Take Off the Blindfold

When I was a child, my peers would sometimes make half-hearted attempts to understand what it’s like to be blind. They’d cover their eyes and stagger around a bit, or they’d borrow my cane and wave it carelessly from side to side, effectively clearing a path of about a half mile radius. It was cute, and always done with kindness, so I never bothered to inform them that mucking about with a stick for two minutes wouldn’t offer them the insight they were looking for. Others tried putting on those silly glasses you can get that are intended to demonstrate different visual impairments (one lens is foggy, the other very blurry, etc.). Again, wearing these goofy things for five minutes was not going to show anyone what blindness is like; all it could do was cause them to trip a few times and, worst of all, pity me even more than they already had. After a few attempts, people would usually conclude that blindness must really, really suck (in some ways they’re not wrong) and go back to exclaiming over how unimaginable it is for them. I was okay with that.

Some people don’t outgrow this notion, though, and pursue more serious (though equally fruitless) endeavors on the quest to understand blindness. People will blindfold themselves for a day or two, trying to accomplish everyday tasks by touch—usually neglecting their other senses in the process, of course. Others would play with the screen reader on my phone, since the iPhone has the capacity to activate a “screen curtain”. With this feature active, it’s impossible to see the screen, and the user must rely on Voiceover, the phone’s screen reader, to operate pretty much everything. The purpose of such a feature is increased privacy for blind users, who can’t defend themselves from prying eyes. Naturally, blind and sighted alike thought it would be interesting to use this feature to illustrate what blindly operating a phone would be like. This bizarre idea was dubbed the “screen curtain challenge” … and it made me crazy.

First of all, it’s ludicrous to believe that closing your eyes or blindfolding yourself for a day (or even a week) would give you more than a glimpse into what my life is like. If you have always been able to see, then you won’t have any of the skills or instincts I’ve picked up over twenty years of being without sight. Your brain does not know how to use sound to find doorways, touch to distinguish brailled letters on a page, or smell to navigate a cafeteria. Your senses pick up the same things mine do, but your brain doesn’t know how to attend to all that information. You are so accustomed to leaning on your sight for everything (not a criticism—it’s how you’re wired), that the subtle nuances I rely upon for everyday travel will be utterly lost on you.

Second, even if you could momentarily experience what it’s like to travel as a blind person (or indeed navigate a phone like a blind person), nothing but years of experience will enlighten you as to the nature of the psychological and sociocultural background of someone who has either been blind from birth (as in my case) or lost his or her sight. I won’t go so far as to claim that it’s a different world; my aim is to build bridges between blind and sighted, not isolate us further. I will say, though, that the emotional, mental, and physical experiences we accept as part of our daily lives will be totally unfamiliar to someone who has always been able to see. This is probably true of just about any disability, though I haven’t the authority to say for sure.

By encouraging ideas like the “screen curtain challenge”, we are shortchanging both blind and sighted people. Blind people, because the sighted expect that they know how we feel after a few hours of blindfolding themselves. Sighted people, because they cannot possibly be expected to figure out things like screen readers in just a day or two. After all, blind people had to learn to use their ears, and fingers, and noses; we weren’t born with a handbook in our brains. We had to figure all this stuff out, and sometimes it takes a lot of dedication to master certain skills. So how can we expect sighted people to get an accurate picture of what our lives are like if they don’t have the same advantages (or disadvantages) that we have?

If you want to understand us, talk to us. Ask us questions. Try to see (ha ha) things from our perspective, all the while accepting that you’ll never get a comprehensive picture. Until technology develops to the point where we can experience each other’s thoughts and memories, let the curtain stay where it is, take off your blindfold, and for God’s sake put that cane away before you put someone’s eye out!
P.S. Thank you for trying so hard. We know you mean well, and most of us want to understand you, too. Let’s talk.

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9 thoughts on “Take Off the Blindfold

  1. I have one of those, well, what I believe to be rare friends who is fully sighted, always has been, but she totally gets blind people. Her attitude is, if you can’t imagine what it is like to be blind, then don’t. It’s always been a puzzler to me why people felt it was required for them to understand what my life is like in order to interact with me. I don’t pretend I know what it is like to be female, or African-American, to give two examples, and yet I talk to both sorts of people and they’re just people to me. I don’t have to go to Wikipedia and study what their life experience is like first. Also, the only really effective way to experience simulated blindness would be if the blindfold or other eye-disabling device would attach itself permanently to the well-meaning person and there would be no way to remove it. Do you understand what I’m getting at. The whole psychological trip, the headspace is entirely different between being blind and knowing this is how it will be all your life and putting on a blindfold or other gizmo knowing that when you have had enough, you can remove that gizmo and continue on in your usual sighted way.

  2. I’ve lived with my vi wife for 20 years now, and, while I have developed the ability to know what she won’t see, what she needs to be informed of and what a room looks like to her, I have no real appreciation of how blindness feels. I can’t really imagine how I could. Reversing things, I wouldn’t expect her to be able to feel how sight works to someone who has always had it.

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  4. Hi Meagan,
    I know this post is somewhat older, but I hope you don’t mind me commenting anyway.
    I love your blog and all of your posts, but this is the first one I disagree with.
    Well, slightly disagree with, anyway.

    No, I am not a fan of the whole challenge-craze that the internet is in these days. There are so many of them that it seems to me sometimes that doing challenges is no more than a cheap way for YouTubers to create content.
    But if there is any challenge to turn on a screen curtain for a day, then I can totally see several upsides to that.

    Of course, you are right, it won’t give a true blindness experience. But forget about that for a moment, since I don’t think that’s all that it is about.
    Lots of sighted people have never met any blind person ever. And as you very correctly say, most sighted people cannot imagine what it is like to be blind. But – most of us are scared of losing our sight more than losing a limb. So we are curious – why else are there so many questions like “How do you get dressed in the morning?”

    Also, don’t underestimate someone just because they are sighted. Of course no one can learn to use a screen reader perfectly in twenty minutes. But it’s enough to get the general idea and to understand that it is very doable, with just a bit of training. It takes a little bit of the unknown and the strangeness away. Someone doesn’t need to know all NVDA shortcuts, but they can understand that a blind person can use the internet perfectly fine and not be surprised on how the heck they just replied to your email.

    In the end, the sighted person walks away with possibly a bit of relief, knowing that if they should every lose their vision, the world won’t end. They can learn to navigate their house, use a computer and use phones. And if they ever meet a blind person, maybe they won’t pester them with quite as many mundane questions on how they get dressed, making them feel like their non-working eyes are the most interesting thing about them. I can only imagine that to you getting dressed is just about as exciting as putting on socks is for a sighted person.

    And, as an afterthought, don’t forget that challenges, stupid as they are, can raise awareness. I have not yet met a single person that knew that blind people can use smartphones. I keep telling and showing everybody, and get many surprised looks. Yet, all of them have heard of ALS, because of that Ice Bucket Challenge.
    Most of my friends are software developers like me. How could you expect them to even consider accessibility for their software, if they don’t even know that screen readers exist?

    • Hi there,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Of course you are free and welcome to comment on any post, no matter how old.
      I appreciate your perspective as a sighted person with knowledge of accessibility. I think that brings a certain freshness to the topic that most blind people don’t seek or have access to, so thanks for presenting your side of things so articulately.
      I stand by my post, but you do make quite a few valid points (I kinda want to go back and edit my post now). I think that a lot of the cases you mention, particularly concerning software developers and people who are contemplating losing their vision, are just that: special. Most sighted people seem to get nothing out of blindfolding themselves other than feeling even more sorry for us. It doesn’t seem to produce understanding as much as pity and panic.
      That being said, I have had a few encounters that were promising and encouraging. A few people, not all of them technically inclined, had great fun exploring my screen readers and came away with a much better understanding of how I get things done. I think raising general awareness of how we use technology (I’ve actually written about this elsewhere), will help us in the employment world, as well, since employers won’t be so in the dark about how we can function as well as sighted coworkers.
      Still, there’s no getting around the fact that blindfolding, in particular, has harmful effects that can’t be ignored or minimized. There’s a charity out there, I can’t recall its name, that is encouraging sighted people to blindfold themselves briefly in an effort to tug on heart-strings and get donations. They’re essentially painting blindness in the worst light possible so people will feel terrible and give their money. The charity has repeatedly shot down any blind people’s input if it goes against their methods, going so far as to delete comments from their social media pages and block people who disagree with them. it’s that sort of thing that made me write this post, and it’s why I won’t retract it.
      So, as I say, you do have excellent points and it looks like there’s more of a place for this type of thing than I originally thought, but I still maintain that for the most part it does at least as much harm as good. Far more insight can be gained by meaningful dialogue than any viral internet challenge.
      Thanks again for reading!

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