In my job, where I work mostly with sighted clients, the majority of people take my blindness in stride. The most common reaction I get is amusement at my screen reader, which, because it sometimes can’t keep up with my rapid navigation of the program and sounds like its speaking in gibberish, is pretty amusing. Every once in a while however, I get someone who really freaks out.
Take the lady last week, for example. I was on the phone with her, and needed to write down a few notes. Naturally she asked what that weird voice was. Chuckling, I explained that I am totally blind and the voice is my screen reader, to which she responded: “Oh my God! I am so sorry!” My reply? “Why? I’m not.”
Now most people are thinking at this point that I’m a bit of a jerk. “Come on,” they’re saying, “Can’t you just be gracious and say “thank you?” After all, there’s not enough kindness and compassion in the world these days.” Indulge me for a moment, and I’ll explain.
Blindness, disability in general in fact, has throughout history been met with pity. This pity has been based on the fact that blindness is a tragedy which strips away a person’s ability to live a full and productive life. This pity gave rise to institutionalization in the dark ages, sheltered workshops in the decades to follow, and always the custodial attitude that since blind people can’t take care of themselves, the sighted must take care of them.
This is the tyranny of low expectations, and it has, until recently, caused blind people to be effectively excluded from the mainstream. Because it is assumed that our blindness makes us incapable, we have not been expected to be contributing members of society. Therefore, we have been marginalized. Our alternative techniques have been dismissed, our genuine needs ignored. We often have to fight for equal access to things sighted people take for granted, such as education, gainful employment, and the right to raise our children. This lack of access has led to conditions for many blind people which are truly pitiable.
The truth is, I do feel sorry for blind people, but not in the way my caller from last week does. I feel deep sympathy for the student who, after years of headaches from eyestrain caused by reading print they can’t read, drops out of school frustrated and discouraged. I feel empathy for the student who, fortunate to learn Braille and screen readers thereby escaping the eyestrain, nevertheless finds their road to education blocked by inaccessible technology and colleges who are less than accommodating. I feel righteous rage on behalf of the parent whose children are taken away simply because of someone’s tragically mistaken belief that being blind means they are an unfit parent. My heart hurts for the blind sheltered workshop worker who is making far below the minimum wage and is grateful to get it because they believe they can get no better. The list goes on, but I am filled with deepest sorrow for the blind person who remains shut in their house or lives in a nursing home, who needs constant care from others because they were given no blindness skills at all, never told that there is a better way.
So pity me not because I’m blind. See me not as remarkable or inspiring, but as an ordinary woman with a job and a kid who just happens to be blind. Then, should you meet a blind person whose circumstances I would pity, help them realize their true capabilities.