No, I Don’t See With My Heart

I’ve come across a persistent myth concerning blind people and their near-angelic status. The sighted world is so shallow. The sighted world is so intolerant of diversity. The sighted world is so afraid of difference; so obsessed with outward appearance; so incapable of appreciating the “inside”. Blind people, on the other hand, “see” with our hearts. We possess heightened compassion and tolerance. Further, because we don’t have access to vision, we could not possibly criticize others for being shallow. After all, what do we know? We have never seen. How can we condemn what we don’t understand?

This perspective is so persuasive that at least one study has been conducted to find out whether blind people are capable of being, say, racist, reasoning that our inability to see colour must make us immune to racial prejudice. Yes, of course we are capable of prejudice. This is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Think about it: race is so much more than pigmentation. It’s a socially constructed system in which we choose to group people into racial categories, then attach specific traits to those groups. This is how society decides that “Mexicans are lazy” and “black people are thugs” and “white people are respectable”. These labels transcend colour. People are not offended by or prejudicial towards a black person because they don’t like their skin. Racism is so embedded in our culture that nobody, not even a blind person, could escape it. I suppose you could argue that we may not judge as readily if we don’t yet know a stranger’s race, but all I have to do is hear a particular accent to commence judging immediately. I try not to, of course, but even I know it’s a mistake to pretend I don’t.

It is also somewhat unreasonable to assume there are few, if any, blind people who are shallower than cookie sheets. So much of society is busy branding the underweight as skeletal; the overweight as lazy; the attractive, desirable; the unattractive, undesirable. Blind people must be incapable of and therefore unable to appreciate or reject someone for their outward appearance, right? Nuh uh.

The thing is, fat (or lack of it) is not a purely visual concept. All it takes is a hug for me to know a fair bit about what you look like. I could take a guess at your weight, and judge the clothing you are wearing (to a certain extent anyway) and assess the attractiveness or unattractiveness of your general shape. Don’t be fooled into thinking blind people don’t fat shame. We understand what fat is, and we are almost as susceptible to instinctive judgements as anyone else. I recall reading a story about Tommy Sullivan, a blind pianist, who pretended to drop something so he could scrabble around on the floor for it. He very conveniently managed to grab the nearest woman’s leg in the process. I believe it was Ray Charles who, upon gripping a woman’s arm, allegedly grimaced with disgust when he realized how plump she was. Anecdotes like these, whether true or false, suggest that blind people can be just as shallow as the average sighted person. If a blind person tries to claim they are above reproach and incapable of shallow discrimination, please do set them straight.

Consider voices: no two voices are identical (mostly because accents and various linguistic quirks make them more distinct) and while most of them are neutral to me, I find some very attractive and some…well, not. Try as I might, I can’t escape the tendency to judge based on vocal qualities. A grating voice might put me off. If a person uses an excess of vocal fry, says “like” a little too often, or has an otherwise unusual or irritating voice, I’m going to have a harder time interacting with them until I get to know them a bit better. It’s equally easy to be drawn to a lovely voice, as well. Some people become distracted when they see a gorgeous person. If you have a gorgeous voice, I’m going to get distracted, too. (If I ever meet Morgan Freeman, I’ll be in trouble.) It’s a perfectly natural aspect of human life and, while sighted people focus less on this because their vision is more demanding, blind people are especially vulnerable to this bias.

Scent and touch matter, too: perfume and cashmere aren’t marketed exclusively to blind people, after all. I think sighted people frequently underestimate qualities outside of visual beauty. There are probably a lot of traits you find attractive in others, but you’re not conscious of them because you’re busy appreciating what they look like. If you concentrate, you might discover a few new attributes.

Then, we come to the idea of automatic compassion: it’s true that, in my personal case, blindness has allowed me to step outside myself and consider the difficulties of others. This sensitivity may just be a component of my personality, and not a direct result of my blindness, though. I certainly think it helps–empathy goes a long way–but after years of interacting with the rest of the community, I know just how intolerant, bigoted, and “shortsighted” we can be. I’ve scrolled through numerous discussion forums, watching scores of blind people displaying alarming amounts of homophobia, racism, sexism, and even ableism towards other disabilities. Hell, I’ve even seen them turn on each other, accusing people of handling their blindness badly, or giving us a bad name, or simply doing life wrong. Where is all this inherent compassion we’re supposed to be born with? Where is this innate avoidance of judgment? I’ve witnessed just as much judgment and intolerance in the blind community as anywhere else, maybe more.

Sure, there are many of us who try to see past the surface, understand multiple perspectives, and acknowledge that since we have never known sight, there may be a lot of things we’re missing altogether. But to tell me I don’t “get it” because I’ve never seen someone? To tell me I will never understand fat shaming or racism or ableism because I can’t see? To tell me I can’t criticize it because I don’t know what it’s like? That’s a very dangerous (and condescending) viewpoint. This assumes that being unable to see makes me into an angel of compassion. I’m nice enough (I hope), but not angelic. So please: don’t deceive yourself by imagining that we are too busy seeing with our charitable little hearts to find fault. Our humanity is neither diminished nor enhanced by disability, remember that.

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8 thoughts on “No, I Don’t See With My Heart

  1. One thing I have noticed in the blind community is treating other disabilities as less than. Even in the guide dog world, which in many cases a lot worse(there are people who aren’t but many who are). They question the need of service dog handler’s service dog(more so when they can’t see the disability).

    But in general the blind at least my noticing are no different than the sighted in anyway, but lack of sight and different ways of doing things. I judge and am judged in both worlds it is human nature.

      • It is elitist type thing. I can get a guide(once I finish O&M training need better skills and I know it) in under six months if I am not picky, and for free, but my friends with service dogs either owner trained, or program most will fund raise, pay for travel, and wait a lot longer sometimes as long as five or more years.

        I regularly say I have it easy compared to them. I see their suffering(many with mental health issues, Autism, and or other disabilities) and think their struggles are no less than mine and in some cases they are worse.

        But I am like them somewhat having my other issues. I cheer at the guide program here in the US who is willing to clients, who are Autistic, or have SPD that function like a blind person. Because it means someone out there is moving forward.(Though these people do have to pay for O&M training, which I happen not to agree with because how much it could help them). And I am rambling.

  2. a very interesting post Meagan! I look at it like this. you talk about voice and whether one finds a person attractive or not sometimes if somebody sighted tells me that the waitress who has just brought food to a table is attractive either they say it to me discretely at the table or I say it whether discretely at the table or once I’ve left the restaurant and am in the car on the way home even taking somebody’s elbow can give one an idea of what the person looks like. we as blind people can be considered racist but it’s often the words we say and not so much about the colour of one’s skin. I think we’ve all said nasty hurtful and racially vilifying comments to somebody but mostly out of anger think getting angry is just a human thing but if it can be avoided that’s even better. for example, I was at my employment agency back in august where I had to sign some paperwork. I called a taxi to go home and the lady who was helping me sign paperwork waited with me while I got the taxi home as soon as I got into the car the first thing the driver said was. Blockquote that lady standing there with you looks a good sort blockquote end.
    I laughed so much I went as red as a beatroot my first thought was “oh shit I hope this lady didn’t see my face and I hope she turned the other way”
    if somebody tells me that a woman or a girl is attractive rule of thumb. I’m to just take their word for it and if I want to make comments I must be discrete so as not to embarrass said woman or young girl on the issue of service dogs, I have a so called friend down the road from me who says she suffers from anxiety and depression and post traumatic stress disorder although I do question these things as she had also disclosed that she was once raped and I know it’s never a good idea to question this mind set as much as I want to question such a thing.
    she’s not really considered a friend because all she does is talk about nothing but negative stuff and I can tell in her voice she’s just constantly down that probably has nothing to do with this post but it’s an example of knowing who is a friend and who isn’t.
    often in my past I was always to know a certain teacher’s footsteps just by the shoes she wore and also I was good at knowing who was passing by just by the perfume they wore but I do think we can all be shallow and narrow minded at times sometimes it’s not necessarily through ignorance but also because of not knowing the situation or the facts which some of us are reluctant to ask anything unless we ask a 3rd party discretely without said person knowing about it or we ask the person if they’re okay with answering but often times I myself try and avoid asking questions unless it’s okay to do so none of us are perfect though.

  3. I can definitely relate on the voice thing. A girl with a nice voice is definitely a major turn-on for me, especially if she can sing. Then of course there are those voices that are downright annoying or just don’t inspire you to look deeper. My very first girlfriend fell into that latter category. The best way I can describe her is that she sounded like Daria Morgendorffer from Beavis and Butt Head only not nearly as cool.

  4. If someone were to make the argument with me that I am incapable of discrimination because of my blindness, I would ask them why they don’t consider me to be a human being.

    Everyone of us discriminates. I’ve never met a person who does not discriminate and I never will. Furthermore, I would be frightened if I did come across such a person because it is unnatural. Part of the issue is we tend to think of discrimination in its worst forms such as: racism, sexism and so on. But not all forms of discrimination are wrong.

    For example, we’ll use your comments on voice because for me voice is huge when I am figuring out if someone is what I consider to be attractive. Sure, I could put aside a person’s voice and learn to appreciate all aspects of their personality. But if I don’t enjoy hearing their voice, how eager am I going to be to listen to them? If I’ve determined that I’m not attracted to someone wouldn’t I be wasting my time and theirs by pursuing a relationship that is not entirely meaningful or one where they may be more invested than I?
    Am I going to treat someone like a second class citizen because I don’t find their voice attractive? Absolutely not because that would cross over to the bad side of discrimination. Might I use that as a reason not to date them? Yes but in the end that could work out to not just my benefit but to their benefit as well. Is this a form of discrimination? Absolutely but is it inherently bad discrimination? I would argue that it is not.

    The point of your post as I read is it is that blind people are as capable of discrimination as anyone else and I would agree with that 100 percent. It is human nature to discriminate. Why think of the world as being comprised of 7 billion individuals when we can widdle that down to a few types of people? Nobody, in my experience is as open minded as they imagine themselves to be. Get to know a person well enough over a long enough period of time and their biases will eventually emerge.

    The issue is not that we label people as different but how we handle those differences.

    I enjoyed your entry a lot and like your blog, keep up the good work.

  5. Pingback: So Much for Writing Daily | Random Catastrophe

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