Nearly everywhere I go I am forced to contend with the result of widely-held beliefs about blindness. Often, I am required to explain or justify my actions or motives.
Whether I am deflecting another’s idle curiosity, overbearing control, resentment or simple ignorance, I am frequently amazed by how little is really understood about people with disabilities.
For each of these encounters, I endeavor to educate others as to the myths and stereotypes about blindness perpetuated by our media culture. Most of the time, my explanations are met with surprise and incredulity. It seems as though no one wants to hear the truth because the myths are much easier to believe.
Perhaps the misperceptions are simply more palatable because the reality of a disability is intolerable to many. Most hold to the “I’d rather be dead than disabled” position. It seems that ascribing some magical quality to those with disabilities makes us easier to accept.
The single most often repeated myth about blindness is the belief that we have a superior sense of hearing. Variations include: “People who are blind have higher attuned senses,” or “Blind people are more intuitive,” or “Blindness gives you a kind of sixth sense as a way to compensate.”
Let’s clear this up right now. People who are blind do not have bionic hearing. This is a myth. There is no science that suggests people who have vision loss have better hearing than everyone else. This myth is repeated so often, everyone tends to believe that it must be true. It is not.
Media portrayals of persons who are blind only seem to perpetuate this idea in our culture. Movies such as “Daredevil,” where the lead character becomes blind as the result of an accident and subsequently acquires superhuman attributes, has done little to shine the bright light of truth on these ridiculous misperceptions.
Not only do movies like this do little to advance the cause of the disability community, they alter the way we are treated as a result.
Here is a specific example. Years ago, I was placed in the unfortunate position of having to complain to my apartment manager about my noisy neighbors in the building in which I lived.
The apartment manager would do nothing, as he evidently believed the “heightened senses” myth. “Well, you have more sensitive hearing,” he explained, “so they just seem louder to you.”
When I meet someone with whom I’ve spoken in the recent past and inquire as to their latest health malady, they are astounded. “My goodness! You are so sensitive and in tune with other people. It must be because you’re blind.” No, it’s because I was actually listening to you when you told me you weren’t feeling very well three weeks ago.
I’m not distracted by your clothes, your car or your mannerisms; I’m paying attention to you instead. Unusual, yes. Extra sensory perception, no.
Another example of how I am forced to attend to the unenlightened attitudes of others is when their critical assessment of my appearance results in the proclamation, “Wow . . . you don’t look blind.” Inevitably, I will ask, “What does a blind person look like?” “I don’t know.” They’ll shrug. “I just expected that you would be wearing two different shoes, or shabby clothes, or that you would be old.”
This brings to mind what became a signature expression of our 43rd President when he ran for office in the year 2000. He often spoke of something he called, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” At first I had no idea what that meant, then I thought about it and how it applied to me. I realized that there are many ways in which I am subjected to the soft bigotry of low expectations.
People do not expect a person with a disability to be intelligent, articulate, educated or employed. Many express surprise when they discover that I am well educated, well traveled, well read and well dressed. I am expected to belong to a specific economic class, have a particular political affiliation or even possess a reduced intellectual capacity.
Making an assumption about any person and treating them according to that prejudgment is indeed a form of bigotry. A person with a disability is as individual as anyone. We have dreams, goals, ideas and opinions all our own. We are ambitious, motivated, productive and educated. We are wealthy, we are poor, we are jerks, and we are wonderful. We have all the same failings as the rest of the human race.
A disability is one aspect of our lives with which we each cope in our own way, just as you cope with the death of a loved one, a bitter divorce, health crisis, natural disaster or other calamity. Believe it or not, it can also be a blessing in its own way. In some cultures, a disability is not considered to be a horrible misfortune. Rather, it is said that having a disability is God’s way of getting closer to you. What a lovely thought.
It’s true that in America we have made great progress in improving access for people with disabilities. However, removing physical barriers is only one part of a barrier-free environment.
Awareness is a mind-set, not a mandate. Attitude is a significant facet of accessibility.
All of the Braille dots and wheelchair ramps in the world cannot provide a disabled person with a job if a potential employer will not consider a candidate with a disability because of preconceived ideas as to the applicant’s capabilities.
You can enhance your awareness by learning for yourself some of the more practical aspects of the lives of individuals with disabilities and how we really function. Granted, it is less fantastic than possessing a sixth sense, but knowing the truth will enable you to see me in a new way. Then, I’ll look just like everyone else.
Laura Gillson is a speaker, author and educator specializing in disability awareness, advocacy, accessibility and assistive technology.