he thought my mother still lived with me or if I had a live-in nanny to get me dressed in the morning. I recently had an ophthalmologist tell me in so many words that I was incapable of administering my own medications because I was blind.
I have also recently encountered a teaching professional prepared to deny my entrance into a degree-completion program because I could not see. She concluded that I would be unable to complete the observation portion of the program. I questioned this instructor, pointing out that a sighted person might see something, but without the knowledge and intelligence to understand and interpret what was observed, the exercise would be worthless. On the other hand, the situation being observed could be described to someone with experience, knowledge, and intelligence; and that person could explain and assess it effectively. Observation is not just seeing; it is listening, asking questions, and understanding what is going on around you.
These illustrations do not demonstrate that I am incapable, rather that society inaccurately assumes that blindness makes me inferior. And it isn't only the efforts to help me but the intended compliments that have underlying and disturbing meanings. Here are a few of my favorites: "You can do that without being able to see! Even I can't do that, and I can see"; or "You are just amazing"; and my all-time favorite, "You do so well I forget you are blind." Is it amazing that a sighted person gets dressed, cooks, takes care of her kids, or crosses the street? No, it isn't.
With proper skills training, blind people learn to accomplish everyday tasks using alternative techniques. Blind people are able to read Braille and use voice-output computers and other technologies to read.
We use the cane to examine what is in front of us: obstacles, cracks in the sidewalk, stairs, curbs, and people. As I walk with my cane, I am amazed at the way this white cane can part people and cars. Someday I am sure it will part the waters also. As a blind person I use different senses to observe what is in my environment. I can't see you walking toward me, but I can hear footsteps, clothing moving, conversation, car motors, etc. I know when someone is beside me, coming toward me, or walking away. I don't have a special talent or extraordinary hearing; everyone has this ability, sighted people are just not forced to use it. The cane touches objects to let me know that they are there. If my cane comes into contact with something, this is not a mistake but necessary for me to avoid walking into it. People around me will say "oops" if I hit an obstacle or wall with the cane. But this is supposed to happen in order for me not to hit it.
There are so many alternatives to use to complete everyday tasks that I don't have enough paper to write them all down. My point here is that my alternatives don't make me inferior or incapable of completing tasks. Especially in the beginning, it may take me longer than it would a sighted person, but every time people step in to prevent me or another blind person from doing things for ourselves, they rob us of the opportunity to learn and develop alternatives to accomplish these everyday tasks.
Earlier I mentioned my philosophy of blindness as a characteristic. I don't want you to think that I thought of this all by myself, for I did not. This concept has been around since at least the 1960's. I first heard it in a speech by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, then President of the National Federation of the Blind. The philosophy is practiced by the staff at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind. But it makes so much sense that I want to share it with you.
Again, it is the notion that blindness can be reduced to the level of a characteristic rather than a handicap. Any personal characteristic has advantages and disadvantages. Let's take the characteristic of height, for example. If a person is tall, over six feet, six inches, this can limit what he or she can do. How can height be a limitation? My husband is this tall, and I can tell you that he doesn't fit into compact cars like Yugos, Rabbits, or Bugs. He hits his head on ceiling fans, door frames, light fixtures, and low-hanging branches. He has a hard time finding clothes and shoes at a regular store. He doesn't fit into roller coasters, buses, or regular beds with footboards (he must either lie diagonally or curl up). He can use alternatives to get around all of these obstacles, so his height really doesn't affect his total quality of life. He ducks under fans and light fixtures, bends his head under door frames, buys beds that do not have footboards, and buys large cars. These are all alternatives that he must use in order to conduct his everyday life.
With the characteristic of blindness, I must learn Braille to read, use computers with voice output, learn keystroke commands instead of using a computer mouse, and use the cane to move safely around my environment. These alternatives make my life every bit as good as those of sighted people. No one asks my extraordinarily tall husband if he needs help crossing the street, finding the bathroom, or opening the door. You are probably thinking, "Yes, but these characteristics are totally different in the quality of their limitations." But they are not. Each characteristic has its advantages and disadvantages, and all of us, regardless of our characteristics, adapt to our specific limitations and advantages and move on with our lives.
I hope that my story has not evoked a feeling of sympathy or pity, for I do not need it. I hope it has made you stop and think about how a simple well-intentioned gesture or comment has a much deeper meaning that you don't even realize. My hope is that I have shed a little light on blindness and society's perceptions, and maybe a little insight on how society responds to something different from what is perceived as the norm. The next time you see a blind person, I hope that your automatic response is not that he or she is incapable of being independent. Try to resist the urge to impose your help without asking. I hope you can come to see blind people as equals and respect their independence and ability. If they ask for help, please give it, but don't assume that they need it. Consider whether you would help if they were not blind. If not, don't go out of your way to help the blind person either.
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