Thank You For The Freedom: Or, Why You Shouldn’t Put Blind Kids In A Bubble

My parents did me a great service: they refused to put me in a bubble. I was rarely told, “I don’t want you doing it, it’s too dangerous.” As a child, I was fearless. I’d try anything, as long as my dad was there to provide assurance of safety. I took risks with very little anxiety. I was so accustomed to freedom that I could not imagine what being sheltered would feel like. I was fortunate indeed. Many blind people are placed in bubbles by overprotective parents, never permitted to engage in even low-risk behaviour. This is detrimental to any child’s development, even for a disabled one.

I was blessed with family and friends who included me in just about every game, even when it meant they’d have to slow down a little. I thought nothing of playing tag, (I hit a post or two at top speed, but I was more inclined to laugh than cry), ran recklessly through bushes to play hide and seek, and dove gleefully off haystacks. I played cops and robbers, sometimes skidding across a sidewalk and sustaining mild injuries. I tumbled from out-buildings that lacked steps, and fell off swings. I even tried my hand at a few sports, and received more than one blow to the head during dodgeball. I had a great time through it all.

I believe this liberty to try and fail, to flirt with just a little danger, shaped my character. It made me into a stronger, more confident person. I am less sheltered and less afraid of the world in general. I had the opportunity to experiment and I remain grateful to this day. I got to have unbridled fun, just like every other child and, while I was sometimes excluded, I enjoyed equal status far more often than I didn’t.

I understand that parents are more safety-conscious than ever before. Safety regulations abound, and if you leave your child in a car for more than about thirty seconds, you might receive a visit from police, courtesy of some concerned citizen. While I’m thankful that kids are safer than they’ve ever been, I deplore the tendency to shelter disabled children to excess. Parents go to extraordinary lengths to keep their children secure, and it stunts their personal growth. These children grow up to be more fearful, anxious adults, unfamiliar with risk and convinced they cannot enjoy many of the same activities as their peers. They’ve never experienced the rush of running full speed ahead, swinging sky high, or chasing a soccer ball. They’ve never done back flips off haystacks or nearly flown off trampolines. To a small extent, they haven’t had the chance to live, play, and grow in the same ways I did.

So, I want to thank my parents for giving me my freedom, and I want to urge other parents to follow their example. Letting children have a little low-risk fun is not neglect. It is, in fact, a form of special care, because you are putting their needs ahead of your fears. You owe it to your children, and they will be better people for it, I promise you. Life as a disabled person demands resilience and the willingness to face fear head on. Give them the best chance you can.

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I Put My Trust In Strangers (And It’s No Big Deal)

Nearly every time I show a stranger how to use sighted guide, they view my trust in them as admirable and brave. “I mean, I could be anybody! I could walk you off a cliff or something!” Some guides are so nervous that they get distracted by the burden of responsibility; this usually results in decreased awareness. I try to encourage them to relax: a nervous guide is usually a dangerous one—or at least an inconsistent one. Even the best guides, though, seem somewhat uncomfortable with the amount of people I need to trust in day-to-day life. I trust guides not to walk me off cliffs, it’s true, (though using a cane in conjunction with sighted guide helps—not everyone does this), and I trust people to be generally decent. I assume that most people will not deceive, manipulate, or harm me. And you know what? Most of the time I don’t give these assumptions a second thought.

All this trust bothers sighted people, though. Perhaps it’s because they are acutely aware of how much they rely on sight to keep themselves safe, so the idea of going without terrifies them. Perhaps it’s because they recognize their own fallibility, and they imagine my inherent vulnerability must far exceed theirs. The most likely explanation is that people worry about me, and want me to be okay. I’ve encountered peers who expressed horror and anxiety when I told them about all the times I’ve nearly been run down by drivers who didn’t feel like obeying general crosswalk etiquette. Fear is becoming a staple of most Western cultures, and that fear multiplies when disabled or otherwise vulnerable populations (like children, for example) are involved. We can’t let kids play out of their parents’ sight, and God forbid we allow them to climb a tree or walk to school on their own. This general anxiety invariably extends itself to shroud any and all disabled people, to the point where the able-bodied are far more afraid for our lives than most of us could ever be. Most of these risks are genuine, and the resultant anxiety has its roots in sensible instinct. I don’t intend to trivialize the very real dangers vulnerable demographics contend with. I don’t blame you for feeling a little overprotective of your children or disabled friends. It’s perfectly natural.

Everyone has to trust sometime, of course. Any time you get into a taxi or board a plane, you’re entrusting your very life to a stranger, whom you hope is well-trained and trustworthy. If you can’t operate a plane, you trust a pilot. If you can’t navigate a brand new area with complete confidence without sight, you trust a sighted guide. It’s that simple.

Now, I can’t discuss trust without emphasizing the need to have that trust honoured. If I trust you enough to let you lead me somewhere unfamiliar, particularly without my cane, you’d better not leave me stranded. If I trust you to obey the basic rules of traffic, you’d better not run me down. If I trust you to describe my surroundings, you’d better remain truthful. These are the basics.

If I’m trusting you to respect me, please don’t use my own blindness against me, particularly in public where opportunities for humiliation are numerous. If I’m trusting you to be my eyes, don’t exclude or invent details just because you can get away with it. If I’m trusting you to treat me like any other human being, please don’t make a spectacle of me. (Disguising your voice in an effort to trick me is not cute.) Finally, if I’m trusting you to keep me safe, don’t warn me of fictional obstacles, or subject me to similar practical jokes. They’re hardly ever funny and they can be more dangerous than you know. When in doubt, ask which ones I’m comfortable with, and if you’re a stranger, assume they’re unacceptable until you’re told otherwise.

This is not to say that I rely on others for every little thing. My readers, in particular, will understand how highly I value independence. If I can do something safely and well on my own, then I’ll avoid asking for help I shouldn’t need. Still, to pretend I never need help is misleading. So, yes: I do put my safety in other people’s hands on occasion. It’s almost never an issue.

I’m at peace with having to trust people, even strangers. I have little choice but to count on human decency, and so I do. In the vast majority of cases, my trust is valued and my faith rewarded. Nine times out of ten, I don’t even think about it, because it’s so intrinsic to my lifestyle. So don’t worry too much. You’re probably a better guide than you know. You’re probably a more accurate, useful describer than you realize. In short, relax: you’re probably doing just fine.

My Eyes Are Broken…But I’m Not

I can’t count the times people have discussed a cure for blindness as though it were a life-saving miracle. They treat it like the one thing in the world that would fix me—make me into a normal, functional, and ultimately happy human being. If I dare to question this idea, I’m immediately dismissed because “…well, if you knew what it was like, you’d change your mind, trust me.”. The problem with this argument is that it only represents one perspective: to a sighted person, seeing is the most essential thing in the world, and they are incapable of imagining life without it. Therefore, sighted people assume that my life must be a dark, terrifying, lonely place full of uncertainty and suffering. Gregg, who has been totally blind from birth, observes that, for many sighted people, losing their sight is almost akin to losing their life—a kind of death, so to speak. They rely upon it to the extent that going without it seems horrifying beyond words.

 

And yet, people lose their sight all the time, and most of them go on to live full, happy lives. Certainly it’s difficult at first; the adjustments that must be made are impossible to quantify. Still, they make it work, and many of them find their existences fulfilling enough, even without their sight.

 

Imagine, then, how a person who has never seen must feel. Having never relied upon sight for any aspect of their daily living, a world without it is perfectly natural and, for some at least, even desirable. To return to Gregg’s perspective for a moment:

 

I define the world by the things I can hear, taste, smell and touch, and in almost thirty-one years I’ve learned that there are many details found in these four senses that people with good vision often miss or ignore. I wouldn’t ever want to give that up for purely aesthetic reasons…

 

I can say that, in my own experience, there are many subtle details sighted people never appreciate, because sight is such a dominant, all-consuming sense. It is, as I like to refer to it, the greediest sense humans possess. I notice, for instance, the smell of fresh ice at a hockey game, while everyone else is busy exclaiming over the sport. I love the smooth feel of a loonie in my hand (it’s my favourite coin) while most people only notice the inscriptions on it. I can hear my surroundings with such precision that I hardly need more than echoes and a few landmarks to get around. While none of these things diminish the value of sight, they do mean that life in darkness isn’t so colourless as you might assume.

 

When I try to explain this to the average sighted person, they can hardly contain themselves, so exasperated and incredulous are they: “Butt…what about sunsets! Or the faces of the ones you love! Or…like…photographs! Wouldn’t you love to see all those things? Aren’t you curious? Don’t you care?”. The short answer is, sort of. To quote my good friend Alicia, also blind from birth, “I’m certainly curious about colours, and sunsets, and cats, and what people look like…” but she goes on to say that “I don’t live in hope, or even think about a cure all that much.”. This holds true for me, as well. There is no denying that it would be very, very cool to be able to see all those wonderful things I’ve been vicariously appreciating all my life, but I don’t find myself with a passionate desire to lay eyes on them, either. It feels like a perk more than a necessity, and I certainly don’t live my every waking moment hoping for a cure. Particularly for those who have been blind from birth, it’s pretty tough to miss what you’ve never had.

 

Now, one cannot have a nuanced discussion about cures for blindness without conceding that being sighted makes life considerably easier. If ever I become frustrated with my lack of sight, it is because of practical problems, like wishing I could drive myself somewhere instead of calling a cab or trying to figure out bus routes (or worse, bumming a ride). When I drop my keys and spend five minutes groping for them, I dearly wish I could just look down and find them instantly. The employment perks don’t hurt, either; as I’ve said in previous posts, the blind are chronically unemployed, and even when we do find jobs, we have to work extra hard to prove that we’re worthy of them. All that being said, civilization has evolved to the point where we can live reasonably independent lives, and most of the things we can’t do by default can be accomplished with the help of technology. It’s not as though we live in a wasteland with no connection to the outside world, and no meaningful place in it. It can be argued (and often is) that someone who willingly refuses a cure because they’re happy with their lot is a drain on resources. Why should the public help such a person when they have chosen this life for themselves?

 

This argument leads me to the crux of the matter: a cure is not a perfect solution. It’s comforting to think of it as a Hollywood-style magic moment where the patient opens their eyes, looks around, and becomes overwhelmed with the beauty and wonder of the world at large. This might be difficult for a sighted person to imagine, but humour me: try to picture (pardon the pun) what it would be like to suddenly gain an entirely new sense halfway through your life. All the feedback your brain is receiving is new to you, and you have no idea how to process it. If you’ve ever watched those viral videos in which deaf people are given cochlear implants, you’ll notice that the moment they begin to hear, they burst into tears. These tears aren’t necessarily those of joy; they are, more likely, brought on by being intensely overwhelmed. It is not as though a newly sighted person could look at the nurse beside them and think ‘okay, that’s a human dressed in scrubs’. They would have no concept of colour, shape, visual context, or even light and shadow; it’s all so new, and totally foreign. As CrazyMusician and Gregg have both mentioned to me, the rehabilitation process for a newly-sighted individual could take months or even years. They would essentially have to relearn how to do every little task that they have previously done without the use of their eyes. Even if the rehabilitation went smoothly, the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by processing so much information would be potentially debilitating, at least initially. This isn’t even taking into account the invasive and risky procedures a cure for blindness would require. Fiddling with detached retinas and faulty optic nerves is no mean feat. Since few have actually undergone such procedures, it’s impossible to say how successful a cure would really be. If you’re curious about what it’s like for someone with partial vision to be given enhanced vision, even for a short time, read this excellent post by Leona Emberson. While she enjoyed her experience with her electronically enhanced eyes, she went back to her regular vision rather gladly. For those who’ve lost their sight later in life, a cure makes a lot of sense. For people like me, though, it’s risky at best.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why sighted people push so hard for a cure, and seem so baffled when I tell them I’m not actively hoping for one. However, until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, you can’t understand what my life is like, and cannot, therefore, make judgments about what would make mine better for me. Only I can make such judgments, and I’ve already made them. I remain open-minded, of course, and should a relatively low-risk cure come along one day, I may go for it. The point is that I don’t have to; I don’t have to submit to being “normalized” just for the sake of it. As Chris Swank so eloquently puts it, “I’m not broken, even if society thinks I am.”. There’s a great deal of difference between broken eyes and broken people.