Braille Monitor                                     April 2017

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What Do We Really Think of Sight?

by Eric Duffy

Eric DuffyFrom the Editor: Eric Duffy currently works for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired as a technological support specialist. He is a former affiliate president, having recently served as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio.

Many of us have come from backgrounds in which we were more dependent on vision than we now consider comfortable or necessary. We value the alternative techniques that give us independence, still realizing that from time to time we need the help of people with sight or, as is becoming more and more possible, the use of visually aware devices to help us. For some people this creates an internal conflict—how dependent must I be on vision? When am I using vision when I could rely on the nonvisual techniques I’ve worked so hard to master and to offer to other blind people as a way to become independent.

In this article, Eric Duffy discusses the extreme emphasis that was placed on sight by the family who loves him, his own journey to learn and use nonvisual techniques, and his awareness that in a balanced life there must be a merging of alternative techniques and visual ones to live the life he wants. Here is what he says:

At times in our lives many of us have had to consider how much we value sight. Sometimes we ask ourselves this question because of an experience we have had, and sometimes we ask because of a development in the medical or technology fields. Most recently I have found myself pondering this question because of a visual interpreting service offered by Aira.

Through a special pair of glasses or the camera on a smartphone, one can connect to a live agent who is looking at a computer screen and who can see exactly what the camera on the glasses or phone can see. During an Aira session the agent also has access to GPS on the user's phone, Google maps, and more.

Shortly before sitting down to work on this article, I went to a store that I had not been to before. I bought some storage bowls for my home and a coffeemaker for my son. That was the first time I have gone to a store and shopped without the assistance of a family member, friend, or store employee. How did I do it? I did it with the help of an Aira agent of course.

I first heard about Aira at the 2016 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, where I saw a demonstration of the service. At that point I asked myself what I would be saying about me and blindness in general if I began using such a service. How would using it fit into my own beliefs about blindness and my understanding of the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, which are very much one and the same? These two questions and the questions of several of my friends forced me to examine closely my attitudes about blindness.

So I asked myself how much I value sight. In large part the answer defines how I feel about blindness. I was one of eight children and the only one with a disability. I had very limited functional vision as a child. I did what I could to learn colors and to identify as many things as I could using that vision.

When I accurately identified colors, my parents were happy because I could see. When I misidentified colors or objects, I could hear the disappointment in their voices. They weren't disappointed with me; they were disappointed because I couldn't see. That told me how much they valued sight. I went to an endless series of specialists in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, New Orleans, and too many cities to remember in Ohio, which is where I grew up. Although my mom didn't like to drive in big cities, she would do it if she had to in order to get me to an eye doctor. That told me how much she wanted me to see. Sight was quite valuable to her.

As a child I loved McDonald's. If I got close enough, I could see the McDonald's Golden Arches. One night as we were traveling in the car, my little sister asked if we could stop at McDonald's. My parents said they might stop at the next one they saw. My sister was quick to point out the next one that she saw, but my dad did not stop. I told my sister just to elbow me gently the next time she saw a McDonald's sign, and she happily agreed. When she not-so-gently elbowed me, I excitedly said, "There, I see it. I see McDonald's!" We stopped at that McDonald's.

On more than one occasion as a child, I found my mother crying. She told me that she was sad because I couldn't see. She said that she often prayed and asked God to let me see even if she had to sacrifice her sight so that I might see. I learned how steep a price she would pay in order for me to see.

In junior high school I lost the little bit of vision I had. A doctor told my parents and me that he could remove a cataract and perform a cornea transplant and that I would get some vision back if he did so. My mom thought that the eyes were too close to the brain to take such a risk, so I learned that she feared my losing my life or something else happening to me and that her desire to keep me safe was greater than my having sight.

What did I think? I wanted to have the surgery. I knew what my parents thought about blindness. I knew that even at the Ohio State School for the Blind those who had some vision were expected to do things and allowed to do things that the totally blind students were not. I knew how valuable sight was.

How does all of this relate to Aira? When walking into a crowded room, most blind people I know don't think twice about taking directions from someone with sight when looking for an empty seat. Getting assistance from someone with sight is the only practical way to do shopping. How many of us take the elbow of a sighted person (or for that matter even a blind person with usable vision) when walking through a noisy and crowded room? How many of us are willing to accept sighted assistance when going through a buffet line? Most of us need sighted assistance when at a restaurant that does not offer Braille menus. Many of us have at one time or another paid readers.

Many of us use apps on our smartphones to identify currency. There is an app that will let us know if the lights in a room are on or off. Working with our friend and colleague Ray Kurzweil, the National Federation of the Blind has developed an app that enables us to read the printed word, the KNFB Reader. To do these things we rely on the cameras on our phones and artificial intelligence. In short, we rely on artificial vision. Yet none of us question whether or not we should use these apps, and I think that is the way it should be.

Recently I called Aira and asked them to perform a relatively simple task on the internet for me. A friend asked me why someone with my technology skills would use Aira to do something that simple. My answer was immediate: "Because I could." I said we both know that we have the skills and confidence to walk to some of the places to which we wish to travel, but we also have the ability to use buses and trains. We could ask someone to drive us. We could in fact hire someone to drive us in a taxi. In fact we usually find it more convenient and less expensive to use one of those new-fangled ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. All of these solutions insert sighted people and technology between us and walking to our destination.

After completing my shopping trip today, I told my son and Claire, the Aira agent, how happy I was to do my shopping without assistance from those around me. However, after discovering that I had left my iPhone in the Uber vehicle, I was delighted to have my sighted son go and retrieve it for me. I could have done it, but it was more convenient and less expensive for him to do it.

Aira provides sight assistance only when you request it. It is available when you need it, and there is no waiting until later when it is more convenient for someone to provide the visual information you have requested. Aira has not made me more dependent on sight; rather, it has changed the way I do some things. As far as I am concerned, this is a change for the better.

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