This past May, I spoke to 70 third graders at a school in Elkins Park, a township outside of Philadelphia. I had them close their eyes and think about the challenges people with visual impairments face. Then, I pulled volunteers up front to demonstrate how hearing and touch substitute for lost sight. After a half hour, I took questions.
“Be concise,” the host teacher whispered. “Every hand’s in the air.”
I smiled. Years ago, I taught third graders, and I’ve never forgotten their enthusiasm.
“Is it hard to be blind?” the first student asked.
Wow! No softball stuff — she got immediately to the crux. The concise answer was, of course, “Yes.”
My mind immediately went to what’s been hardest of all for me — the death of a cherished guide dog, and I’ve lost five. Dave died earlier this year, but I didn’t want to open the question-and-answer segment on such a sad note for the kids.
Still, I did sneak in quite a few thoughts to the school group, and since, I’ve been thinking about what else I would have liked to say, especially if given an older or wider audience. So, here goes.
I’d want those 8 and 9 year olds and others to know that the word ‘blind’ doesn’t always mean completely without sight. Someone legally blind, for instance, can see at 20 feet what a person with normal eyesight sees at 200 feet. And even those with worse than legal blindness often still see light, colors or objects only in the peripheral or central field of vision. Tiny bits of sight can be confusing and very difficult, but total blindness is even harder, at least at the beginning.
I’d want them to know that 295 million people in the world have moderate-to-severe visual impairment, and 43 million are blind. This total is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United States.
Read more: ‘Woke’ doesn’t have to be a 4-letter word
I’d want some consideration that the person’s age when becoming blind results in differences in difficulty. Those who are born blind learn daily how to manage the world without sight. Usually by preschool they detect a strange phenomenon: other children move faster. What’s going on? Do those kids have longer arms and legs? By about 5, most congenitally blind children grasp that they have one fewer major sense in their arsenals than sighted classmates. They start cane and Braille training. Yet, growing up in a sighted world, they often feel their difference keenly — blindness is a target for bullies. In adulthood, however, they have other interests and skills. Their identities are fuller. Most consider their disability as a minor attribute akin to being a brunette.
Born blind vs. learning to live blind
People like me, who became blind later in life, often experience the disability as a kind of death — death to the sense and death to the self-image. We need to deal with the sadness and also the difference we now recognize between us and most people.
Compared to those born blind, our experience is double-barreled. Most of us find a rehab program and take a crash course in how to live while blind. As toddlers, those with congenital blindness automatically protect and locate themselves, hearing footsteps and voices bounce off objects. We adventitiously blind folks try to detect the echoes, but initially smash our foreheads into partially open doors instead. Mastering this skill helps us avoid collisions, but it also allows us to hear roofs, movie marquees and poles to locate destinations.
My rehab program in Pittsburgh was 15 weeks with classes in eating (try eating with your eyes closed), cooking, cleaning, Braille-reading, Braille-writing, walking safely with a 55-inch cane, sensitivity training, household repair, attaching Braille color tags to clothing, applying make-up, finding enjoyable recreation, counseling. A very full schedule — five and a half days a week. Trying to do well was hard and exhausting work. After landing a teaching job in the rehab program, followed by social work grad school, then a job as a teen therapist, I grew to see my blindness as redemptive; it absolutely made me a better person. Still, I’ve always considered it a deprivation, not simply an attribute. I can’t alter my blindness, which keeps me from seeing my family, but I can change my hair color and — full disclosure — I do.
The kids don’t need to know about my hair color choices, but I’d want them to know that most of us who are blind or visually impaired eventually find that our lives are similar to one another’s and actually similar to the lives of those with sight. We have partners, manage work of some kind and enjoy recreation.
Advancements, attitudes and acceptance
Some key things happened in the past 50 years that reduced the difficulties for us. First, disabled Vietnam veterans and others with physical impairments began marching for equal rights. By 1990, their efforts resulted in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA. This law required reasonable adjustment to a job or work environment so that a qualified person with a disability could participate.
Next came the technological revolution, with computers and then screen readers to speak every word we type. Screen readers allowed me to hear and revise my own writing — an advancement almost as important for an author as the white cane or guide dog.
What has not changed enough are attitudes and accessibility. The American Foundation for the Blind released a report in April capturing the difficulties of 398 visually impaired participants: 90% encounter at least some website problems when applying for a job, 88% when ordering food, 86% when shopping online, and more than 90% when booking air, train or bus travel. Here in Pittsburgh, a blind advocacy group is encouraging a supermarket chain to make changes to its website that would permit blind people to order groceries independently — a service that so many have taken advantage of in recent years, especially since COVID-19.
Though technology has made it possible for me to research, write, revise my work and teach at a university and on Zoom, my tech frustrations are daily. My Apple 14 pairs with a small Braille device, for instance, but the phone only responds to the older six-dot Braille, not eight-dot computer Braille. Unlike younger people with superior tech skills, I do research mostly on the computer, not my phone with the Braille display.
I’m mostly retired, but I frequently think and hear about how many blind job-seekers in Pittsburgh face serious access barriers. Often, the same companies that say they want an inclusive workforce also say that installing accessible software would cause undue financial hardship.
So, yes — dear third graders et al — blindness makes many of life’s tasks hard. But blindness has helped me grow in purpose, empathy and listening. And years ago, with my eyes patched in a hospital, I discovered audio books and transformed into a reader. For that gift alone, I’ll accept everything hard about being blind.
Sally Hobart Alexander is the author of many essays and eight books. Six books were Junior Library Guild selections, and one, “Taking Hold: My Journey into Blindness” won a Christopher Medal. Having taught in Chatham’s MFA program, she now leads a writing group. If you want to send a message to Sally, email email@example.com.
We don't have paywalls — but your support helps us bridge crucial information gaps.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.