by Lisa Ferris
From the Editor: Lisa Ferris lives with her husband, three boys, two guide dogs, and three guinea pigs in Portland, Oregon. She is co-owner of an adaptive technology company. This article was first posted on her business site blindmast.com, and it is with pleasure that we print these insightful remarks:
My husband and partner, Nik, and I teach blindness skills to blind clients. He is blind, and I am deafblind. Nik has a saying that I think gets misunderstood a lot. It’s something along the lines of “We are working towards average” in our work with our clients who have vision impairments.
This has more to do with overall expectations of what blind people can do. It is not a judgment on any individual blind person. People are unique and have individual needs and strengths, preferences, likes and dislikes, goals, and ambitions. All of our clients are amazing in their own ways, and we hope that, in their own way, they use the skills they learned while working with us to go on and do whatever amazing things they want to do with their lives. We just help to develop the skills to meet their goals.
Our philosophy is this: it is an average thing for a blind person to be able to get around independently. It is an average thing for a blind person to be able to use a computer or mobile device to manage his/her life and vocation. It is average for a blind person to be able to cook, clean, and manage his/her personal hygiene, wardrobe, and other tasks around the house. It is average for a blind person to have a job in competitive employment in the community. It is an average thing for a blind person to participate in hobbies, sports, community groups, and religious groups. It is average for blind people to marry, parent children, or participate fully as aunts, uncles, and grandparents and other family relationships as full contributing members of the family. And on and on from there.
These things are not special, amazing, or worthy of any kind of major CNN news story or viral Facebook post of astonishing feats. This is just normal, everyday stuff.
Or it should be. Statistically, many blind people are not doing these things. There are a lot of factors as to why. Some of it has to do with lack of training opportunities. Some has to do with lack of funding and access to equipment. Some has to do with lack of access and discrimination. These are very real problems that keep blind people from being and doing average things. However, these issues are not inherent to blindness or vision loss itself. The problem lies in low expectations and standards. The problem lies in people’s idea that doing these average things are not average, but superhuman feats that only a few “elite” blind people can do. Herein lies the problem.
When Nik moved to a new city and went to a vocational rehabilitation office for the first time, he looked up the directions, asked questions, found out which buses to take, and got there with no issues, just like he gets to any place he wants to go. But when he got there, the VR counselor exclaimed how amazing it was that he got there himself. Now, she knew that Nik was not a person who just recently lost his sight. In that case it would be understandable if someone couldn’t get around without help if they had not learned travel skills yet. She knew that he had been blind for decades, employed, a parent, etc. And she still found it amazing that he got to the office himself. This is an example of low expectations. This is an example of someone thinking that what should be average and expected is unusual and amazing. And it doesn’t bode well for services and overall expectations of blind people.
Again, this is not a judgment of anyone who cannot get around independently. Here is the thing about average: it’s a tip of a bell curve. There is room for variations in skills and strengths. But here is where we set average. We know that some people have extenuating circumstances. Some blind people have other disabilities that factor in to what they can do. Nik can hear way better than I can. This affects our abilities in travel. I can read UEB contracted Braille a bit better than him because he grew up reading Swedish Braille. He can use VoiceOver better than I can because of his hearing, and I tend to use my tactile and olfactory senses in ways he hasn’t thought of.
Some people are going to love cooking so much they will become five-star chefs. Others really like their food delivery service apps like Uber Eats. Both are feeding themselves, right? It’s all ok. None of us, whether we are disabled or not, are truly 100 percent independent. We all sort ourselves out by where we want help and where we are great doing it on our own. Nik is much more tech savvy than me. When the router is offline, I just let him fix it. However, I know that I can fix it myself. But it would take me longer, I would have to look up stuff online, I might have to call tech support. Whereas its easier for him just to fix it in five minutes. So, it’s not about being 100 percent independent all the time. It is about knowing that you could manage if you had to. You have a toolbox of ways (even asking for help somewhere else or using additional resources.) It’s about that knowledge being average.
We have great clients, and I love to hear about the clients learning new skills and meeting their own personal goals. We have clients who are deafblind, we have clients with dementia, with neuropathy, with mobility impairments, with complex health issues, and with other extenuating circumstances. We work with them to find out where they are and where they want to go. We know some of them are not going to want to or be able to do all of the “average” things we consider pretty normal on the bell curve for blind people. That’s perfectly ok. But one thing we will never do is to say, “No, you can’t do that.” “No that is not a realistic goal for you.” “No, you are expecting too much.” The sky is the limit for what our clients can do. Our expectations will never be a barrier for them. We think that is one of our greatest strengths.
Our expectations are just that the average blind person can do average things that average sighted people do. Of course there is room for variance and individual strengths and weaknesses, preferences and desires. But in the end, blindness skills are just average ways of doing everyday things. They may be different ways than sighted people use, but they are not amazing, they are average.
About being “amazing”…
It’s pretty common for sighted people to see us doing everyday tasks and call it “amazing.” They mean well and this amazing feeling probably mostly comes from their minds being opened a little and seeing a way to do something that they didn’t know existed before. That mind opening feeling can feel amazing.
However, this doesn’t really mean what the blind person is doing is all that amazing. I’m not suggesting we chastise well-meaning people who don’t know better for calling us amazing. However, I do think we need to be careful to not believe that hype about ourselves. I think it can be a little dangerous.
Maybe the first time you read something in Braille, made your way down to the bus stop by yourself, or cooked your own meal by yourself without vision, you did feel absolutely amazing! I have had those feelings, too. It’s a great feeling to figure out how you can do something that you didn’t think you could do (or were told you couldn’t do.) That’s perfectly understandable. Give your friend a high five! Have a celebratory drink! Tell yourself, “Good job! You did amazing today!” However, if you are still doing that after you’ve read 400 novels in Braille or cooked for twenty years, some of your fellow blind people might start to give you a little side-eye.
When my sons took their first steps, I thought it was amazing! I was so excited. When my eight-year-old spent an afternoon riding up and down the alley teaching himself to ride a bike, I jumped up and down and cheered. However, this is because it was a big step for them where they were at. Not because kids learning to walk or ride bikes is amazing, especially. I did not call the local news to come see my child’s amazing bike riding prowess. His bike video did not go viral on Facebook, and he was not called “inspirational and amazing” in his bike riding ability. Now that my sons have been riding bikes and walking for years, I no longer jump and cheer for them. They would be really annoyed if I did that. Bike riding and walking is average for most kids. To act otherwise would be infantile and condescending to them.
Now, sometimes blind people do really amazing things that are amazing by anyone’s standard. Erik Weihenmayer climbing the Seven Summits is amazing because it is a rare accomplishment for anyone to do that. Haben Girma meeting several world leaders in her work is amazing because that is a rare thing that most people do not accomplish. Brad Snyder winning multiple gold medals in the Paralympics swimming events is amazing because being an Olympic gold medalist is amazing for anyone to be. So, it certainly isn’t that blind people can never do amazing things. However, it’s not beneficial for us to think of regular blindness skills—everyday things any average blind person can do—as amazing. These things should be standard and average.
When I see average blind people doing average things and acting as though they are amazing, I cringe a bit. I want to tell them not to believe the misconceptions of the nondisabled world. The reason it is a problem is because when blind people act like the everyday things they do are amazing, it reinforces the concept for sighted people. They are led to believe that the average thing is not normal or usual—that it is exceptional, special, and very difficult and rare among the blind. This can affect their view of us as potential employees and also lead them to believe that including us by making things accessible is a rare and difficult thing to do that doesn’t happen very often.
It’s a fine line between educating the public and misleading them by being just a little too amazed with ourselves. Here is an example I remember from a few years ago. Once I saw a story about a blind man who was a carpenter and was making wooden toys to sell. The story talked about how amazing he was and how inspirational he was. It talked about how specialized his training was. It made him sound like he himself thought he was pretty rare and amazing. (I don’t know if he meant to give that impression. It could have been editing by the news organization.) Now, it’s just fine that he is a carpenter. He is one of several blind carpenters I am aware of. In fact, several blindness training centers have woodshop training taught by blind carpenters. I took a woodshop class myself and learned how to use a table saw, band saw, radial arm saw, etc. It’s really, really common for blind people to have taken carpentry class and have some of these skills. Some, like myself, don’t go on to become great carpenters, but some take it to the next levels and become talented woodworkers. Blind people knowing how to do carpentry is common and average.
A few weeks after this story aired, I was with my son in a woodshop that also provided classes. An employee came up to me and asked me if I had seen the story of a blind carpenter and how amazing it was. I said I had seen it. I asked if he would consider having blind students in his classes now that he had seen the story. He said no, he couldn’t. He did not have the special equipment and have special training to teach the blind. I said there really was hardly any special equipment needed, and I could set him up with a knowledgeable blind carpenter who could help him learn techniques to teach blind students. (At this point, if he took me up on it, I knew I was going to have to take the class!) But he declined because he said the carpenter from the story was amazing, he must have special skills or senses that allowed him to do that. If blind people could really be carpenters, it wouldn’t be a story on CNN, would it? What do you think he would do if a blind woodworker came to him for a job?
It’s a tough thing to educate the public and expose them to the ways we do average things while not getting thrown into this type of being “too amazing to include” trap. Sometimes, despite our best efforts to educate, it happens anyway, and there isn’t too much we can do about it. But I think it is very important that we make sure that our expectations for ourselves aren’t perpetuating it. If we are going along with our lives, managing things, going places, living the lives we want (as the National Federation of the Blind motto says) that’s being pretty average, and for us to be thought of as average is a good thing. Being “amazing” can be more of a burden than a compliment, and it certainly doesn’t lead to being thought of as equals.
That is why we say we are training people to be average. After that, it’s up to you to do something truly amazing! We’d love to watch where you go from here!