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.