I was reminded several times in the last week how our assumptions can influence and impact others. There are two examples of this I would like to discuss. The first was challenging my own beliefs when I went to a Christmas Concert featuring the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, among other performers. The second was the assumptions of others.
At a Christmas Concert on the weekend, I found myself wearing sunglasses when I usually would not have needed to. It made me recall some assumptions I made as a child of around 13 years old. I typically associated a blind person as someone who could not see anything, wore boxy blacked-out glasses indoors, at night, and outdoors and needed to tap around a white cane and had to have help with “everything”. Over the years, I had learned that this assumption was not the norm. However, thoughts creep back in at times, and I need to remind myself that my assumptions are not necessarily generalisable. This experience caused me to reflect on why I was wearing sunglasses when I was wearing them and how much these helped me.
What isn’t apparent in my story so far is that I was wearing my sunglasses at night when it was dark. There was a method to my madness in this instance, as the glare from the oncoming traffic, street lights and concert lighting coupled with a crowd of 3000 – 5000 people was a little overwhelming, and the sunglasses made visual stimuli and using my vision manageable.
I realised that I was “just like” the assumption my 13-year-old self made, which was slightly confronting and made me consider how I wanted to be perceived: a confident, independent and well-rounded person who gets on with what she needs to do without bringing attention to herself.
This led me to reflect on how I wanted to be perceived and why I was so afraid of being recognised as blind (or low vision) – or in a nutshell, as different. I concluded that this was because of societal perception of blindness as a deficit (as an aside, I am an academic struggling not to link this blog post with a theorist, model or research but continue it as an informative story of life). In true academic fashion, this led to more questions than answers, so I decided to present the beginning of my list:
- Is low vision actually a bad thing?
- Why is it often depicted in that manner?
- Why do I often believe it is “bad”?
- How much has society had to do with this assumption?
- How and why did society come to those conclusions?
- Why do I revert to believing these societal norms?
I didn’t want to be known as the person with “low vision” or “can’t see” because this mindset is a deficit, where society seems to hold different standards.
For now, I will park the theoretical component of these questions and explain how these concepts relate to my experiences. Over the last six months, in particular, I have noticed my visual field getting smaller and have not been seeing some things around me. Interestingly, I feel I have been conditioned not to let those around me know or help when I find things difficult and get on with things myself. For example, in a crowded meeting, today people got up and moved towards the door, leaving a wake of scattered chairs which I promptly fell over. My response was to get up and continue with my day and fly under the radar.
A prime example of lower standards occurred when I walked to work on Friday (rubbish collection day). There are usually multiple wheelie bins on the footpath. While these make annoying obstacles (and I need my sunglasses even to see them), they are necessary for life in the community. As a response, I tend to use my cane more to determine how far away they are. During my walk, I was passed by a woman and smiled, saying good morning and kept on walking. About 20 metres down the road, she stopped me and said with conviction: “I think you are amazing”, going on to say, “I watched you get round those rubbish bins … you are just amazing”. I didn’t know how to respond and opted to say thank you and kept walking.
This person had made a few assumptions in her statements, and I was left feeling that I was being judged for my low vision (I do acknowledge my assumption here). I thought about this for the rest of my walk to work, and it cemented how much assumptions prevalent in society can influence your own self-perception and, in turn, self-esteem. I want to think that I am amazing at contributing to the community rather than navigating around a rubbish bin. While I measure myself against my contributions to society as a person, academic, nurse, volunteering, project work and as a leader in my own right, it would appear based on assumptions others may have much lower standards.
This comes full circle to how I respond to these assumptions, in other words, what I can control and what I can not. I have concluded that all I can control is how I perceive myself and decide to promote myself to the world. I want to be honest and acknowledge that my response is that self-perception and esteem are impacted by societal assumptions. I often set myself very high expectations to counterbalance the deficit model described above.
To remind me of the influence of society, I recently got a tattoo where I can carry a message to myself as a constant reminder. I will let the readers decode the tattoo, be aware that I have left the first four digits off of each row.