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.