Braille Monitor                                                                  March 1985

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The Better to See You With, My Dear

by Joyce Scanlan

(Note: This article is reprinted from the Fall, 1984, Blindside, which is a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.)

"You're lucky! You can see a little bit. You're so much better off than someone who is totally blind." True? Not necessarily. In many ways a person who is totally blind, with no sight whatsoever, actually has an advantage. After all, it is clear to everyone "how much" that person can see--not at all.

We all find life a little easier when we can put people and things into categories. Unfortunately the person who has some sight, but still within the range referred to as legally blind, doesn't fit. In society's view he or she is trapped in the middle--not really blind but not really sighted either. Is that person "partially blind?" "partially sighted?" "visually impaired?" visually handicapped?" One term currently in vogue is "low vision."

A "low vision" person faces many frustrating challenges. From early childhood on, family, friends, even strangers, are constantly trying to discover how much you can see. "How far can you see," they ask. "Can you see me?" "How many fingers am I holding up?" To the "low vision" person, it can seem like getting a monkey to do tricks. As a child with "low vision," I was taught to be grateful for being able to see a little. Since sight seemed so important to everyone, I developed some strategies for dealing with the issue. I always took the seat in the classroom where the lighting was best. Since red is a color which is easy to see, I wore a lot of red and owned many red items (combs, toothbrushes, slippers, etc.). Because people got upset when I told them I couldn't see something, I told them I could, just to make them happy. In my day, a "low vision aid" was a magnifying glass. In cost and complexity it was nothing compared to the mind boggling plethora of "low vision aids" that have exploded upon the scene during the past few years. For many "low vision" blind people, these devices are a helpful aid to independent living. Unfortunately many people are hyping these devices as a panacea--a solution to all the problems faced by "low vision" people.

It is important to put these "low vision aids" in perspective. First of all, they are only tools. Like all tools, they have serious limitations. For many "low vision" blind people, they do not offer a useful or efficient alternative to Braille or the white cane. A person may need several devices--a closed circuit television (CCTV) system to read small print, a monocular to read at a great distance, and another device for walking about. Additional devices may be necessary if vision fluctuates. For some people flickering images and glare on a CCTV screen quickly tire the eyes. Some equipment is heavy, bulky, and very expensive.

This high-tech explosion has had quite an impact on agencies serving the blind. For some agencies, the effects haven't always been good. Many agencies used to emphasize teaching basic skills to all blind people, including those with some vision--skills like reading Braille and independent travel with the white cane. Now, "low vision centers" are all the rage. Virtually forgotten are those basic skills. If you can see a little, they'd rather steer you toward a "low vision aid." Since five out of six blind people can see at least a little, that means just about everyone. Waiting in the wings, poised and ready to jump on the bandwagon, is the Commis sioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. He'd like to expand the state's authority to obtain and distribute "low vision aids." He'd like to pour more of our tax dollars into "low vision" technology.

Such a policy would accelerate the trend away from basic skills. Indeed, if we don't watch out, we could be raising a generation of illiterate blind people--people who never learned Braille but can't effectively or efficiently read print either. In the end, "low vision" people could end up no better off (and perhaps worse off) than they are now.

Fortunately we in the NFB have a solution to the "low vision" problem. What's more, it comes from an excellent teacher--our own experience. First of all, every blind person (with or without sight) should learn the basic skills. Even a "low vision" blind person has less than 10% of "normal vision." That means he or she is over 90% blind. These skills are bound to come in handy at least some of the time. Secondly, every blind person should learn positive attitudes toward blindness. If that had happened to me when I was a child, I would have learned that sight is a nice thing to have, but it isn't the only thing in life. Finally, blind people should put technology in its place. If a device helps you live a more independent, productive and fulfilling life, use it. Otherwise, leave it alone.

A little vision or none at all--with good training and a chance to try, no one need ever worry who is "better off" than who.