Sarah Blake LaRose (3kitties) wrote,
Sarah Blake LaRose

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bridging the gap between blind and sighted people

A couple of years ago, a friend challenged me to write a letter to church members about how to relate to me... I couldn't do it at the time--sometimes I can get too close emotionally to a situation to be effective in this kind of thing. The following is something I wrote in response to a question on an email list. The person wanted to know "what it's like to be bline" because she has several acquaintances who have vision problems but (in her words) are "too scared to talk about it and get the information that they need). She went on to state that they are very independent. As a blind person, this sent off some red flags for me... Without more information, there is a lot that I don't know. Are these elderly people with recent-onset vision loss? What does she mean by "independent?" What are the circumstances where she feels they should be accessing information and are not? This does happen quite often with people who are losing their vision; but as I read her post, I also thought of some situations where a person may interpret inaccurately that a blind person is refusing assistance or being "too independent." (Maybe I'm just sensitive to it because it's happened to me so many times.)

There are many people who try to hand me off information that is irrelevant, that I already have, that is inaccurate, etc. They're well-meaning, but it puts me in a very awkward situation when all I want to do is go about life. I thought of some classic examples that occurred when I requested prayer about my search for employment. Instead of responding with assurances of support and prayer, a couple of ladies started trying to send me off to the agency for the blind (I was already a client), some agencies for people with developmental disabilities (I wasn't qualified for services), etc. It was very frustrating; and I'm sure that to them I appeared "independent" and indifferent, maybe "too scared" to talk about blindness and use the resources available to me. It would have been a very inaccurate assumption, but I can see how they could have come to it; and I am aware that this is not an uncommon situation.

It's hard to respond to a question like this in a short email. I did try. I felt like I needed to cover a lot of bases, and if nothing else maybe it's a good start on something usable in other situations. I'd be interested in any feedback on this in case I do use it elsewhere.

I wrote:

My first question back to you is whether these people's vision loss is a new problem or has been lifelong. If it is recent, then it is realistic to think that at some point they may feel some very overwhelming negative emotions directly related to blindness. If they have been dealing with visual impairment for a long time, their "independence" may indicate to you that they have learned ways to address a lot of the problems that a person like yourself might fear when thinking about losing your sight. In this case, it is very important to separate your perception of any fear or sadness that you expect a blind person to experience from the reality of a blind person's life. People respond to vision loss in a number of different ways. Some people may have known about their eye conditions for a very long time so may have had time to prepare emotionally and otherwise for it. Some people are just private people and need time and space to choose how, when, and with whom to talk about their emotions.

Blindness/visual impairment is not something that necessarily preoccupies the emotions, although it can for some people (especially a person who is elderly or employed in a job that involves significant visual work, such as painting or driving). Sometimes the most helpful thing to do is keep on with normal activity! One of the deepest desires most of the blind people I know share is for people to look past their blindness and see them as people with unique interests, talents, personalities, etc. Some are cheerful; some are grouchy in general. It usually has very little to do with blindness, although blindness can work alongside other life circumstances to help shape a person's outlook and habits.

As for what it is like to be blind, there are a million different answers to this question because it really depends on how a person responds to his/her own circumstances. It's like asking what it's like to be short or tall. Blindness is something that can affect life at times, and sometimes it causes major problems practically (for instance when I really need medical treatment and can't get to the doctor because I don't have a ride and don't have money for a cab). But usually as I'm going about my daily activities, I'm not sitting around thinking about blindness. I've learned ways to do things that don't require seeing, and I use my vision when it's usable. This is normal for me. I get up, fix my breakfast, feed my animals, do whatever I have on the schedule to do that day... I think about blindness when something comes up that makes thinking about it important--and often I think about it very indirectly. I don't tend to think, "I wish I could see." I think, "I hate not having a ride to the store." I just was not brought up to wish for sight--it's not something within the realm of possibility, and I've never been a fanciful thinker. Some people are, and I do my best to understand them; but I'm not and I don't want anyone assuming that I wish for something I never had. If I go in for an eye surgery, it's because I care about my eye health and the vision I've lost since childhood, not because I want a miracle.

The first thing I would suggest to you is to remember that while blindness seems frightening and consuming to you, it may or may not be so to the other person. I think if you're going to relate well to a person who has some kind of visual impairment, you have to take your cue from the person. If he acts like blindness is not a concern for him, then respond to him that way. Offer to help if there's some situation where he genuinely appears to have difficulty, or just come out and say that you've not been around a blind person and want him to feel free to ask if he needs or wants anything, and then assume that he will and go on to other things and relate to him as you would to anyone else. These are the friendships that have flourished for me, and people who have done this have made me feel most at ease. They've also probably learned more about blindness and my life in the long run than those who barrage me with questions because these are people I end up feeling comfortable spending time with and allowing access to my personal space and information.


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