How I see it … what we do with our assumptions

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.

Two pairs of my sunglasses.

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.

Tattoo with binary code that says "I am enough"

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.

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