Why Do People Fear the Blind?
by Michelle Hackman
On Saturday, the New York Times published a stunning essay by Rosemary Mahoney, a teacher at a school for the blind, entitled "Why Do We Fear the Blind?" She opens with a quandary seemingly absurd on its face, but one that we unsighted people know all too well:
A few years ago, when I mentioned to a woman I met at a party that I was teaching in a school for the blind, she seemed confused. "Can I just ask you one question?" she said. "How do you talk to your students?"
I explained that the students were blind, not deaf. Raising the palms of her hands at me, as if to stem further misunderstanding, she said: "Yes, I know they're not deaf. But what I really mean is, how do you actually talk to them?"
I once read that, according to one survey, Americans report feeling more afraid of blindness than they are of diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. Cancer! Heart disease? They've got to be kidding me. Blindness is not a life-threatening disease — for many, not even a condition significant enough to stunt personal success. Yet sight is so essential to the concept of living that people feel some sort of an existential attachment to it, as if to lose their sight would be akin to losing life, altogether.
This attitude, which pervades even the most learned of circles, strips blind people of a level of basic humanity. Friends have told me that, before they met me, they wouldn't have known how to communicate with a real blind person, as though there exists some separate language or code of conduct governing our interactions. Some people — the people with whom I typically don't become friends — handle our first interaction by either 1) growing unusually laconic, 2) articulating their words unnecessarily slowly, or 3) lowering their voices as if by a loved one's sickbed.
Even on the streets of Yale's campus, where I supposedly rub shoulders daily with future Nobel-winning scientists and U.S. senators, I am confronted with a basic lack of understanding. Strangers always shout at me — some even grab an arm or the scruff of my shirt — to ensure that I know a curb is coming up when I am poised to cross a street. Friends frequently ask me, without really thinking, if I know where I'm going when I'm headed home. Though I am a fellow student who theoretically gained admission under the same application standards, other students frequently do not think to extend my credentials into the non-academic realm.
The basic problem with blindness, I've come to believe, is simply one of relatability. It is so difficult to describe. Plug your ears, and you hear nothing. But close your eyes and you see the insides of your eyelids, the light shining through your lashes, the wild Technicolor of your imagination flashing before you. Whenever I tell someone that "I really don't see at all — just like you don't hear anything at all when you cover your ears," they always seem bamboozled, as if I've lost my mind because the sensation I am describing sounds physically impossible.
I do not profess to know a particularly effective strategy of dealing with such prejudice; on the one hand, it's easy to feel frustrated by awkward interactions or excessive offers of help. But I can also understand from where the prejudice is stemming. Over the course of my admittedly short life, whenever I've met a person who could not hear or walk, some irrational fear I hadn't even been aware of harboring suddenly shattered.
For me, the best solution has been simple exposure. The more my name appears in the school paper — the more people recognize me as the girl they saw at last night's party or the girl who's always ensconced at the corner table in the dining hall, jabbering about politics, the less they can strip me of my humanity. So effective is this method, in fact, that I use it as an offensive tactic whenever prejudice strikes. If someone says something like, "Hey, do you need help to wherever you're going," I'll respond in a way that conveys just how much I have my wits about me. "No thanks, I'm headed to the newspaper building just around the corner that way," I'll say, with a hand gesture for effect.
Typically, that does the trick.
I'd love to hear your stories — both about the strangest forms of prejudice you've seen as well as ways you've developed to deal with them. Leave your stories in the comments below or tweet me @MHackman with the hashtag #AFBBlog.
Re: Why Do People Fear the Blind?Posted by Joe S on 1/8/2014 at 11:55 AM
Thank you for sharing with us! It is definitely still a top fear of the general public, I know I heard an update of that study recently -- it is still number one. I think your advice about responding with specifics and then to continue on your path is perfect. I know I utilize this technique. I also taught orientation and mobility on Florida State's campus and even gave tours -- all as a person who is blind or visually impaired and a white cane user. Though, I had more vision back then. I often gave people directions around the campus and the city.
We have to do our best serve as examples and educate the public. YOu are obviously doing that, and I can tell you it makes a difference. I was on plane with a man who explained how his college experience many years ago and friendship with a woman who was blind educated him.
People fear what they don't know, and we live in a very visual time. Think about media, advertising, and the amounts of money that pour into visual mediums. We all have fears, and many are unjustified. Many people have not interacted with someone who is blind or visually impaired, or more accurately, didn't realize they did. We are a small population, extremely small. If you also look at the percentages for persons with low vision to those with no sight, even smaller. Many persons with low visions may not be disclosing to the public as well. The general perception is that just of people who are blind. Low vision is a mystery or possibly just as misunderstood.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!
Re: Why Do People Fear the Blind?Posted by smdalton on 1/8/2014 at 12:02 PM
This is such a coincidence! Last night at my book group someone brought up a new book suggestion and it was "For the Benefit of Those who See" by Rosemary Mahoney. How wonderful that this information is getting out to the public in a variety of media! Can't wait to read the book.
Re: Why Do People Fear the Blind?Posted by williamsillyman on 5/22/2014 at 9:12 PM
Rosemary, thank you for writing this. I have shared it with many people and it has made a difference (to a point). I was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of glaucoma and became legally blind about a hear and a half ago. When I told my wife people act different around me, she said it was just my imagination. Then I read her your article. I still have very little sight left in one eye. My wife apologized to me, and she started noticing it as well. I guess the hardest part, for both of us, is people who we thought were our best friends and would be there and support us emotionally and in all the ways friends are supposed to, have distanced themselves away from us. No longer do we get together for a game night or go out for dinner. Abruptly they cut us off. They will rarely call, and if they miss us, we will call them only to be brushed off. That hurts. We are making new friends, those who don't care that I'm blind. My wife is in a powerchair due to complications from diabetes. I just don't understand why people are afraid of the blind. I'm the same person I always was, only thing different is I'm blind. Thank you for sharing your story and allowing me to share mine.
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