My husband, Jeff, is legally blind due to a hereditary disease of the retina called Retinitis Pigmentosa. I had worked in the field of visual impairment for many years before I met Jeff, and so I was a little desensitized to the reality that very few people actually deal first hand with someone who is blind. I remember being surprised by some of the common misconceptions about blindness, but have come to understand that these misconceptions are the natural result of lack of exposure to what is, thankfully, a low incidence disability in this country.
In this article I will attempt to describe some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings about blindness that Jeff and I commonly encounter, and hopefully provide some clarification for people looking for more information.
Common Misconceptions about Blindness #1: Blind People Can’t See Anything
I remember a conversation I had with a co-worker at a CD store many years ago. We had customer who would come in several times a week, lean his white cane against the stacks, and lean over the racks of CDs, periodically picking one up and pressing it against his coke-bottle glasses. He would infuriate my co-worker.
“He’s not blind!” she fumed one day. “He can see the CDs. He shouldn’t have that white cane!”
While I will acknowledge that this particular co-worker was easily irritated by any number of things, and prone to rants, the general misconception she had that all blind people have no usable vision is a fairly common one. People tend to think of blindness in terms of “total darkness” or “some light perception,” etc.
Total blindness is actually far more uncommon than what is called “Legal Blindness.” To qualify as legally blind, a person must meet at least one of two criteria. They must have either significant problems with their visual acuity (sharpness), or they must have restrictions in their visual fields (the amount of the landscape they actually see).
To qualify for legal blindness due to problems with visual acuity, a person must have no better than 20/200 best corrected. The criteria for field deficit legal blindness is a field of vision equal to of less than 20 degrees.
What does that mean in plain English? Well, 20/20 vision is the standard for correct, or normal, visual acuity. It refers to what you can see at a distance of 20 feet away over what people with perfect vision can see at a distance of the number of feet represented by the second number. For legal blindness due to acuity, the blind person can see at 20 feet what someone with perfect vision can see from 200 feet away or farther, best corrected (meaning, wearing their glasses).
For legal blindness due to field restriction, the standard of 20 degrees refers to the size of the visual field the person has. The visual field of the person with normal vision is just under 180 degrees (you can see everything in front of you, and nearly all to the sides when looking straight ahead, but nothing behind you). People who are legally blind because of field deficits often have either no or limited peripheral vision, or have large areas in the center of their visual field that they can not see through.
Common Misconceptions about Blindness #2: Blind People Can Hear Better Than Sighted People
The misconception that blindness somehow sharpens the other senses of the person is extremely common. The reason for this is simply because it appears to be true.
Did I just contradict myself? Not really. Blind people often seem to have better hearing than people with normal vision. The pick up on auditory cues that many of us miss. They hear things that no one else seems to. They are better at busting others when they whisper. None-the-less, the hearing of people with blindness generally tests withing the same range as that of sighted people.
How can this be explained? It’s fairly simple, actually. Vision is an extremely stimulating sense. So much goes on in the world around us that we take in visually, and all that visual input can be very distracting. However, close your eyes, and you’ll start to notice many of the smaller, more subtle details about the world around you.
It’s a matter of focus. A blind person will strain to hear, and a sighted person will strain to see. It’s how we make sense of what’s around us.
Let me put it into context for you. You’ve just gotten into bed for the night and have some soft music playing. When you turned it on, it seemed so low, you could barely hear it. However, after a few minutes lying in the dark, the music seems quite loud and is keeping you awake, so you get out of bed to lower it further. While you were lying there, there was no improvement in your ability to hear, but you were no longer visually stimulated, so your sense of hearing took over center stage for a while.
Common Misconceptions about Blindness #3: It’s Okay to Pet a Guide Dog in Harness, As Long As It Is Lying Down
You may pet a guide dog at one time, and one time only: when it is out of harness. The misconception that as long as a guide dog is not traveling with the blind person it’s safe to pet him or her is actually one that causes a lot of trouble and potential safety hazards for guide dog users.
What’s the big deal? How can it cause trouble for a guide dog user if the dog is just lying down? The answer lies in the training of the dog.
Guide dogs are trained for the role from a young age. One of the first things they learn is that it when the guiding harness in on, they are on duty. They do not play with other dogs, check out that fire hydrant, or engage with people. Their sole function is to guide the person they are working with.
If a visually impaired person sits down with a cup of coffee in a café, the guide dog will typically lie on the floor beside the person’s chair. The dog is still on duty. Its owner can get up at any moment to move around, and the dog needs to know that it is active. Most importantly, however, a hazardous situation could introduce itself to the environment at any time.
If the dog has people coming up to pet it while in harness, the dog can quickly become confused about what the rules are, and about its responsibility is, undoing years of training, and rendering the dog unfit to work.
Common Misconceptions about Blindness #4: Blind People Shouldn’t Have Handicapped Parking Placards, Their Legs Are Just Fine
This misconception is particularly common. Blindness and Deafness are both disabilities, but blind people are entitled to handicapped parking, and deaf people are not. What’s the difference? Both have working legs. Obviously blind people aren’t driving the car, so clearly there is someone with them to guide them. Why should blindness entitle them to special treatment?
Parking lots are some of the most dangerous places for pedestrians. People are not paying attention. They’re searching for a space or going over their shopping list in their heads. Parking lots are also incredibly dense traffic areas, often filled with angry or frustrated shoppers who just want to squeeze their cars into spaces between those hoards of walking bodies and get to their nail appointments.
The dangers to be found in a parking lot for someone with blindness are compounded by the limited responsiveness of the person. The person guiding him or her is already working overtime, ensuring that the area is safe for two people, instead of one. In a dangerous situation, quick reflexes are needed in conjunction with a quick understanding of what is transpiring. It is safest to allow someone with blindness to park close to their destination and limit their travel time through a dangerous environment.
Common Misconceptions about Blindness #5: Blind People Are Angels
The misconception that blind people are angels- I come cross this one all the time. Where on Earth did it from?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been discussing my husband only to have someone jump in to inform me that he is a special being sent from God. Or that he has a greater purpose. Or that he is a truly remarkable man to be living in the world and making his way.
I tend to think that these things are true of Jeff, but they have nothing to do with his blindness. The indisputable, universal difference between people with blindness and sighted people is that people with blindness don’t see very well.