Saturdays with Shauna: Change The Rhetoric

A photo of Shauna and guide dog, Barney, taken in May 2021, in their home area of Victoria, British Columbia. They are crossing a street. This is a front facing view of Shauna and Barney working. Shauna  is wearing her long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and is wearing a white T-shirt, navy blue jeans, a burgundy cardigan, black sketchers, and caring a bright yellow purse. She is also wearing dark sunglasses, that have silver frames. Barney is a black Labrador retriever, wearing his GDB harness, black Martingale collar, black gentle leader, and brown leather leash.
Shauna and guide dog, Barney. Photo credit: Shauna Sproston

Negative stereotypes and misconceptions about blindness continue to exist in contemporary society. People who are blind experience ableist attitudes and micro-aggressions in their daily lives. Although today’s culture is moving toward a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive society, much more needs to be done in regards to educating the public about blindness and creating positive change. As a person who is legally blind, I have personally experienced societal attitudes and misconceptions mentioned above. While I am certain that the majority of people mean well and are often unaware of the language they use and the words they say, words can be very harmful. Over the years I have grown accustomed to hearing negative comments and/or insulting questions from others regarding my visual impairment. At times I find these experiences degrading, embarrassing, exhausting, and very upsetting. Like others who live with disabilities I just want to be treated the same as everyone else. I have compiled a list of common phrases/misconceptions that people should not say to someone who is blind. Each of us is our own person, with our own set of values, beliefs, and biases. My hope is that those who are sighted may learn some valuable information here and be aware of the language and words they use, particularly when interacting with an individual who is blind. The following are some of my own recommendations of what not to say to a person who is blind.

1) “You don’t look blind.” I find this comment to be insulting and troublesome. First of all, what is blind supposed to look like? Each one of us is different, and to stereotype that people who are blind all look the same is simply a farce. People who are blind have various eye conditions and levels of vision. Some people with no vision have light perception, while others have no light perception. I have a degenerative eye condition known as Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), and for years I have been legally blind with tunnel vision. I am an active, independent person navigating my community on my own on a daily basis. I walk, travel by transit, go to work, conduct grocery shops on my own, go to and from appointments, and attend church. I also have been told that I make good eye contact. I think this may be because I grew up with vision and have always been eager to communicate effectively with others. I learned from a young age that when I am interacting with others to have open body language and make eye contact with the person or people I am interacting with. I think that others’ perceptions of blindness are based on misinformation and stereotypes portrayed in film, media, and perhaps one individual they may have encountered who is blind. Perhaps others see that I am fairly good at making eye contact and they are surprised to find out that I have a visual impairment. Others may think they are paying me a compliment. The way I see it is this common remark and misconception can be very hurtful to individuals with a visual impairment.

2) “How many fingers am I holding up?” Yet again, this is a common remark I have experienced from others over the years. It is appalling to think that a complete stranger would walk up to a person who is blind and ask them such a question. When in a situation such as this, I kept my cool. However, on the inside I was deeply hurt and angered that someone could be so rude to me. The few times this has happened to me, I walked away feeling embarrassed and humiliated. After reflecting on incidents like this, I always ask myself, “How could I have handled that situation better?”, and “Could I have educated that person in some way regarding social blindness etiquette?” I recognize that walking away was not an unhealthy reaction to the situation. I kept my composure and went about my day. It is not my job to educate every single person I may come in contact with. There will be times where there are opportunities to educate others and other days in which I need to live life and go about my day. After all, I am a human just like everybody else.

3) When asking someone for directions or where an item is located and their response is: “It is over there.” From my experience, people who say this to a person who is blind are often unaware about how unhelpful this is. As a person who is blind, I do not know where “over there” is. I have personally experienced this situation in a grocery store many times. When asking for assistance and direction with locating a lady’s washroom or a product, the clerk often says to me, “It’s over there.” I then have to respond and ask them, “I have a visual impairment. Would you be able to direct me by using descriptive words such as ‘straight ahead’, ‘left’, or ‘right’ to help direct me to where the product or washroom is located?” It can be very exhausting explaining this to people everywhere I go.

4) “I can’t imagine your life.” Sure, when I first was diagnosed with my visual impairment I could not imagine how and what I was going to do with my life regarding my disability. Once I was connected with others in the blind community, I discovered there were others living with blindness who were confident and independent. For me, it is about perspective. Blindness can be a scary concept if you choose to think that way. I choose to do my best to exemplify a positive philosophy of blindness in my daily life. My hope is for those who are blind and visually impaired to be empowered to do the same, and for sighted folks to see us as capable, confident people who live normal lives. We go to school, work, socialize, raise children, travel, and have many interests and hobbies just like everyone else. The more we see ourselves as confident, capable, and independent, I believe the more others around us may see that too.

5) “Is there a cure?” I cannot speak for others in the blind community. However, I think that when people say this phrase to a person who is blind, they mean well. However, I recognize how this is a very harmful question. When others perceive that persons with disabilities need to be “fixed”, it can be very damaging to a person’s self-worth and confidence. I have embraced my vision loss and have grown in ways more than I could ever imagine. I feel blessed for my journey with my visual impairment. I had vision throughout my life; naturally I can imagine what life would be like if my vision were restored. For others, this is not the case, and this concept would be very scary. Again, I don’t want to speak for my friends in the blind community. However, I know that many people who are blind are very happy living independent and fulfilling lives. Even if there was a breakthrough with a treatment to restore my vision, I am not certain that I would want a specialist tampering with my eyes and even making my vision worse. For me, there is also short-term and long-term side effects to consider and how this could impact my life. I am a happy person who looks ahead. My opinion of this question is that although people mean well, they don’t know how deeply this comment could affect a person who is blind.

6) “Where can I get one of those harnesses that you have for your guide dog? I would like to take my dog in stores and shopping malls too.” Believe it or not, I have been asked this question! On this occasion a few years ago when living in Nanaimo, BC I used this as a teaching moment. Over the past few years there have been problems with people trying to pass their pet dogs off as service animals. When I meet store patrons there is also confusion about the difference between a guide dog and a service dog. This is a topic I am very passionate about: protecting the rights and freedoms of people who are blind and their guide dogs. Guide dog teams are able to go most places open to the public. I have educated many people about this issue and clarify legislation, access, and information to others.

7) “I know I am not allowed to pet your guide dog, but I am going to pet him anyhow.” I am very passionate about guide dog etiquette and access.

I have no problem advocating for myself and for others. Education is key to creating positive change for people living with disabilities. It is important to inform others about the words and language they use and how they can deeply impact people. I will continue to do my best to be aware of the words and language I use on a daily basis. I will also work to educate others and society about the etiquette and misconceptions of blindness. As a collective, the blind community can come together. We can fuel change and see it come to fruition.

Tune in next week for another Saturdays with Shauna post.