Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
What Not to Say to a Blind Person
By Beckie Horter
"Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues."
In keeping with my role as liaison between the sighted and blind communities, I offer this sensitive topic. This article is born out of many years of being on the receiving end of some pretty—let's just call them "uneducated"— comments regarding the subject of legal blindness.
I experienced it again this week. Meeting a new person in a new location, they asked me if I enjoyed the video we'd just seen. I said I couldn't really see the video too well because I am legally blind. However, I liked the music. I tried to keep it light, because I could feel the questions coming.
A moment of silence followed as she sized me up. I appeared normal to her. Why was I saying this?
"How can you see me right now?" she asked.
"Well, you're close enough. My problem is with central vision. That's your distance and detail vision," I said.
"What about glasses?"
OK, readers--We've hit upon our first "NOT to say to a blind person." Questioning the blind person's intelligence. More on this in a minute:
My response to her was, "Glasses don't help when your retinas are damaged."
How much medical detail should I try and pack into a casual conversation with a stranger? The retinas are like the film in a camera. You don't get good pictures with damaged film. My retinas are the wrong shape. I do wear contacts, but they only help my peripheral vision. I didn't say all that.
Over the years I've heard this sort of comment countless times. People want me to try either glasses, drops, or surgery.
One gas station owner insisted, "Blurry vision? All you need is glasses! That'll fix you up. Call the doctor and get some glasses."
My husband and I chuckled as we thought of calling my Ph.D./retina specialist/patent-holding engineer/doctor to tell him all I needed was glasses. It appeared his Johns Hopkins education and research was for nothing. He'd missed the glasses for blindness cure.
Not all visually impaired people look blind. Nor are we all 100% blind. There are so many degrees of loss. You have a "field of vision" that allows you to see all around in the front and to the sides. You can be legally blind by losing a section of this vision.
According to the American Federation for the Blind: Legal blindness is a level of vision loss that has been legally defined to determine eligibility for benefits. The clinical diagnosis refers to a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction, and/or a visual field of 20 degrees or less. Often, people who are diagnosed with legal blindness still have some useable vision.
So, I understand it can be complicated, especially if you don't deal with it all the time. But can we please not treat the blind person like a stupid person who's incapable of seeking out proper medical care? Seeking out many specialists over many years? Like, oh, well...I guess I'll just accept this blindness thing without investigating. No big deal.
My gosh, do you think we get our jollies making up a diagnosis just to see your reaction?
To be honest, I think people are uneducated, and also in shock/denial, that this really happens. Plus it's awkward...what do you say when someone says they're legally blind, and they don't look it?
Then, too, there's the issue of people casually saying, "I'm so blind! I forgot my reading glasses."
That gives a misunderstanding of the true meaning of the word "blind." Blind people cannot be corrected with glasses.
When in doubt, SAY NOTHING. Study the above Proverb and be thought wise.
Here's what a door-to-door salesman once said to me when he handed me a coupon book I told him I couldn't read:
"Are you sure you can't see? You're looking right at me!"
Exhibit # 2 in the "NOT to" category: Assumptions: The speaker assumes I see what they do. Yes, I am looking at you, Mister Salesman, but how do you know what I see? Your facial features are all blurry, and If you take five steps away from me, I lose them all together.
The frustration with trying to defend my medical condition is that people have a short attention span, so it's hard to get really complex. They want a quick understanding. It's not like I'm saying, "I broke my finger." We all know what that's about.
My final example: The speaker claims to have secret medical knowledge and offers false hope by saying, "You know, I saw on the TV news where they have this NEW PROCEDURE, and a blind guy had his sight restored!"
Of course, they have no details about the man's condition. Don't even know if it was a cornea or a retina procedure. Don't know any names of anyone or anything. Nevertheless, this nebulous procedure is out there, and I need to act.
Uh, huh...Well, they probably did see something. And it probably wasn't even remotely related to my condition.
I would never dream of telling an amputee, "Your arm will grow back," but people feel free to tell me there's medical hope when they have zero knowledge about my condition. Not cool.
Again, best to put a lid on it, and be thought wise. It's actually cruel to offer someone false hope when you don't know what you're talking about. Let the doctors handle this.
Bottom line: Sometimes, we just have to accept what is. We blind people have had to fight our own emotional battles without taking on the added stress of thoughtless comments.
We really value someone who can pay attention, remember what we say, offer kindness, and treat us like we can think.
And hear--I'm grateful to have had this opportunity to offer some much-needed education on a delicate subject. As you can tell, it's rather personal. But it shouldn't be private! We can all benefit from clearer communication.
Beckie Horter is a Christian blogger and devotions editor for Proverbs 31 Ministries. While she finds educating the public on vision loss a necessary part of being legally blind, Beckie also finds comedy a necessary part. She writes—albeit slowly— with humor, honesty, and insight about her faith journey at www.thisabidingwalk.com.