"Living with visual impairment is as much about learning to navigate your own world as it is educating those sighted individuals around you. And one of the biggest misperceptions from those with sight is that people who are blind ‘look’ a certain way.” A. Torres, MAB Client, Professional, Mother, Wife, and Community Advocate.
Listening to Alicia Torres explain the nuances of being visually impaired in a sighted world is, um, eye-opening. For Torres, who is legally blind, explaining that blindness is a spectrum is now just second nature. Torres is the director of accessibility for Honeywell in Charlotte, NC, and sits on the board of Metrolina Association for the Blind.
Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) as a teen, she has become an advocate for research and understanding – two things that probably don’t go hand in hand nearly as much as they should. “There is the science piece of fighting for an RP cure and better treatments, and then there is the social part of helping others understand that blindness does not fit into a tidy box,” Torres explains. “It is a very broad range of conditions and levels of vision. And, no, we do not all LOOK blind.”
Not everyone who has guide dog, uses a white cane, carries a mobility device or uses a handicap placard in their family car is fully blind. There is a spectrum of vision impairment that includes the following states of sightedness and more:
- Partial sightedness
- Limited vision
- Loss of peripheral vision (Peripheral means the vision out of the “corner of your eyes.”)
- Loss of central vision (Central is the vision that allows you to focus on details and colors.)
- Inability to detect contrast or color
- Night blindness
What’s with the Terminology?
“There are different terms to describe a vision disability, and some may be offensive or less desirable to those of us with vision loss than others,” Torres says. For instance, some people are fine with calling themselves “blind,” while other may feel that doesn’t fully describe their level of sight or vision loss. Other prefer the phrase “visually impaired.
Blind. Visually impaired. Vision-impaired. Partially sighted. Unsighted. Without vision. All descriptors work in some way for some people. The point is, no one person living with blindness is like another living with blindness. There is a range as wide as there is for any other diversability. “These are the words; they are not who we are,” Torres says.
From a medical standpoint, being blind or visually impaired is defined as having trouble seeing even when wearing glasses or contact lenses. Legal blindness is defined as having vision that is 20/200 or less in your better eye, or your field of vision is less than 20 degrees. That means if an object is 200 feet away, you have to stand 20 feet from it in order to see it clearly. But a person with normal vision can stand 200 feet away and see that object perfectly.
According to Torres, establishing “legal” blindness is what allows someone to qualify for accommodations. She does not drive, due to her blindness, but she does have a handicapped placard in her family car so that when her husband drives, he can park close to the door of a building, making it easier for her to navigate into a store, the post office or the library. “When my husband and I get out of our car, after parking in a handicapped spot, we have had people make comments to us about parking there because we both appear physically fine, and I don’t LOOK blind!”
Misconceptions About Blindness
Just like with any group of individuals of varying cultures, backgrounds, religious or political affiliates, there are stereotypes and grave misconceptions about diversabilities like blindness. Here are just a few:
Blind people are old.
Although blindness is something that certainly does impact people as they age, it’s far from the truth that all blind people are old. There is a significant number of young people with blindness or vision impairment. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 3% of children younger than 18 are blind or visually impaired.
Blind people can’t work or have a career.
No again. People who are visually impaired or blind can work the same hours, doing many of the same tasks as a sighted person. However, they might need special accommodations.
“If I’m giving a presentation at work,” Torres says, “my PowerPoint on the screen will be really large so that I can see the information. If I’m sitting in on someone else’s presentation, I make sure I take a seat before the lights are turned out in the room and that I’m close to the door so I can more easily navigate to the exit. I will also wait until the lights are turned back on and the room is generally cleared of people before I get up to leave.”
Additional accommodations might include small things like a computer that has the ability to create a really large cursor. (“I’m forever losing the mouse on my computer screen!” says Torres. “Now I have a cursor that looks like a giant Mickey Mouse hand,” she adds with a laugh.) Or accommodations might include seemingly more significant things like being able to work from home in an environment that is familiar.
People with blindness have enhanced senses of hearing, smell and touch.
This is not necessarily true. If you have visual impairment, you are apt to rely on your other senses more than a sighted person, but it does mean your other senses actually “get better.” It simply means you use them more!
People with visual impairment are unhappy.
Blindness does not define a person. To be told you are going blind or losing vision is not good news, but it also does not mean that people who are blind or have vision impairment are unhappy. They have great days and not-so-great – just like anyone else.
Torres had someone tell her, “Oh if I couldn’t see, I just don’t think I could live anymore.” That’s a pretty stark statement about a condition that millions live very actively with every day. “Having vision impairment makes you different from others,” Torres says. Just like having red hair or braces or a bad sense of direction or the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese. “Everyone has something that makes them special,” she says. “Being blind is one of those things.”