Three questions with a blind person #1

Three questions for a blind person

I know that fully sighted people have many questions centered around what it is like to be blind (or visually impaired) so I thought it would be informative to start a new ongoing segment here where I answer three questions about being blind or visually impaired.  If you have (respectful) questions you would like answered, feel free to contact me via Twitter @nedskee and I will be happy to include them in this series. Let’s get started, shall we?

How do blind people know where they are headed?

It is surprising to me just how often I get asked this question when I am out and about. I’m a guide dog user now, but I would say this question was as commonly asked of me when I was out walking with my cane. In general, visually impaired people use Proprioception which is the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. Think about it this way: when you get out of bed at night and don’t turn on the light because you know the way to the bathroom, and where everything is. You know that it is about four steps to the doorframe from your bed and that there is a chair on the right etc. This is how we navigate familiar locations like the house. I can tell you how many steps it is from any point to any point in my house. I can also tell you that it is 36 steps from the third booth at my favorite Mexican restaurant to the men’s room which is on the right in the little hallway. You become very good at counting steps or using time/distance estimation. I know that I can walk down my street for about two minutes before I hit the little bumps used to mark wheelchair ramps on the ground at the corner. We generally take familiar routes to destinations, so we know where we are at any given moment.

It is often tempting to grab (or offer to grab) a blind person’s arm and help them when they are crossing the street or even just out and about, but it is generally much safer for the blind person to navigate themselves. Think about it this way: I’m at the corner waiting for the light (I listen to the traffic and know when it is my turn to cross) and you come up and grab my arm to help me cross the street. You drop me off at the corner across the street and wander off congratulating yourself on the good deed you did. What actually happened was, you walked me across the street talking to me the whole way disorienting me in the process and left me in the location you felt was safe for me on the corner. After you walk away, I must spend time reorienting myself. I have to find the corner and the curb and reestablish the line I was traveling. Your good deed ended up making my trip longer and potentially more dangerous than it would have been if you didn’t offer aid. This is not to say I don’t appreciate help, I often do, but the entire process can be disorienting. If we do get turned around, there are apps to help reorient us or we can ask a passerby to affirm the location of a landmark to ensure we are oriented properly.  

How do you see the world now? Do you see black or grey?

I think this is different for everyone who is visually impaired. I can only speak from my personal experience. I have no vision in one eye and the other is 95% black. The eye that I can see a little out of loses all detail at about an inch, so I see dark and light shadows and blurs. I was able to keep my color perception, so the shadows are colored. When I look at a person, I see a blurry shape where I know they are and that is about it. I can’t see faces or facial expressions, I can see movement, so I can interpret body language from that aspect of my perception. The rest of the vision in that eye is a combination of pure black and mobile flashes of white light. When I think about it, the sensation is very distracting, so I try to not think about it.  The parts of my vision that are black are just that. Imagine the darkest you have ever seen it, that is what I see. In the one eye that has some sight, the other (which has no light perception) has nothing at all. It is almost like there is nothing there at all. 

I think the biggest difference for me is that I hear the world now much more than I did before the car accident that robbed me of my sight. I hear much more in people’s voices than I ever did and notice the sounds in the world around me so much more. I’m also much more careful with my hearing. I would go to concerts without ear protection before but now that my hearing is such a large part of my life, I never go anyplace with amplified music without some sort of ear protection.

 How do I get the attention of a visually impaired person when I don’t know their name?

First, because we can’t see (generally) we can hear just fine. We can tell when a person is close to us and talking to us even if you aren’t using our name. As you get closer to someone the voice gets louder, and therefore if someone says “excuse me” it is a good bet that someone is trying to get your attention. Just talk to a visually impaired person like you would anyone else, but don’t rely on hand gestures or other visual cues when interacting.  Second, we don’t like to be touched by strangers any more than anyone else. You don’t need to walk up and tap us on the arm to get our attention, when you approach, most of us are going to know you are there just from your footsteps and the proximity if your body. Just like with anyone else you would meet that you don’t know, don’t grab anyone who is visually impaired and always ask before touching. Generally common-sense rules apply here.

Your Turn!

Are you fully sighted and have questions about interacting with visually impaired friends or what it is like to be blind? Feel free to drop me a message on twitter @nedskee and ask away, I will cover your question in an upcoming installment of this series. Don’t worry I don’t have to use your name it can be anonymous.

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