In Diversity and Inclusion, Newsletters, Publications

As a blind person living and working in this wonderful country I have come to the conclusion that the Internet has quickly become one of the greatest tools I have the fortune to use. It gives me access to many things previously only available to those who can see. With the Internet I can conduct extensive research, go shopping independently, communicate with friends and colleagues, and even take the occasional survey in order to inform some unnamed and mysterious pollster about my opinions on this or that.

Earlier today I decided to put a little adventure in my life and answer an invitation to take an online survey. In this case I knew the source of the survey and was expecting it. In the course of answering the numerous questions on a wide variety of subjects I was asked my employment status. I was asked to check the box most relevant to my situation. The choices I was given included “employed,” “concerned about my employment status,” “have a family member who is unemployed,” “unemployed,” and “retired or disabled.” “Ding ding ding” went the alarm bells in my head! “Retired or disabled”? What a strange choice to offer. I am sure that the creator of the survey had the best of intentions, but in that one choice he or she promulgated the long-standing inequality faced by disabled people and once again promoted the perception that disabled people could not really be employed.

As a disabled person or, if you will, a person with a disability, I encounter daily misconceptions and incorrect perceptions about my blindness. For example, when I am using my guide dog people often ask me questions such as “how does your dog know where it is going” or “how did your dog know to make that last left or right turn”? The perception is that the dog does everything and that I just tag along for the ride. When I use my white cane instead of a guide dog people seem to think that I’m even worse off and are always asking if they can “help” me especially when in the course of walking my cane encounters an obstacle. In reality, the cane is supposed to find obstacles and objects and then I determined how to go around or avoid them. However, sighted people interpret my cane locating an object as me bumping into it which in fact is hardly the case.

I understand these misconceptions because from birth, children in our society are taught to see without getting any real instruction about how to use their other senses as alternatives to sight. We do not teach children real inclusiveness where disabilities are concerned. Our children grow up to believe that if they could not see they would not be able to function.

For many years the Gallup polling organization has conducted surveys which show that one of the top five fears in our country is the fear of blindness. To a slightly lesser degree, so-called able-bodied people fear most any disability according to Gallup surveys. Certainly we all feel afraid of the possibility that we might lose something that we deem important in our lives. Losing a sense or”ability” would constitute a dramatic change in the way any of us live. However, there’s a difference between the fear of losing an ability and the perception that without it we could not live a “normal life.”

When people ask me if I need assistance while walking down the street I know for the most part they have the best of intentions. The fact is, like any of us, sometimes I even need assistance. Each one of us needs help and assistance from time to time. For example, someone simply walking to their car while carrying a number of bags or packages can always use an extra hand or two. There is the occasional person who will offer assistance to an individual laden down with stuff they are caring to their car. Far be it from me to condemn someone who offers me assistance because the person asking to help might very well be the one who would lend an extra hand to the person carrying all those packages.

The fact is, however, that many people offer assistance to persons with a disability because they do not know that disability does not mean lack of ability or competence. For my part, it is important that I respond appropriately to offers of help. It does no one any good to react in anger to offers of assistance. An invitation to help is at least an opportunity to educate just a bit. I must admit that sometimes the role of constant educator does get a bit trying. Nevertheless it is important to me to be patient, and sometimes even bite my tongue while attempting to change someone’s incorrect perception about what I can and cannot do.

I am often asked if I believe that blind and other disabled persons are better off today than in the past. In some ways I believe that we are. For example for me as a blind person Braille is easier and cheaper to produce. Technology offers me a plethora of ways to access information, travel more independently than ever, and in general live life with less difficulty than before those technological marvels were made available to me.

On the other hand, are we more socially integrated into society than we were 50, 20, or even 10 years ago? I think not, or at least I do not believe that we are significantly better off from a true social integration standpoint. The survey I took this morning is a perfect example of the lack of integration we face. Rather than offering an option of “retired or disabled” a more appropriate choice of words would’ve been “retired or unable to work”. Being unable to work opens up a whole realm of possibilities including temporary injury, illness, a family situation, and yes even a possibility of a severe disability which specifically keeps someone from working.

I will know that I am truly integrated into society when people regard me as amazing because of some amazing thing that I do rather than because I do the same things that they do except that I happened to be blind. I will know that I’m a real first-class citizen when I can walk into restaurants with friends and the wait staff asked me for my order rather than asking my sighted colleagues “what does he want?” I will know that I have arrived when I can go to meetings and conventions where all the materials given to sighted people are available to me in Braille or another accessible form.

In 2008 we elected a new president of the United States who ran on a platform of change and hope. President-elect Obama’s platform included statements reflecting his concern about improving the status of persons with disabilities in this country. I hope he follows through on the views he expressed on his website during the campaign concerning disabled people.

True and full integration is not easy. It starts with desire and it continues with education. I invite your comments and thoughts on the discussion. Only through enlightened and frank talk can we come to a better understanding of ourselves and each other and eventually attain a real inclusive world.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Fahri

    Thank you sharing all this. First of all, I am not a blind person. Also I am not an American, although I live in the US. You wrote about parents don’t teach children life without sight how it will be. I am truly amazed that what you wrote here. Especially the restaurant part that you mentioned the waitress. That is so impressive. Disable people face the problems each day in this modern society even though we are not modern as we think. If I haven’t read your article here, I could never think about blindness and also difficulties in blind people’s life. Integration is very important. I think we should educate children in schools. President OBAMA has to encourage this idea. Children have to learn about disable people and educate themselves. Maybe after 10 years everything will get better. but if we continue as we do now, nothing will get better.

    I really thank you. You made open my eyes and mind.

  • Donald Brown

    I think that in some ways, blind and visually impaired people are included as a part of mainstream society. It all depends upon the situation and upon the people that you encounter.

    Education is a great start in the right direction, and I definitely agree with the things that you have said here. However, no matter how many laws we pass, no matter how well we try to educate; there are always going to be people who don’t understand, who don’t want to understand.

    Here’s a good example, blacks are widely accepted in today’s society, but in the midst of that acception, you still have white supremacy groups who are against anything black related. So there are people in this nation of ours who will always believe that people with disabilities don’t deserve to be equal. We can’t change everyone’s minds, but we can help to change a great deal of the public mind by educating and providing laws and guidelines that people must follow.

    I am a legally blind individual myself, and I have tried for years to look for suitable employment. However, since I was unable to secure a job for myself, I turned to the Internet, and now I am co-founder of a major program for the blind and visually impaired called the Blind Online Success System, which educates blind and visually impaired individuals on the aspects of setting up and running an online business through extensive mentoring and coaching.

    You can visit our information page at the address here below

    I honestly believe that the blind and visually impaired can become a valuable part of society, but not just a valuable part, but a contributing part of society as a whole. That is why some people tell us that we must work harder than our sighted peers to prove that we can do the same things.

    However, I don’t think that we have to work necessarily harder, but we have to use the adaptive technology and resources that we’re given to do these things.

    One of the problems that we face with employment is the huge hurtle of whether or not the prospective employer will accept us as an equal partner in society, or is he, or she going to wane towards their own personal, and often times, negative views on blindness and not hire us.

    More often than not, these prospective employers tend to wane towards their own personal views, and if that’s the case, no matter how good your skills are, or how much education you have had will matter because their decision has been made up. They’re not hiring you, and it is on with the next interviewee who will more than likely end up with the job simply because they have eyesight.

    Yes, descrimination is running rampid in this great nation of ours. That is why I along with two other individuals, Jeff Wark and Lori Steffen had started the Blind Online Success System in the hope to give those who are blind and visually impaired a fare chance at running and owning their own businesses online.

    It is high time that we tell our government that we’re tired of being treated like second class citizens, and it is time that the blind and visually impaired become an equal part of society, not some sort of burden.

    The majority of the blind who are working are working in jobs that have no future. Jobs such as rolling silverware in a restaurant, loading the dishwasher, or working at sheltered workshops for slave labor while those who run these places are driving fancy cars, living in fancy homes, and laughing all the way to the bank, and yes; laughing at us.

    However, we are moving in the right direction. There have been many changes made within the past few years that have made life for the blind and visually impaired that much easier. Technology being one of the greatest achievements to date.

    I don’t know why it is, but when you go into a restaurant and they ask your friends what you would like to eat; do they assume that you’re also deaf? Where on Earth do they get the idea that you can’t speak for yourself?

    I would have to say that those with a disability are actually the ones without the disability, and the ones without the disability are the ones with it because they can be quite ignorant at times. When we do do something, the ones without a disability think that it is truly amazing that we can even do these things. It can make you feel like a trained monkey at times who has just learned how to do something, and now the scientists are rushing round trying to show you off to the other scientists and the public.

    Just because we use different methods to do the things that the sighted do doesn’t make what we do amazing, or outstanding. We just do it, plain and simple. We just go at it a different way that’s all.

    People need to be valued for who they are, and not on what they wear, look like, or smell like. They need to be valued as equal parts of society and not a burden, or leach. People with disabilities have a lot to offer, and all that it takes is for the non-disabled to give us that fare chance.

  • Katya Frias

    i am also legally blind, and i find it very annoying when people think i need help to do everyday things and when they say “its amazing you can do this” or “you are an inspiration because you can do this” we dont want to be an inspiration. we want to be treated the same as everyone else. even worse most people think i’m an idiot because im blind. they think i can’t read print either but i still have some sight so after they see me read they dont ask anymore. another thing is when people say things like this “be careful when you go down the stairs” or things like that. most people dont mean this as an insult, but when someone does you usually just want to yell at them. i had to learn to resist this, but people need to be more educated. blind and legally blind people are just as smart as people with perfect sight.

  • Peter Q. Wolfe

    I think a large percentage of our problem is self-segregation in institutions, coddling and forginv common bonds with sighted people are the best ways of eliminating this crap. Early school years playing with braille cards with other kids would do wonders. Those of us still around are almost helpless cause adults like video games, movies without description, sports, driving or automibles in general and etc. People feel like they have a vested interest in owning us cause of welfare programs. These programs they think are lifesupport and want something out of it like enspiration when they are down or whatever. These people all of them get on my blind nerves too and I want patient intelligent people but hardly ever even at Auburn University do you get that even. A bunch of uneducated people cause when I was undisabled in high school in one day we went over all forms of disabilities. This is an institution breedong on itself from parents, teachers, employeers and others cause most people probably would feeel envous if we made it out there.

  • casey philip

    i totally agree you all. society has a big role on matter this happen. i am gin to college to become a dsw worker .having a disability dose not make individuals less of a person than does who dont. everyone in the community has to realized that everyone has their strong and weaknesses., no matter who or what you are.

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