by John G. Paré Jr.
From the Editor: John Paré is director of Sponsored Technology Outreach for NFB-NEWSLINE®. He has been a Federationist for several years now, and as you will note when you read the following little essay, he has taken to heart what he has learned from his colleagues in the organization. He reflects here on the hardest struggles many people face when they lose significant vision. This is what he says:
I have brown eyes. I am sure of this. I know my height is five feet, eleven inches. I am also sure of this. But sometimes I wonder whether I am blind. You probably think this is a silly question. How could one not know if he or she is blind? If one can see, he or she is sighted; if one cannot see, he or she is blind. But what if one can see a little? Where should we draw the line between sighted and blind? Most people like to lump those in this middle area into a category called "visually impaired," "low vision," or even "hard-of-seeing." This group has the interesting characteristic of being neither sighted nor blind.
I was recently traveling in Asia and met a person who described me as "fake blind." He said that only a totally blind person is blind, so I was visually impaired or low vision. I was confused. While I have some sight, I tend to think of myself as blind. Who is correct? Am I in this middle category, that is, neither sighted nor blind, and, if so, is this good or bad?
My ophthalmologist would tell you that my best-corrected eyesight is 20/400 with no central vision. This means that I am legally blind, which is another carefully crafted term to indicate I am neither fully sighted nor completely blind. Maybe that person in Asia was correct, and I am not blind.
Well, let's analyze how my vision affects my daily life. I certainly do not see well enough to drive. In fact I cannot see a car more than fifteen or twenty feet away, which means I cannot use my vision to cross a street safely. I could and in fact do use a long white cane and am able to cross a street using white cane mobility techniques. I have used a computer all my life but can no longer see well enough to read a standard screen. I am able to use a computer only with the help of screen-reading software, which was invented to help blind computer users. I am no longer able to read the print newspaper, but I can listen to the newspaper using NFB-NEWSLINE®. I am not able to read print books, but I am able to get almost any book I want on tape from the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. And, last, I am getting to the point where I can no longer read my own large-print notes, but I am learning to read and write Braille.
So am I blind? I think so. The critical point is that, for me to live my life the way I want to, I must use a combination of blindness skills, alternative techniques, and access technology to accomplish the tasks I used to do using vision.
So why not refer to myself as visually impaired? The main problem with this term is that it typically keeps a person physically and mentally in a state of unproductive limbo. A visually impaired person typically does not have enough sight to perform the tasks I listed above using sight, but at the same time he or she does not use the blindness skills, alternative techniques, or access technology necessary to make doing these tasks possible.
It is not unusual for me to meet people who refer to themselves as visually impaired and who have vision better than mine, but who are not able to travel around town. I have no problem traveling around town because I use a long white cane and the appropriate mobility techniques. In fact I know many people whose eyesight is worse than mine who are able to travel around town as well or better than I can. These people use either a long white cane or a guide dog and have received appropriate training.
This leads me to one of the National Federation of the Blind's core theorems about blindness: A person's ability to perform the tasks necessary to lead a productive, successful, and happy life is not proportional to his or her level of eyesight, but to the level and quality of his or her blindness skills and attitudes about blindness. This concept is critical to understanding why a person needs to determine whether he or she is sighted or blind. If one is sighted, he or she does not need to use blindness techniques to accomplish the tasks of everyday life. If, on the other hand, one does need to use blindness techniques, then one should work to learn these skills. I suppose people could learn these skills and still refer to themselves as visually impaired, but this would be unusual. The key point is that most people, whether sighted or visually impaired, do not think blindness skills are either needed or appropriate for a visually impaired person. These people simply live their lives in a lesser or reduced fashion--not doing many of the things they could do if they had the appropriate blindness skills.
Those who are visually impaired do not have to learn or use all of the skills I listed above at once. For example, if a person is losing his eyesight slowly, he might begin by using NFB-NEWSLINE®, then learn to use screen-reading software, and finally add the use of a white cane. Using a white cane is typically the final step in accepting one's blindness and restoring one's ability to move freely and independently. Some people are so embarrassed by their blindness that they try to hide their inability to see. They know a white cane is hard to hide, so they are reluctant to use one. This is unfortunate because it only hurts the blind person.
The most important single action that helped me learn how to live with and adjust to my blindness was joining the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation provided information, role models, and mentors who helped me adjust to my situation in a practical and positive way. I was once sighted, then visually impaired, and now I am blind. Many people try to pull me back into the void of the visually impaired. Typically, these people have had very little exposure to blind people and certainly have never met a well-trained, successful, and happy person who is blind. They most likely think of blindness as a tragedy, and they think they are doing me a favor by trying to pull me out of the proverbial darkness.
The fact is that only the untrained blind or visually impaired person lives in a state of darkness, if I may call it that. If you consider yourself visually impaired, ask yourself if you can travel virtually anyplace you desire, listen to almost any newspaper on the telephone or book on tape, or use a computer to send email and surf the Internet. Any well-trained blind person can easily do all of these things and more. Many are working as lawyers, writers, or business owners, secretaries, receptionists, computer experts, and scores of other jobs. Many live alone or have families with children, live in their own homes, and do their own shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
So I would like to get back to my original question. Am I blind? Yes. For me blindness is not a tragedy. In fact, thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, since I have accepted the fact that I am blind and have taken the time to learn the necessary skills I need as a blind person, I do more now than I ever did before.
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