How I see it … a dichotomy – the influence of appearance on society and society on appearance

Today, I was informed by a healthcare professional that I didn’t fit into the neat and orderly categories that society defines for us.

We were discussing the challenges of reading print on paper, a screen and the multiple factors that influence this (lighting, angle, glare, fatigue etc.), along with the fact that traditional methods of magnification used in low vision didn’t work well for me because I have multiple eye conditions that cause the opposite effects.  

For example, poor visual acuity usually benefits from magnification and good lighting.  However, visual field loss and distortions from glaucoma mean magnification can reduce the area viewed, and more lighting causes glare. Similarly, using progressive or bifocal glasses to magnify does not work because my remaining vision is left lateral in my sighted eye (does not match the position of progressive or bifocal).  This means that I use multiple different techniques at different times to compensate, sometimes magnification, no magnification, extra light, sometimes lights off.  There is no one answer or solution.

I mentioned that those around me often have difficulty understanding that my needs constantly change and how much impact the environment has on what I achieve.

  1. Their response was, “it is because you don’t look blind”.
  2. I asked, “what does blind look like”?
  3. They answered, “they do things, and you can tell”.

The appointment finished because we had tried many things and that there was no miracle solution.  Moving between compensation methods and structuring what I do less fatiguingly was all we could change right now. 

My question on “what does blind look like” was not answered adequately and made the healthcare professional uncomfortable. However, it has a much larger context than the opinion of one person and one interaction.  What bothered me was that they implied that I might not get assistance when I need it because “I don’t look blind”.   I went in thinking I had complete agency, but these assumptions made me reconsider.  

It is well known that we all make assumptions about every situation we encounter. As a teacher, I do my best to guide students to recognise our own assumptions and see them for what they are – an assumption, with the important part being how we act or do not act on said assumption.  I came away from the appointment thinking about the construction of assumptions and societal values.

Photo by Monica Turlui on Pexels.com

I have written several blog posts previously discussing my adaptation from the sighted to the blind (low vision).  These had included things like feeling like a fraud asking for help when I needed it, beginning to use a cane in public and labelling myself a part-time cane user.  The societal perception of blindness influenced these situations and potentially the comment made by the healthcare professional today. 

If I google the words “blind definition”, the following definitions.

adjective
  1. unable to see because of injury, disease, or a congenital condition.
  2. Lacking perception, awareness, or judgement.
verb
  1. cause (someone) to be unable to see, permanently or temporarily.
  2. Deprive (someone) of understanding, judgement, or perception.
What strikes me about these definitions is that they are all based on a deficit context and are worded to be “lesser” than what is considered “normal”.  This isn’t surprising considering values and culture have been predominantly constructed by the larger proportion of the population – those who are sighted.   A 2020 study of stigmatisation discussed this as ocularcentrism, suggesting that society perceives people with low vision as requiring lower expectations than those who are sighted.  I have experienced this; at School, I was told by the Dean that it wasn’t worth me going on to do university entrance but to take several transition options because I had poor vision and getting a job after the sixth form was the best option for me.  I used this assumption/stigmatisation to my advantage, travelled and then entered University as an adult, working my way through to gain a PhD.  Even today, societal perceptions seem to remain lower for those who are blind, which matches the google definitions quoted above.  I experienced this last year (see blog post) where I was stopped by a stranger while walking to work, and she said she thought I was amazing because I could navigate around a rubbish bin using my white cane.  This was soon after gaining my PhD which was the standard I was holding for myself.  

From my achievements, one might say that society hasn’t set me lower expectations, and I contribute the same as my sighted peers; I would argue that I have set myself higher than normal expectations and worked harder to compensate despite societal norms and values.  The lower expectations have led me to want to prove myself. Yet, psychologically these definitions and perceptions are not easy to continually overcome, and I have found myself beginning to believe that I was lesser than those around me because of this.  To compensate, I set myself higher expectations than I would for sighted people around me.  . Furthermore, I put more pressure on myself to achieve and was reluctant to ask or admit I needed help. This reinforced the constructs that the blind need help, achieve less and are therefore of less value to society which led me to hide the extent of my disability until recently.

This was backed up by an interesting newspaper article featuring a friend of mine, Jonathan Mosen, who pointed out that AI (artificial intelligence), which is used in the employment industry to filter candidates, was designed in a manner that can be exclusive of those with a disability by virtue of the values the designers and data collectors hold.  Reading this reinforced the unconscious bias that society holds for those with a disability. 

Getting back to the “looking blind”, – I argue that I do things that I believe make me look blind:

  • I can not look straight at someone and have them in my field of view. Therefore, I have conversations with people where I position my head to make eye contact as it makes the other person feel comfortable, yet I cannot see their face. 
  • If I look at a person in a crowd, they automatically think I am looking over their shoulder, so I attempt to compensate for this by pointing my nose straight at them. 
  • I always walk slightly behind and to the right of someone to keep them in my field of vision.    
  • When working, I sit with my computer screen very close to my face.
  • I actively avoid crowds, moving objects and groups of people or animals as these are unpredictable, and the movement makes me nauseous.
  • I will not venture out without sunglasses as the glare is problematic.
  • I rarely have any notes when giving a lecture or teaching a class (I memorise concepts beforehand).
  • I very rarely walk down a flight of stairs without holding the handrail.

To me, the above things make me “look” blind.  However, others may have other perceptions as history, media and societal values and norms portray blindness with particular stereotypical behaviours that only apply to a few.  I began my journey into vision loss with values and beliefs closer to those of society in general.  Interestingly, the journey has led me to question my identity as someone who is “sighted”, “low vision”, or “blind”.  Context is the key, and there are days where I feel like an imposter in each of these categories.

The key is who identifies the category, group or name that is the most important.  In this case, I choose to belong to a particular population rather than decide by another.  For example, today, I have experienced what I would consider being “sighted”, “low vision”, or “blind”, and the fluidity of these has allowed me to navigate my world.  

I hope that this blog entry causes some discussion around the impact of society/culture on the language and constructs we use every day.

 

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