American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2019 PERSPECTIVES
by Kaiti Shelton
From the Editor: Kaiti Shelton is a music therapist who works in Indiana with children and adults who have developmental disabilities. You can read a blog post about her experiences at https://nfb.org/blog/article/
Like most twenty-somethings, I'm a Netflix and Hulu junkie. With my trusty Apple TV I enjoy classics such as Gilmore Girls and Friends, and I can keep up with the water-cooler talk about Grey's Anatomy and This Is Us at my workplace. While I love that Hulu airs shows the day after they are shown on cable, I especially appreciate Netflix for its accessibility features, which include audio description.
When Netflix released Bird Box shortly before Christmas of 2018, the film understandably grabbed the attention of many blind people. My Facebook newsfeed quickly filled with critiques. Some blind people were disappointed in Netflix for reasons related to the plot of the film. For others the movie and what people were taking from it about blind people was deeply problematic.
Admittedly, I didn't want to see the film. I had made a resolution to be more positive in 2019, and I didn't want to feel angry or disappointed by yet another movie that falsely portrayed blindness. After the New Year, however, I kept coming back to the comment of a friend of mine who gave the film a positive review. "It's not a movie about blind people," she told me online. "It's a movie about people who are blindfolded. You have to get the idea that they're trying to act blind out of your head, or the movie will be ruined for you before you watch it."
On a snowy Sunday in early January I finally sat down to watch Bird Box, and I found that I agreed with my friend. It isn't a movie about blind people at all. The premise is clear; Sandra Bullock's character, Malorie, and her children only wear blindfolds because they are running from something that could kill them if they look at it. The blindfolds are not being used for a stunt. They are a necessity for survival.
Malorie and her children, known simply as Boy and Girl, adapt surprisingly well to navigating their surroundings and staying together under blindfold. They use several techniques that blind people are likely to use in somewhat similar ways in everyday life. However, they are not blind people, nor are they trying to imitate blind people.
Overall, I liked the film well enough. I thought Sandra Bullock played her part well, and aspects of the plot intrigued me. I liked that in the end of the movie the main characters meet blind people who have set up their own sanctuary and are safe due to their natural advantage in this situation. For once, blind people are not pitiable, nor are they supercrips. In Darwinian terms they truly have an advantage that makes them the most fit to survive. I do not know of any other movie that portrays blind people in this way.
While I admire the movie and respect the filmmakers for casting blind actors to play most of the blind characters in the film, I can't condone the "Bird Box Challenge." After the release of the film some sighted people, aided and abetted by the Internet, decided to wear blindfolds and attempt to perform a variety of tasks without sight. Some of these tasks were simple and had embarrassing results at best, while others were truly dangerous. There were reports of people trying to cross the street under blindfold and without a cane or any blindness skills. Someone even attempted to drive a car, which ended, predictably, with a crash. The stunts were so pervasive and out-of-hand that Netflix released a statement discouraging people from doing the Bird Box Challenge.
As blind people we know that experience and/or training are required for us to do things such as crossing streets successfully, not to mention doing some of the more specialized or potentially dangerous things some of us do for enjoyment or work. It is clear that the sighted public does not understand that it takes skill and practice to do things that confident blind people do every day. To assume that one has the inborn ability to cross the street without sight, when blind people actively work to gain and strengthen their orientation and mobility skills, makes a mockery of blindness and trivializes our experiences.
Research has shown that disability simulations evoke pity and fear rather than acceptance and understanding in the participants. Furthermore, a recent study published by the Perkins School for the Blind states that the majority of Americans are uncomfortable around blind people. The Bird Box Challenge contributes to the negative and false societal perceptions of blindness that real blind people are trying to dispel every day. Blind people are active in a variety of professions, and some of us are experts in our fields. Yet it may be hard for sighted persons to take even the most well-adjusted and accomplished blind person seriously when their reaction to blindness is one of pity or fear.
Biases may also have an impact on a sighted person's perception of blind people. Sighted people may think, "If I couldn't do a simple task under blindfold, life must be really hard and awful for someone who can't take their blindfold off." In reality, the biggest challenges faced by blind people who don't have other complicating factors such as additional disabilities are societal in nature, and the rest becomes easier with practice. This is why blind people like me, who have residual vision, still practice the techniques of blindness so we can adapt with greater ease to the eventual loss of sight or to fluctuations in our vision.
Sighted people who attempt the Bird Box Challenge do not learn about blind people. Furthermore, they do not learn what it was like to be an actor in the Bird Box cast. The actors worked with a blind film consultant to practice navigating under blindfold. This work was done not only to make the film convincing, but also to ensure the safety of the actors on the set. In terms of the plot, Malorie and her children would gain more skill over time, as wearing the blindfolds is a daily necessity. The actors and the characters would have had practice, which would improve their nonvisual abilities. Someone who wears a blindfold only to attempt an isolated task, with no practice or preparation, isn't going to have a successful experience. The Bird Box Challenge is not only harmful to blind people, it's completely pointless.
For blind people the Bird Box Challenge accentuates the challenges we confront every day. Misconceptions and misunderstandings are not new to blind people, yet simulations and stunts heighten our awareness of them. Until society stops viewing blindness as absurd or tragic and starts viewing it as a difference, we must continue to strive for equal treatment and realistic expectations. We will keep living our lives in the hope that one day more people will understand…and will leave crossing streets without looking to the pros.