Future Reflections July 1982, Vol. 1 No. 4

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Myths and Facts About Blindness

Visually impaired, partially sighted, visually disabled, visually handicapped, low vision, partially blind, visually limited, sightless . . . blind.

The list of terms used to describe our children's vision seems endless and often confusing. It seems that every book and professional journal about blindness, and every special teaching program, teacher, and rehabilitation counselor of the blind have their own set of terms with their own set of definitions.

Of course, in one sense it is necessary and appropriate that we have words which we can use when we need to easily and quickly indicate we are talking about someone with usable vision.

However, the proliferation of these terms goes beyond this need and has become a way to avoid at all costs the word "blind". This tendency is one indication of some very harmful myths about blindness.

We will deal directly with some of those myths in our next issue. In this issue, we will lay the groundwork, so to speak, by defining what we mean by "blindness". Dr. Jernigan has given, I believe, the best possible definition in his article "A Definition of Blindness". The following is an excerpt from the article. The complete article may be obtained free by writing to: National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.

From "A Definition of Blindness"

Before we can talk intelligently about the problems of blindness or the potentialities of blind people, we must have a workable definition of blindness. Most of us are likely familiar with the generally accepted legal definition: visual acuity of not greater than 20/200 in the better eye with correction or a field not subtending an angle greater than 20 degrees. But this is not really a satisfactory definition. It is, rather, a way of recognizing in medical and measurable terms something which must be defined not medically or physically but functionally.

In my way of thinking . . . one is blind to the extent that he must devise alternative techniques to do efficiently those things which he would do with sight if he had normal vision. An individual may properly be said to be "blind" or a "blind person" when he has to devise so many alternative techniques-that is, if he is to function efficiently-that his pattern of daily living is substantially altered. It will be observed that I say alternative not substitute techniques, for the word substitute connotes inferiority, and the alternative techniques employed by the blind person need not be inferior to visual techniques. In fact, some of them are superior. The usually accepted legal definition of blindness already given (that is, visual acuity of less than 20/200 with correction or a field of less than 20 degrees) is simply one medical way of measuring and recognizing that anyone with better vision than the amount mentioned in the definition will (although he may have to devise some alternative techniques) likely not have to devise so many such techniques as to alter substantially his patterns of daily living. On the other hand, anyone with less vision than that mentioned in the legal definition will usually (I emphasize the word usually, for such is not always the case) need to devise so many such alternative techniques as to alter quite substantially his patterns of daily living.

First, what of the person who has light perception but sees little or nothing else? In at least one situation he can function as a sighted person. If, before going to bed, he wishes to know whether the lights are out in his home, he can simply walk through the house and "see". If he did not have light perception, he would have to use some alternative technique-touch the bulb, tell by the position of the switch, have some sighted person give him the information, or devise some other method. However, this person is still quite properly referred to as a blind person. This one visual technique which he uses is such a small part of his overall pattern of daily living as to be negligible in the total picture. The patterns of his daily living are substantially altered. In the main he employs alternative techniques to do those things which he would do with sight if he had normal vision- that is, he does if he functions efficiently.

Next, let us consider the person who has normal vision acuity but cennot hold his eyes open because of his sensitivity to light. He must devise alternative techniques to do anything which he would do with sight if he had normal vision. He is quite properly considered to be a "blind person".

Finally, what of the sighted person who is put into a vault which has no light? Even though he can see nothing at all, he is still quite properly considered to be a "sighted person." He uses the same techniques that any other sighted person would use in a similar situation. There are no visual techniques which can be used in such circumstances. In fact, if a blind person found himself in such a situation, he might very well have a variety of techniques.

I repeat that in my opinion, blindness can best be defined not physically or medically but functionally or sociologically. The alternative techniques which must be learned are the same for those born blind as for those who become blind as adults. They are quite similar (or should be) for those who are totally blind or nearly so and those who are "partially sighted" and yet are blind in terms of the usually accepted legal definition. In other words, I believe that the complex distinctions which are often made between those who have partial sight and those who are totally blind, between those who have been blind from childhood and those who have become blind as adults are largely meaningless. In fact, they are often harmful since they place the wrong emphasis on blindness and its problems. Perhaps the greatest danger in the field of work for the blind today is the tendency to be hypnotized by jargon.

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