How I see it … societal assumptions

I hope others learn from the stories and reflections I share on this page. With this in mind, I would like to share a story from last week to illustrate how societal assumptions affect individuals and influence others.

This started with a bus journey. On the way home from work, Guide Dog Sienna and I were going to get a bus as we needed to get home quickly.

We waited at the shelter. At this stop, three routes are scheduled close together at certain times of the day (2 minutes apart). The sun was shining, so I shaded my eyes to give me the best chance to see the bus approach. Because of the traffic, it was hard to hear the difference between vehicles. As a bus came, I signalled to the driver to stop.

The bus pulled past the bus stop; Sienna and I walked to the door and stepped in and asked the driver, “is this bus the XXX bus?”. I waited for an answer and he sat, not acknowledging me, staring forward. He didn’t answer or even acknowledge me. I took a step closer and said, “excuse me, is this the XXX bus?” He gestured upward and said, “You saw it”, to which I answered, “actually, I didn’t; I can see the bus shape but couldn’t see the number”.

Sienna sitting in under my seat in the bus.

His response was to look at my guide dog, raise his hands and shrug, repeating, “you saw it”. I didn’t know how to respond on a bus with other passengers on it, so I swiped my bus pass and asked Sienna to find a seat.

This interaction has made me reflect on public expectations of those with low or no vision. The reactions I mostly encounter are the expectation I can either see nothing or everything (and I am training the Guide Dog I work with). If appropriate, I will try and explain. Still, the part that seems complicated for others to fathom is the spectrum and variability of what I can and can not see, depending on many other factors.

This is the first time a person has thought I had been faking vision loss. In hindsight, I would have loved to ask the driver why he thought I could read the sign yet still asked him. I suspect the answer will be because I knew when to flag down a bus, which was a rather large blob compared to all the cars. I believe this type of assumption reinforces some of society’s deficit view of disability.

On reflection, I may have contributed to this earlier in my life, hiding my vision loss, for example, by not using a white cane when I probably should not have been viewed as different. I started to use my cane full time when I injured myself tripping over things, yet in hindsight, not having the stigma attached to it and starting use earlier would have been much safer. I was going out of my way to look sighted to fit into society as society expected.

Now, as someone reasonably well established and sure of my place and disability, I look back to early in my vision loss journey, when I felt like a fraud in both the blind and sighted community. I was pretending to be more sighted than I was to fit in but didn’t feel I was “blind enough” to be considered part of that community either.

This illustrates not only society’s common perception of Blindness (often a have or have not sense) but also the views of the blind community where there is a delimitation between low vision and total blindness and multiple definitions around the world.

Here is an example. I searched for the World Health Organisation definition ( https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/blindness-and-visual-impairment) of the blind when writing this post. The definition that they had on their website only referred to visual acuity and not the field of view, thus only acknowledging a subset of those who are considered blind in many countries. The below excerpts (photos) show Australasian definitions.

Legal Blindness (Google Search):

First definition in Google with Blindness and NZ

Blindness (NZ Government Departments):

From the Cost of Vision Loss in NZ Report in 2009.

Back to our assumptions. It is common to have assumptions or notice similarities or differences and we learn from these. However, as the above example and definitions show, there are varying perceptions of blindness from legislation to individuals. As a result, I question, Is it realistic to expect an individual who has not been in a situation before to know and understand without using assumptions?

I would argue having assumptions is normal. One of the key messages I give my students regularly is that we learn from assumptions it is our recognition of these as assumptions and what we do with these that is the important part.

One thought on “How I see it … societal assumptions

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  1. I believe you may have missed an educational oppertunity. A call to AT may have provided an opening to educate bus drivers on the challenges you, and other vision impaired passengers, face. Keep posting your thoughts as it helps others appreciate other people’s disabilities.

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