Would you be able to tell cayenne pepper from chili powder in a grocery store—with your eyes closed? Could you sense if traffic were moving or at a standstill by just listening to the flow? While these scenarios may give you pause, they’re the everyday reality of the 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired or blind. And while complicated, many would tell you these situations are more manageable than you fear. “I don’t hear any better than you,” a legally blind mom of two once told me. “You just don’t use your senses. When you can see a bus coming, you don’t have to listen for it.”
Today marks World Sight Day, which brings awareness to visual impairment and blindness across the globe. But rather than ask you to close your eyes and imagine what life might be like for the blind for a moment, I’d like to tell you what life was like for me for an hour.
A while back, I went to “Dialog in the Dark,” an exhibit that has been traveling the globe and stopped at New York City’s South Street Seaport two years ago. At the start, you’re given the appropriate mobility cane for your height. Then you enter a room that’s pitch-black—and remain in complete darkness for the remainder of the exhibit.
A legally blind guide takes you from one pitch-black room to another, each of which simulates the sounds, vibrations and temperatures (but not sights) of iconic locations in New York: a bustling train that you have to get on and off. A grocery store where you open a fridge to locate a container of milk. A city park where you feel for a bench to sit down on. All in complete darkness.
Some people panic and have to leave the exhibit. Others embrace the experience while they try to discern lemons from oranges in a supermarket setting or listen carefully for conductor announcements to make sure they get off at the right train “stop.” Regardless, you’ll never interact with a legally blind person the same way again.
On this World Sight Day, I want to encourage you to go get your vision checked—especially if it’s that appointment you’ve been meaning to get around to but haven’t in forever. Eye diseases (like macular degeneration and glaucoma) are silent but cause significant damage and vision loss if untreated. And 80% of visual impairment is readily treatable and/or preventable. But, most important, I’d like to influence how you react the next time you encounter a legally blind person with some advice I got directly from legally blind people.
Offer but Don’t Be Offended. “Don’t hesitate to ask a blind person if they need help crossing the street, for example,” one of the “Dialog in the Dark” guides told me. “But don’t be offended if they decline.” It may sound simple, but I’ve seen people get rubbed the wrong way when a blind person declines their help. There’s no need. Know you were available for a good deed and keep going.
Follow Their Lead. I was recently traveling from Philadelphia to New York by train when a woman with a Seeing Eye dog sat near me. The couple standing in front of her sparked up a conversation, asking multiple questions about the dog and their routine. I have no doubt that they meant well, but it was a bit invasive and her brief answers should’ve been a cue to cut the conversation short. When the train stopped, I offered to help the woman find her way to taxi stop. As we walked, she confided in me how awkward it is when strangers recognize her dog on the street and call it by its name. Imagine if a stranger you couldn’t see came up to you while you were walking somewhere with your child and started interacting with your little one by name. There’s nothing wrong with being just as friendly with a blind person as you’d be with a sighted person. Just field their reactions the same way.
Act Normal. “A lot of sighted people treat the visually impaired as if they're mentally impaired,” that mom of two I mentioned before shared with me. Think about it: Have you ever spoken louder or slower when communicating with a blind person? “People have the misconception that just because you’re visually impaired, there must be something else wrong. Just because I don’t have sight, doesn’t mean I don’t have vision.”
What will you do to mark World Sight Day? Book your next eye appointment? Donate to a local charity? Post a comment and let me know.