Braille Monitor                                                June 2013

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A Seventh-Grade Perspective on Blindness

by Jordan Diggs

Jordan Diggs (far right) with his parents Parnell and Kim, giving a bottle to a tiger cub spread over their laps.From the Editor: Jordan Diggs is the son of Parnell Diggs, a member of the NFB board of directors and the president of the NFB of South Carolina. He is in the seventh grade, and this year he was assigned to write a paper that required research. The topic he chose was blindness: one about which he already had a considerable amount of information. Even so, the subject required both reflection and research. He included a few statements based on his father’s technological preferences, but he got most of the facts and the positive philosophy right. Very few sighted adults could have done as well. This is what he had to say:

Blindness is a topic that is very misunderstood. Many people believe it is a horrible disease that will make life completely miserable. But is it really that bad? Blind people can do anything sighted people can do, but few sighted people understand this. Most sighted people misunderstand blindness.

First of all, almost all sighted people are very scared of blindness. They think being blind is unbearable. If someone else is blind, they assume that they need to help them with everything they do and that the blind person cannot do anything alone. Many people say that they fear blindness more than any other condition, and it is on many peoples’ top ten fears list. Most people are stunned when they see blind people do things like walking up stairs because, even though it really is not anything special, they believe it is a miracle.

One of the main reasons that sighted people may react this way is that they have never met any blind people. Do they really have the right to make judgments about people they have never actually met? They make assumptions based on what they have heard from others (which can easily be incorrect or exaggerated) and what they hear from the media. For example, a movie called Blindness was created. It portrayed blind people very poorly and made them look like uncivilized, dirty people who cannot do anything on their own. This is completely untrue. People make bad assumptions about blind people because they think sight is required to do everything, and they have no evidence to prove otherwise.

Blindness is not as dreadful as some people say it is. Blind people are not limited by their eyes. They can do anything sighted people can do. Many buildings and hotels have elevators, bathrooms, and other areas that contain two types of signs: print signs and Braille signs. Braille is a series of raised dots, with a maximum of six dots in each cell, that allow blind people to read. Numerous companies print books in Braille so they can be read by blind people. Also blind people can read by listening to audio books. Many well-known books are now sold in audio form at book stores.

Another topic that is misunderstood is the fact that blind people can use canes to navigate. Many people believe that blind people are using canes for support. But the canes used by blind people are white, thinner, and taller. They are not used for support (they would break if someone attempted to do this), but they are used as probes to extend the sense of touch. Canes are one of the most commonly used navigation tools by blind people.

Another navigation method used by blind people is guide dogs. Guide dogs are dogs that have received special training to help blind people traverse. And like canes guide dogs are misunderstood. Some people believe that guide dogs stop when a car is coming or when there is a sign that says not to walk. This is incorrect. Guide dogs have received special training, but they do not know to stop when cars are coming; they are just canines, after all. Guide dogs are aware of oncoming traffic but exercise with their handlers decisions about moving into oncoming traffic. There is another reason why guide dogs are good: they also make excellent pets.

Many new technological developments have been created to help blind people do things that would be difficult for them otherwise. For example, a program called JAWS has been created to read words on the computer to blind people. While sighted people stare at the computer screen to find out what it says, blind people listen to it, because they are unable to see the screen. JAWS can speak at the speed of a normal human voice, but many people who are experienced enough to understand what it says prefer to listen to it many times the speed of a human voice. This allows them to save time and read documents much faster than human eyes would allow sighted people to.

Blind people can also access the Internet with a PAC Mate. PAC Mates are Braille laptops, and, instead of reading the words on the screen, there is no screen, and Braille appears through holes at the bottom of the keyboard. These laptops can access the Internet and read articles on many websites. They have been mass produced and sold. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has promoted PAC Mates extensively. Many members of the large organization use PAC Mates. The National Federation of the Blind also has an agreement with Apple. Because of this agreement, iPhones have VoiceOver that works almost exactly like JAWS.

Another thing about blindness that is commonly misunderstood is the fact that sighted people think that blind people need help with very effortless tasks. When blind people say that they do not need help, the other people try to debate the matter and convince them that they do require assistance but do not know that they need it. Parnell Diggs says, “People misunderstand blindness, and people don’t think I know if I need help. For example, in an airport people ask if I need help. I tell them no. They always say 'Are you sure?’ They then debate the issue. Sometimes people compare me to a relative, such as somebody with dementia. But I know where I’m supposed to be and whether I need to ask how to get there. It’s not that I’m too proud; I welcome help when I need it, but I should be the one to decide when I need it.”

Many sighted people also believe that being blind is like putting on a blindfold. This is incorrect. Parnell Diggs says, “Blindness isn’t like putting on a blindfold. After forty years you learn a lot about being blind. People also think your senses are better, which isn’t true. You use your other senses more, but they’re not better.” If you put on a blindfold, you may not know any blindness skills. If you are blind, you have more time to learn blindness skills. This is a fact that very few sighted people consider when they think about being blind.

Many blind people are unemployed. This is not because they cannot do their job. There are two reasons why blind people could be unemployed. One is that they do not want to get a job. They may live with someone else who is working, and they have enough money, or they might just not want to work (which is unwise, because they will most likely not have enough money to live). The second, more common reason is that employers do not hire them because they do not believe they can work well. This is completely incorrect. Under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the government can issue certificates that say that employers can pay blind people below minimum wage. Goodwill, a charity store, is one of the biggest users of these certificates. If blind people are lucky enough to be hired, which is rare, they are often paid below minimum wage. Many stores do this, which makes it hard for blind people to find a well-paying job. Some careers are so low-paying that it is not worth their while to work. This is why many are unemployed.

There are also many organizations that are fighting for equal rights for blind people. One of the biggest ones is the National Federation of the Blind. Since the 1940s the NFB has done things like teaching Braille, selling PAC Mates, fighting for equal rights and fair laws for blind people, and, most important, educating the public. To read the website, go to <NFB.org>.

Blindness is a topic that is extremely misunderstood by most sighted people. Even though many people do not know it, blind people are just as intelligent and hard-working as most sighted people. Blindness does not limit your abilities; it just makes you unable to see. Blind people are not limited by their eyes, but by the limits that society places on blind people. After all, blindness is just a characteristic.

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