Braille Monitor                          May 2019

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Facts about Blindness … According to Me

by Joe Orozco

From the Editor: The following is taken from the Vigilant, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of West Virginia. Many of its articles are good reads, but we highlight this one in particular. Joe Orozco originally published this in his blog. He is the editor of the newsletter, and here is his offering:

What have you always wanted to know about blind people but were always too afraid to ask? My thoughts are not the definitive view on the subject. Contrary to popular assumption, we’re not all related to each other, and our opinions are as diverse as the people that make up this small segment of society. Still, it’s a good start.

Will it offend you if I refer to you as blind?

Actually, “blind” is preferable to visually challenged, seeing impaired, sight handicapped or any of a growing combination of politically correct terms. These attempts at politeness are fumbling conversation starters and only confuse the bottom line that I can’t see as well as you can. There was a point when the fact that I am not totally blind would have prompted me to correct another person’s understanding of my visual acuity, but let’s start with blind and then work our way into color, lighting, and depth.

Has your hearing improved to compensate for the loss of your sight?

A person may concentrate more on his hearing when the eyes don’t work, but concentration is a far cry from the pinpoint-sonar people attribute to blindness. Actually, my hearing feels below average compared to what I notice other people pick up. Whatever you do, please do not ever go to the other extreme and raise your voice at me. I’m an easygoing person, but my cane may find its way to your ankle at high velocity. What, I’m blind, and you were in my way!

For what it’s worth, my sense of smell also seems supremely underwhelming.

What is one of the most misunderstood aspects about blindness?

“Blind people are so cool because they don’t judge others by appearance…” Yeah right. First, appearance has more to do with overall presence, not just physical characteristics. Second, we’re every bit as observant as anyone else, and while my ears and nose may not be anything to write home about, I would have never dated a girl whose voice got on my nerves or whose body odor made my skin crawl. Also, don’t be surprised if we ask our sighted friends to give us their assessment of you. I would have personally not have taken a friend’s opinion at face value, but if enough people pointed to the same flaws, I might start believing—where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and all that. Rest assured your judgment of me will never measure up to the harsh criticisms of a fellow blind person…

What advice would you give to someone who’s just lost their sight?

Blindness is pretty dull as far as disabilities go. Maybe it’s a matter of perception, but I would think we’d be far worse off if we could not hear, walk on two legs, or labored with a mental illness that prohibited traditional interaction. No doubt there are representatives of these conditions who would tell you their life is every bit as fruitful as ours and list ways they too are misunderstood. See what I mean about blind people and prejudice? My point is that, assuming blindness is the only characteristic, your life will shift to new ways of doing things, but it’s hardly a dramatic alteration.

Did you see that movie? Wait, sorry, did you hear it?

Let’s not get hung up on semantics. Yes, I saw the Harry Potter movies, at least the first three, and I don’t know that the British did the stories justice.

Think of it a different way: I’m pretty sure deaf people could be backhanded as much for what they say as what they sign.

Do you ever get depressed because of your blindness?

I went through my brief periods of depression. I went from good sight to nearly nothing and am therefore aware of what I lost. I don’t know that I ever felt overwhelmed. I had good teachers, high parental expectations, and enough blind role models among peers to know things would ultimately be okay. That is not always the case, and if you are one who still struggles with your condition, drop me a note. We’ll talk through it.

Don’t get me wrong. You never stop wishing you could drive a car or see the faces of loved ones. With time you learn to cope and find other ways of enjoying similar sentiments. When the day comes that I am totally blind, I will come back and reread this passage, and I’ll do my best to remember that things did not go completely off the rails when I first started noticing the deterioration of my sight when I was a kid. I have had so many great experiences and have met so many great people that I would otherwise have never met if I weren’t blind.

If you could undergo a surgical procedure to restore your sight, would you?

Any surgical procedure has risks. I could gamble away what little sight I have left, and to take the leap of faith would suggest I am dissatisfied with my current condition. I would give it long thought but would probably pass.

How do you cross lighted intersections without help?

When I had Gator, my first Seeing Eye dog, people assumed it was the dog that did the intelligent crossing. I suppose there could be a way to get around the color blindness, but I am alive today mostly owed to my own common sense and good education. At its simplest, you cross with parallel traffic, which is to say the flow of traffic moving in the same direction as you. There are complicated intersections where the traffic flows aren’t as straightforward as east/west immediately following north/south, or streets crossing at a slant as is true of downtown DC, and in those cases I don’t mind standing at the corner studying the pattern until I feel comfortable enough to venture out. I may look foolish standing out there on the corner, but at least I’ll be around to enjoy people’s comments about my foolishness. Eventually I walk a route enough times to measure the distance between lights, and if I’m in a hurry, I may start paying attention to my parallel traffic halfway down the block to get a rough sense of how much time I have to cross when I arrive at the corner.

Regardless of the intersection, I’ve learned not to follow the flow of pedestrians. Too many people cross on red lights, and I am not one of those people who would jump off a bridge if all my friends got together and decided to do so.

For your reference, guide dogs do not know when to cross an intersection; however, they do know how to intelligently disobey their handler. A guide dog will not cross a street if it sees an oncoming vehicle. It will not deliberately walk a pedestrian off a train platform. Now, one could argue these skills can be attributed to superb training, and maybe that is true. Yet I’m thinking the dog is invested in its own survival. We just happen to be holding its harness.

What are some of the social aspects of being blind you wish people understood?

Speaking for myself, I don’t really look forward to buffet lines. Independence is partially about looking graceful, and in my opinion there is nothing graceful about feeling around for serving spoons and running the risk of dipping a finger in the casserole, embarrassing yourself and making the other guests feel dubious about where your fingers may’ve been. There are methods to handling such tasks of course. You could move your hand inward over the table surface, find the rim of the dish, and move around its edge until you find the utensil. I paid attention in my independent living classes. Yet independence is also about seizing conveniences, so you could also just ask someone to help load your plate and go on about your business. I feel far more confident about carrying a tray and drink to my table than I do about navigating someone else’s logic about the way dishes should be laid out.

I walk fast when I walk alone. In fact I experience my own version of pedestrian’s sidewalk rage, but I feel slow and stumbling when walking with someone else because my attention is divided between carrying a conversation and stopping myself from colliding with a lamppost. In some cases I would rather walk with a hand on the person’s elbow to ensure the smooth continuity of both our conversation and our journey. This is especially true in crowded restaurants.

Something else that comes to mind is my attitude about how the rest of the world perceives me. As I grow older it matters less. If truth be told it probably never mattered enough, but there was a point when I wondered about the stain on my shirt or the syrup on my cheek or the rip in my jeans. If you saw either on a fellow sighted person, you would attribute it to laziness or wouldn’t think of it at all. If you saw this on a blind person, however, your first thought might be that it was because the person was blind. I’d like you to point it out to me in the spirit of open communication. No one likes to walk around attracting the wrong kind of attention, but don’t be surprised to discover that I can be every bit as careless or clumsy as you.

When you see me board a train or bus, it’d be nice if you offered me the seat near the door. I will turn you down, but it’s the thought that counts. My independence will not be threatened by the same type of courtesy I would extend if I were sighted and came upon a blind person. To that end, I may not always take advantage of the discounts and freebies offered to senior citizens and persons with disabilities. If I don’t, chalk it up to a desire to equally contribute to society and not because I am an ungrateful person. I worked hard to be a taxpayer.

How do you handle household chores as a blind person?

When I cook I first ensure the location of all supplies and ingredients. I memorize the heat level for the dial positions on the stove and oven. I use a fork to test the state of cooking meat or vegetables. I also listen for changes in the way the food sizzles to gauge states of readiness. There are tactile dots on the microwave and other appliances with touch screens. I now rely on my iPhone to keep track of time and will probably use the iPhone in the future to find recipes. Otherwise, I follow basic safety steps like using oven mitts when pulling pans from the rack. If I don’t cook more often, it’s partially because I’m a perfectionist, and what should take an hour to prepare often takes me two. Blind or sighted, nothing works better in cooking than tasting the meal in progress.

The proper way for a blind person to sweep a floor is to do so in bare feet. The idea is that you can feel whether or not you are catching all the dirt and grime. I’m not above such strategies. I just find vacuums much faster. I periodically check with my hand if a wooden floor seems fine. Carpets are a little more difficult, but the way that usually works for me is to vacuum in continuous patterns to ensure every inch is covered at least three times. The same is true of scrubbing tubs, cleaning toilets, wiping counters, and washing dishes.

Laundry is straightforward. For the moment I can still distinguish colors, but when I can no longer do so, I have different baskets for lights and darks. I’ve marked the machines. My stepmother would be disappointed to learn I no longer iron as often as I did in high school or even college, but that too is a process of orientation and using your hands to smooth, flatten, and iron in patterns for equal coverage.

Remodeling is also doable. There are blind people far more handy with tools than I will ever be, so let’s just be clear then when I say “remodeling,” in my case it means moving furniture up and down stairs, into and out of trucks, and from one end of the house to the other. My point here is that blind people are not inept, can lift heavy objects, and are perfectly capable of helping you move.

Until then, is there anything I missed? Or, is there something I got wrong? That’s technically impossible since so much of what I wrote is subjective, but alternative views are always welcomed in the comments.

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