Recently I heard about a new social media campaign where people are posting videos of themselves doing things blindfolded. This wasn’t the first time I had seen sighted people blindfold themselves in hopes of understanding blindness. I was born blind, and as I was growing up, some of my friends would borrow my cane and walk around with their eyes shut. At school there were “disability awareness days” where people would pretend to have disabilities, including blindness, and walk around or eat a meal together. Other times, people would try to imagine what blindness was like, and would say things to me like “if I were blind, I couldn’t do it”. It struck me that when people blindfolded themselves or imagined doing so, they thought they understood my world better, but they really didn’t learn much.
As a Ph.D. student in social psychology, I wanted to find out how these blindfolding activities affected people’s beliefs about blindness. My colleagues and I at the University of Colorado performed several experiments that tried to mirror the typical “disability awareness” activity. We had college students come to the lab, and by flip of a coin, some were assigned to wear a blindfold while others were not. We asked the blindfolded students to fill a glass with water without spilling, sort scattered coins, and navigate a complex route around the psychology building while blindfolded. The non-blindfolded students, as a comparison group, either did the same tasks without the blindfold or watched videos of their fellow students doing the tasks blindfolded. Then, all the students answered questions about what they thought it would be like to be blind and how well they thought that blind people could function.
The results were striking. Compared to the non-blindfolded students, the blindfolded students thought that blind people would be less able to work in common professions such as accounting, business or being a chef. They also thought that blind people would be less able to live independently. When we asked them how long it would take them to adjust if they lost their sight, the blindfolded students thought it would take them longer and that they wouldn’t adjust as completely to blindness. The blindfolded students rated the activity itself as scary, frustrating and distressing, and they thought that blind people experience these feelings on a daily basis more often than the non-blindfolded students did. Blindfolded students struggled with the activity, so they thought that blind people, too, must struggle in everyday life.
Blindfolding yourself is not much like living with blindness. When people develop permanent blindness, they get used to it. Research shows that most people who develop disabilities eventually adjust. The fear, frustration and distress go away over time. It is just part of the human condition to adapt to any new circumstance. Further, when people become blind, they learn techniques and adopt tools, such as the white cane, that give them independence. Blind people do become accountants, business owners, chefs, and heads of their households. Being blindfolded doesn’t capture that learning. And, being blindfolded for a few minutes doesn’t expose you to some of the real struggles that blind people face, such as dealing with inaccessible websites, social discrimination, or a lack of public transit. These factors not only have a bigger impact on blind people’s lives than blindness itself, but they are things we can change as a society.
I am a scientist, so I understand the power of curiosity. Being curious about blindness is a great thing. But real curiosity demands complete answers, and blindfolding yourself won’t give you a complete answer to what it’s like to be blind. The best answers come from experts. Here in the National Federation of the Blind, we are experts who have lived with our blindness for decades. We can show you how we live the lives we want and how you can help us remove the societal obstacles that can still get in our way. So if you’re curious about blindness, don’t close your eyes; instead, keep them open, and come talk to us.
Arielle Silverman is an independent disability research consultant living in Washington D.C. She is a past president of the National Association of Blind Students who conducted research on the effects of blindness simulations at the University of Colorado as part of her Ph.D. program. Her findings can be found in the Journal of Blindness Innovation Research.