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

Review: Stormdancer


Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is the first book of The Lotus War Trilogy. It was named one of the best teen books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. The fantasy world Kristoff creates is imaginative and rich, full of mythology and great plot twists. The book is marketed as “Japanese Steampunk” and does not disappoint. It has chainkatanas—and yes, a chainkatana is a katana that is also a chainsaw. It has shuriken-throwers—weapons that spit out throwing stars like a machine gun. It is all pretty cool, truth be told.

The story is set on the fantasy island of Shima—or as I like to call it, the island of It’s-Totally-Not-Japan-You-Guys. Shima’s technology is all powered by “chi,” a fuel derived from a plant called the blood lotus (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Fossil-Fuel-You-Guys). The pollution from the chi exhaust has devastated Shima’s ecosystems, and it has induced a fatal disease called blacklung in a large portion of the population. To avoid this, everyone must wear filtered breathers or cover their mouths with cloths in hopes of preventing the deadly smog from ruining their lungs. The atmosphere has become so depleted that the sun’s radiation is no longer filtered properly, so everyone must wear polarized goggles to protect their eyes during the day. Almost all of the island’s animal population has been decimated.

The blood lotus itself is an interesting plant—not only can it be converted to chi, it also can be smoked for recreation. Many people—known as lotus-fiends—are addicted to it. The roots can be used to create a deadly toxin, which in smaller doses can be used as a sedative. It is such a lucrative crop that almost every farmer on the island wants to grow it—except for the region of Daiyakawa, which is reserved for the nation’s food growing. Blood lotus has an unfortunate side effect on the environment, however—it eventually depletes the soil so that it can no longer yield anything. Crop rotation does nothing to prevent this. However, the use of the fertilizer “inochi” (provided, incidentally, by the same people who provide the lotus seed) can stave off the killing of the land. Already, however, a huge portion of Shima has been consumed by dead lands, known as “The Stain.” The Lotus Guild (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Monsanto-You-Guys)is responsible for everything pertaining to blood lotus and chi, as well as developing the technology.

Because Shima’s resources are becoming so depleted, they are waging war on the neighboring country in order to procure more lands—and also, they claim, the gaijin are just plain evil.

The plot begins with the emperor of Shima deciding that he wants a griffin—or as they are also called, arashitora (literally Japanese for ‘stormtiger,’ though often translated in the book as ‘thunder tiger’). He sends his royal hunter out to find one, despite the fact that arashitora have been extinct for decades. The hunter, Masaru, brings his sixteen-year-old daughter Yukiko (the protagonist) along. Yukiko is blessed with a gift known as the Kenning, which allows her to commune with the minds of beasts—however, the Lotus Guild is obsessed with eliminating everyone with this gift from the island, calling it a sign of impurity. Yukiko has been careful to keep her gift hidden, though she makes a mistake which almost gets her caught. However, nothing happens and so they proceed with their seemingly futile hunting trip. However, they do find an arashitora and even successfully capture it—except it destroys their sky-ship in the process, causing them to crash. Yukiko is separated from everyone and finds herself alone with the arashitora, whom she names Buruu, and they begin to form a tenuous relationship.

There were a lot of things I really liked about this book. Kristoff’s writing style is rich and descriptive, and he is masterful at producing suspense. The action he writes is so easy to visualize, it many times feels like you are watching an anime. The best descriptive moment in the book is, in my opinion, when an individual gets shot: Kristoff describes it so vividly and accurately it’s chill-inducing. There are a lot of great moments besides that, but that particular bit was so memorable. The plot twists are also great. I also loved the mythology—I’m not versed enough in Japanese mythology to know whether or not Kristoff is simply borrowing mythology or has invented his own, but I like it a lot. The arashitora is a cool spin on the griffin—it is half tiger, rather than lion, and it has the ability to send massive claps of thunder from its wings. And, I admit, I was a sucker for the chainswords.

I also liked the fact that, despite the fact that the story is essentially a man-is-destroying-the-earth story, Kristoff was quite creative in how he portrayed it. While it becomes obvious that the blood lotus is a metaphor for fossil fuels, and the idea that wars are being fought over fossil fuels, and so on, it is still creative. I loved it, actually. It’s one of the few pollution-apocalypse stories that I really enjoyed. It feels less like the message is being shoved down your throat and more like it’s simply part of a fully realized fantasy world. This is one great thing about fantasy: it allows you to explore real-world issues in a nonthreatening way, and Kristoff did an excellent job with it.

One thing I did not like about this story, though, is that Shima is essentially Japan. It’s not a fantasy world that resembles Japan—it’s just straight-up Japan with a different name. While I get that the idea was for this to be Japanese steampunk, there could have been a few more differences. They use Japanese for everything, and even call the gangsters “Yakuza.” Hence, it feels like the author is shouting, “This is totally not Japan, you guys, except that it is.” It still made for an enjoyable story, and I realize the story would not have worked if it was actually Japan, being as the other fantasy elements would not have fit in. Nevertheless, I felt like it was a little too much. It’s one thing to model a fantasy culture on an existing one, another thing to simply lift the culture entirely.

In a similar vein, it would seem that Kristoff did not do quite enough research on Japanese stuff—at least in one case. First off, chi is a Chinese concept, not a Japanese one. Second, I’m not that versed in Japanese, but I have a textbook of basic Japanese on my bookshelf and I have done my fair share of perusing on Wikipedia. I know enough to understand how honorific suffixes work—and that they are just that: suffixes. Kristoff uses the suffix “-sama” (basically equivalent to ‘master’ or simply an address to someone significantly higher in rank) as an address—for example, “Thank you, Sama.” This is blatantly incorrect and made a lot of reviewers on Amazon mad. This is another issue with completely lifting another culture—you have to get it exactly right or you’re in trouble.

All in all, I recommend this book. However, as a caveat to those who might be researching this book to see if it is appropriate for their teen, be aware that two teen characters do have sex with each other. It is glossed over with a cutaway, basically a sort of “They were kissing passionately, and then afterward…” thing. This is at least tasteful, but some parents may still object to their teens reading this. Also be aware that there is a fair amount of language: D, G-D, F, etc.  There is also a lot of violence—enough that the book might earn an R-rating if an exactly faithful movie was made of it. In some ways, it reminded me of the gore you see in martial arts movies and anime—extremely exaggerated bloodshed.

Stormdancer is an exciting story with lots of fun plot twists and great characters. Its foibles are, in my opinion, far outweighed by its good moments, making it worth reading. People who like lots of action and excitement will love this book.

Have you read Stormdancer? What are your thoughts on it?