Braille Monitor                                     July 2017

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Dirigibles, Blimps, and Looking Around

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a former scholarship winner who often offers his opinions about issues relevant to the blind and particularly ones involving the adjustment to blindness. Sometimes he reflects on his own adjustment: the denial, the hiding, the frustration, and the stages he has gone through on his way to acceptance. At other times he talks about his hopes and fears for blind people who do not get good adjustment to blindness training. Occasionally he talks about all of these, and in this article he does. Here is what he says about the words that people use, the guesses about their motives and intentions, and the way he should react:

While teaching cane travel, I sometimes tell my students to look around and see what they find. One student recently became frustrated with me and said that he cannot see anything with sleep shades on and that looking around is a visual activity.

It is entirely possible to argue that our vernacular has commonly evolved so that our concept of experience or awareness has many descriptions involving the sense of sight. We will regularly say that it was good to see someone. It helps to shed some light on the subject. Let us not keep them in the dark about this. If you don’t want it to come out in the light, don’t do it in the dark. She had been seeing this guy, but she had not foreseen that he was looking for a wife. We use these expressions every day.

It is just as possible to argue that these references to the sense of sight reinforce or give rise to a belief that vision is the primary means to do many things. To be honest, I believe that it is the primary means employed by many sighted people. This, by itself, is not harmful in any way that comes to my mind. If they have the sense in its full form, they might as well use it when it is efficient.

I worry sometimes that universal access is overlooked because of a lack of expectation that blind people will use a product or service. Someone might think that blind people are not living on their own and watching television on a Thursday evening when an emergency alert flashes across the screen. Since blind people could not be in a position to need equal access to that information, that equal access may not be pursued and created. Thankfully, because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind, equal access is being discussed in productive spaces. Equal access to instructional materials in higher education is a discussion topic only because the organized blind movement decided that separate but equal instruction would not suffice for blind students. We will continue to work to raise the expectations of blind people because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams.

There is also a problem, though, when blind people come to internalize the idea that visual means of experiencing or doing something is the primary or best way to go about it. I was one of the best disciples of this belief, and I even used to surround myself with other blind people who thought the same way. This way of thinking was so imprisoning. I cannot claim that I am perfectly immune to this belief, but I am grateful to the many blind role models in my more recent years who have taught me that this is not the case.

It is easy to slip into a feeling that, when people use vision or eyesight in their daily expressions, they are rubbing our blindness in our face. Maybe they did not mean to do it. If we let that affect us negatively, it dooms us to a sustained onslaught of pain and a long hallway of closing doors. It may not be harmless, but it may not be intentionally harmful. I believe that perhaps the best thing I can do is change the way I look at it when people use these types of expressions.

Back to my student’s frustrated assertion that looking was a visual activity that could not be done with sleep shades on. I didn’t want to get into a deep philosophical discussion about the nature of sight during our travel lesson, but I needed to answer him. And I love that my job requires me to think on my feet and be ready at all times with an answer. My first response to try to change his mind was to ask him, “Do you know what a dirigible is?”

He cautiously answered, “A blimp?”

“Well,” I said, “blimps are only a subset of dirigibles, but they are the only ones that most of us ever discuss. Looking visually is only a subset of looking, but it’s the only kind we often consider until we go blind.”

Maybe I should curtail my speech so that I avoid telling students to look around. Maybe it taunts them with the thought of being asked to do something which they can no longer do. I think, though, that it might be a disservice to my students. Instead of changing my individual speech and hoping that others will follow suit, maybe I should help expand my students’ understanding of these expressions so that, when they encounter them, they do not consider them to describe activities outside the domain of blind people. If they do, there is some risk that these thoughts could erode their confidence or feelings of normality. In a long-term way, I want blind people, whether they are my students or not, to be able to truly feel normal, at least as it relates to their blindness. Just because our way of efficiently searching our environment often does not involve eyesight does not segregate us from the standard speech of our society.

Even up until I finished college, I used to feel very awkward about my blindness. Carrying a cane was not a completely ridiculous idea, but I was not consistent about it. Daily physical pain from straining my eyes and neck was apparently better than looking weird by using a cane. I would have been using different means of gathering environmental information while traveling, but it would not have made me that different. To be honest, the lack of comfort in my own skin and occasional missteps while traveling without a cane were probably what did the most to make me different. Sometimes, I would be at a party and meet somebody I might like to see again. If I had my cane, it was easy to explain that I wouldn’t be able to just spot them across a room and find them again. If I did not have my cane, they were rarely receptive to my explanation that I was actually legally blind and needed a little more than a wave from across the room. I tried to function like a sighted person, but I was no longer a sighted person. I was limited, not by blindness, but by the walls that I was putting up for myself by refusing to function as an independent blind person and by the walls put up for me by not being given good adjustment to blindness training.

At work, when I meet a blind person, I am pro-consumer organization, meaning that I encourage them to explore organizations of blind consumers. When I am off the clock, I encourage blind people to take one of the most important steps which I have ever taken in my life, to join the National Federation of the Blind. I have been a member of a few different blind organizations over the course of my life, but the National Federation of the Blind is the one which has taught me the most genuinely empowering things about myself. The Federation has taught me that, if I am abnormal, it is not a direct consequence of blindness. If I cannot do something, aside from seeing clearly, it is not a direct consequence of blindness. Often I need to remind myself or someone else that blimps are only a subset of dirigibles. Through the National Federation of the Blind, I have been blessed to surround myself with good blind role models who have taught me that I can still live the life I want and that blindness is never what holds me back. It is in the Federation where I am constantly re-inoculated against the low expectations and misperceptions in society so that I can keep moving forward on the right path. Without the National Federation of the Blind, I could very easily have relapsed after training and gone back to using my residual sight for just about everything. I do not know of anywhere else that blind people can gain this level of strength and hope, so I point others in as clear a direction as I can. I hope all blind people look around, and I hope we all find the National Federation of the Blind.

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