Misconceptions About People Who Are Blind

In doing research for my novel, Charybda, I learned a lot of interesting things about people who are blind. I also learned that many of my preconceived notions of people who are blind were incorrect. Since Nivin, the protagonist, is blind, I wanted to be sure that my representation of her was believable. So today, I would like to share with you some of the common misconceptions about people who are blind.

1. People who are blind see absolutely nothing whatsoever.

This one seems like it should be fairly obvious; if people who are blind could see something, they wouldn’t be blind, would they? However, “blindness” is an umbrella term for visual impairments so severe that they prevent the individual from seeing too much of anything. Only a very small percentage of people who are blind fit into our usual understanding of blindness. This is known as no light perception (NLP) blindness, and these people do in fact see nothing whatsoever.

Most people who are blind do not fall into this category of NLP. Many people have light perception, being able to tell the difference between light and dark and perceiving shadows. Nivin, the character in my novel, falls into this category of light perceptive blindness. Some can identify rough shapes, some cannot. Some are able to perceive colors while still being unable to see much of anything else.

There is also the question of legal blindness. This is when the government has declared the impairment is severe enough to warrant the label of “blind.” There is, for example, peripheral blindness, wherein the individual cannot see anything that is not directly in front of them. Imagine how dangerous this would be—being unable to see anything out of the corner of your eye. While these people can still see what is right in front of them, some still use service animals, and they legally qualify as blind. Others can only see things with massive magnification; these people also qualify as legally blind. Basically, if corrective lenses cannot fix the problem, then the label applies.

2. People who are blind have no sense of direction.

This is patently false. Just as a sighted person relies on landmarks to determine where they are going, so do unsighted people. They simply use their other senses to establish those landmarks—the smell of a particular bakery or restaurant, a lamp post familiar to their touch, the intersections in cities which declare the street name when the crossing button is pushed, and so on. This misconception also assumes that sighted people can tell cardinal directions without landmarks. Think about how easy it can be to become “turned around” in an unfamiliar city. You miss a sign or make a wrong turn, and suddenly you are unsure whether you are going north or south. I know this happens from personal experience. This is also how people get lost in cornfields. (It’s a real thing, folks! Trust the person who lives in the Midwest.)

People who are blind can also use their sense of hearing to determine what direction something is relative to their position, and can move toward or away from it accordingly. Some can even pay attention to echoes which alert them to obstacles which may be in their path. Daniel Kish explains in a CNN special that he has been able to do this for as long as he can remember.

People who are blind most definitely can have a sense of direction.

3. People who are blind have heightened senses.

This is one of those questions that has as “Sort of…but not” answer. People who are blind do not have superhuman hearing; they simply pay attention to their hearing more than sighted people do. Their sense of touch or smell or taste is not more sensitive; they simply pay more attention to these senses. This does offer a sort of “sharpening” of the senses, but this does not give them Daredevil-like abilities. Anything which might inhibit a sighted person’s senses may also inhibit an unsighted person’s senses. A bad cold may dampen the sense of smell. A powerful smell can alter one’s sense of taste. Wind whistling over one’s ears may dampen hearing. And of course, any distraction can affect the amount of attention one pays to any given sense, sighted or unsighted.

Conversely, some people assume people who are blind do not hear well, but people who are blind are not usually hearing impaired. They are blind, not deaf. Not every person who is blind is Helen Keller. You do not need to raise your voice when speaking to them unless they indicate you need to do so. I know a woman who is blind who complains of people unnecessarily raising their voices when speaking to her. It is a particular pet peeve of hers.

4. Walking around blindfolded or with your eyes closed is exactly the same experience as being blind.

No. Just no. If you are unused to paying attention to your other senses so closely, your experience with a blindfold will not be the same as the experience of being blind. Also, remember that not every person who is blind has the same type of blindness as others. NLP blindness is certainly not the same as having one’s eyes closed; when a sighted person closes their eyes, they still have optical perception. People with no light perception do not. They perceive nothing.

5. People who are blind hate being blind.

David W. Wannop writes, “For working age blind people, the vast majority do not disparage their blindness. It is a part of their identity just as being Black, Canadian, or a military officer can be a major part of identity.” This is something I especially want to address, because in my novel, Nivin is often frustrated by her blindness. The reason behind this is simple: the culture she has lived in prescribes the death penalty for a disability such as being blind, and even her father has inadvertently taught her that being blind is something to be ashamed of. I want to be clear that this is probably not an experience most blind people have, though everyone’s experience is different.

6. Your understanding of what any given disability might be like is accurate.

You can certainly try to imagine what it might be like to be blind, or disabled in any particular way, but that does not make it the reality. Nivin’s experience of her disability is a product of my imagination and is probably not truly representative of people who are blind —particularly because Nivin can see magic, and well, since magic is not real, I’m guessing most people who are blind can’t see magic. When you read my book, don’t assume that people who are blind have the same experience as a fictional character. Nobody truly understands what their disability is truly like except for that particular person. Never assume you know it better than they do. Always let them speak to their experiences, and do not speak for them.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned in my research, and I hope they have opened your perceptions as much as they have opened my understanding. To learn more about blindness, check out these interesting links:

16 Misconceptions about Blindness, by Josh Sundquist https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8weMFaRFN5g&feature=youtu.be

People with varying levels of blindness or who work with the blind answer the question, “How do blind people navigate around cities?” Read the second answer in particular. https://www.quora.com/How-do-blind-people-navigate-around-cities

The Scientific American explores the fascinating research which suggests that even the brains of those with NLP blindness may be able to sense light. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-blind-people-detect-light/

The Top Ten Misconceptions about Blindness, by David W. Wannop http://www.lvib.org/programs/top-10-misconceptions-about-blind-people/

Daniel Kish, the president of World Access for the Blind, explains echolocation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHYCs8xtzUI

A TED talk from Daniel Kish about teaching the blind to navigate by sound. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob-P2a6Mrjs

What are your thoughts?