What People's Stares Mean to Me as Someone With a Vision Impairment

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“Oh! Are you training her?”

This is one of the most annoying questions I get asked. I usually reply with, “No, she’s mine,” or, “No, she’s my guide dog. I’m legally blind.” Almost every time, the response to my reply is, “Oh. You don’t look blind.” I haven’t been bold enough to ask someone what blind actually looks like, but that’s exactly what goes through my head. The stereotype and perception the world has about people who are blind is that they a) always wear sunglasses, b) have wandering eyes and don’t make eye contact or c) don’t have a life much outside of the home. Because I don’t fit any of these stereotypes, I get a lot of questions and a lot of stares.

I have a progressive, degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. I was born able to see and still have some sight, although not much. Most people notice they have nonexistent or limited night vision first. Then comes the loss of peripheral vision. As the disease progresses, you lose more and more peripheral vision and often become completely blind. In my particular case, it’s destroyed most of my peripheral vision and a lot of my central vision, but I can still have some central vision. I can still make eye contact with you, and my eyes do not wander. I wear sunglasses every once in a while, but I don’t wear them inside. I lead an active life and I’m fairly independent (aside from driving).

I don’t fit the image people have in their minds of what a person with a visual impairment looks like. I used to take it as a compliment when somebody told me I didn’t look blind. To me, that meant I was functioning well and appeared confident and independent. I liked this, but I don’t like the perception that others who may “look blind” due to their eye conditions are perceived as not having this level of independence, confidence or functioning.

I went to Subway recently with my good friend, Kellie. As we moved through the line, the sandwich artist kept asking Kellie about what kind of sandwich I wanted — what kind of bread I wanted, what size, what cheese, what meat, what size drink, etc. She rarely even made eye contact with me. When she did, she told me, “The bread list is over there.” (Don’t ever say “over there” to someone with a visual impairment, even if they are partially sighted — it’s little to no help.) Meanwhile, the rest of the Subway staff stared at me. Kellie wouldn’t answer the questions for me because she didn’t need to — I’m capable of ordering my own sandwich.

When we got back to our table and talked about the interaction, Kellie mentioned that if she and I could clearly hold a conversation with each other, what led the Subway employee to think I couldn’t answer her questions myself? This woman had no idea how to talk to me, and the rest of the staff just stared. While we ate our sandwiches, almost every person who came in the door looked at my guide dog, Makiko. Then they looked up at me and back down at Makiko. Next, many would look at me straight in the eyes. I’ve had this happen enough times to know what a lot of them were probably thinking: “She’s not blind.” They then went back to their tabled and continued to stare while they ate.

This isn’t an isolated incident. We get this wherever we go. People stare at us to figure out why I have a guide dog. People will even stare at us while moving forward and bump into other people or objects. I have just enough sight that I’m able to see them looking at me. I don’t take it personally, and the only reason it ever bothers is because of the stereotype and common misconception accompanying those stares.

These false stereotypes about people with visual impairments aren’t just insulting; they’re harmful to the wellbeing and livelihood of people with visual impairments. It’s partly due to these stereotypes that so many people with visual impairments live off government benefits because they can’t get jobs even though they’re intelligent and capable of working. I have friends who are blind who have several college and master’s degrees each and are absolutely brilliant but can’t find jobs because nobody is willing to hire them and take the time to learn about the accommodations they need to become successful.

The stares themselves don’t really bother me. Getting asked if my guide dog is in training doesn’t really bother me. I’m never bothered when people ask questions and genuinely want to learn more about my visual impairment or how my guide dog helps me. However, people staring because I don’t fit inside the little box they think of when they think of blindness and being frequently told I “don’t look blind” does bother me. People with visual impairments are capable people no matter how they look. 

These negative stereotypes are harmful to the wellbeing of others and their ability to work and be productive members of society. But I will continue to smile through the stares and ignorant statements I get on a daily basis so I can keep educating the world around me about blindness.

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Follow this journey at The Way Eye See the World

The Mighty is asking the following: “Staring” is a topic that comes up so much in our community. Tell us about one unforgettable “staring” experience you or someone you love had that’s related to disability, disease or illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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More than 20 million American adults reported experiencing vision loss in the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. That’s a big number, so The Mighty decided to team up with the American Foundation for the Blind to start a discussion about visual impairment. We asked our readers who live with blindness and visual impairment want to world to understand about them.

This is what they had to say.

1. “People need to see us for who we are and not our disability. Yes, we are blind, but does that mean we can’t do anything? No.” — Michael Chopra

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2. “Please always identify yourself when speaking to a visually impaired individual. Same goes when speaking to a group if there are visually impaired individuals in that group. This is basic info that a person requires to take the next step — whether it be a simple conversation or perhaps forming the beginning of a friendship.” — Carolyn Sparacino Taylor

3. “Just because we are blind does not mean we can’t do everything a seeing person can.” — Nancy Olson

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4. “Blindness isn’t something to be ashamed of or to be embarrassed about.” — Jael Espinal

5. “I may or may not know that other blind person you know.” — Katherine Schneider

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6. “I like to be judged by my abilities and not my disability. I want to be treated as an equal — I am a mother, grandmother, friend, sister, so why should I be any different because of my disability?” — Pauline Wade

7. “We, like many people, have challenges, however all of our problems in life are not as equal or the same as the sighted… No two people with blindness or visual impairment do the same things or have the same mannerisms.” — William Odonnell

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8. “I wish people could understand how frustrating it is when you are losing your sight, but what we have to do is find ways to adapt, and this makes it easier. We are not to be put out to pasture yet because there are still things we can do.” — Evelyn Jeanette Morton Bishop

9. “The world and my life are not dark because I am totally blind.” — Linda Hunt

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10. “Losing one’s eyesight is not a fate worse than death. Life without vision still holds many joys. Challenges and difficulties, yes, but also much happiness and fulfillment as well. There are non-visual ways of doing most things. It seems like it’s hard for people with normal vision to imagine how those of us with low vision or with no vision can do things like comb our hair, dress ourselves, clean our homes or even eat.” — Candy Lien

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11. “It’s important that people understand the fear that comes with losing your eyesight. When your world starts to go dark, you really need kindness to keep you going.” — Sarah Elizabeth Baggett-Poole

12. “I am more than my visual impairment, I am a complete person. Being visually impaired is just a minor challenge, and we all have challenges. It doesn’t make me less of a person.” — Alexandria Knox

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13. “I have a visual impairment. [People assume] blind and visually impaired persons are deaf, [so they] talk really loud. This is not true. Being blind does not mean we are deaf. We hear just fine. It is true, however, that some blind persons have hearing impairments. But they do not go hand-in -and.” — Kim Leis Moberg

14. “We experience joy just like everyone, and it would be nice to have some authentic friendships.” — Denise Vestman

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15. “I hate when people think I’m making it up when I can’t see something obvious to them — ‘Are you serious? You really can’t see it? It’s right there!’ No, I can’t always see it.” — Hayley Swann

16. “In public moments I just need some help, not to be treated as a dumb kid.” — Ana Karina Velázquez Villalobos

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17. “We dream just like anyone else. We have goals and we experience all the feelings in life the same as the average individual. We can surprise you when you least expect it.” — Donna Browning

18. “Don’t be afraid to come up and chat. I would much rather have someone ask me questions about my blindness than avoid talking to me at all for fear of offending me.” — Caitlin Hernandez

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19. “Blindness isn’t synonymous with helpless. I may have to adapt and do things a different way, but I can still do them. And when I want or need your help, I will ask. But believe that I can do things first until proven I can’t.” — Rhianna Lynn Martin

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20. “My baby is a baby first. Love and fawn over her like any baby. Talk to her. Ask me questions. Don’t let her blindness define or limit her. We have high hopes for her and want you too as well.” — Nicole Vallier

21. “There are lots of different types of ‘blind’ or visual impairment. Not all forms of vision impairment come with a guide dog and a white stick. Some little ones take longer to learn to see than others and sometimes it’s the brain, not the eyes.” — SarahandLayne Coates

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22. “Please, for the absolute love of God, don’t ask to try on my glasses (no, they aren’t a toy and will probably give you a headache).” — Collette Kerr

23. “I am happy the way I am and don’t want to be ‘fixed.’ I don’t want or need people’s pity.” — Lina Coral

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What would you add? Let us know in the comments below.  

*Answers have been edited for brevity. 

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Layla Grubb is an 18-month-old whose ordinary medical accessory has a remarkable twist. The toddler wears an eye patch for a small cataract in her left eye, so her dad, Geof Grubb, puts his artistic side to use and decorates her patch each day, he told the “Today” show.

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We try to keep [the patch] part of her regular routine so it bothers her less,” Grubb told Mashable. “After all these months, most days she doesn’t even notice it.”

You can see the rest of Layla’s Patches here. Check out some of our favorites below:

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When I think about all the things Madilyn is missing because she is blind, I often consider the bad sights. An animal killed on the side of the road. The worried expression on my face when the doctor said she needed a major skull surgery. The numerous harsh images flashing across the television screen. Perhaps it’s some sort of blessing to be sheltered from such horrific sights, especially as a child.

On the other hand, maybe she’s being cheated without all the visual information sighted people take in every waking minute — information which shapes our mind, memories, reflections on the past and plans for the future.

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To experience this world without sight is something most of us could never imagine. And because I didn’t make the decision, most of the time I don’t feel like it should be my choice, even if it was possible. I think that’s something she would need to decide for herself when she’s older. People may not understand, but I believe Madilyn might not want to be different than she is today, with the life she knows. Maybe she is perfectly happy without sight. She most certainly acts that way every day.

If I could take away the frustrations and pain she has endured through surgeries and doctors poking, I would do it in a New York second. But maybe even those experiences, although not pleasant, have helped shape her as well — it’s hard to say for sure. However, I do know that the person I am today, and the beautiful life I live, is because of her. And I thank God every single day. woman and her daughter in lifejackets on the lake

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When I Overheard My Boss Use This Word to Describe Me

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My first month selling theme park tickets at my current job was one well-earned. I made it through an extensive training, something many of my trainers didn’t think I could pull off given my limitations.

I’m a naturally fast learner and I absorb knowledge like a sponge. I wanted this job more than anything and I was able to pass my assessment with no problems. Although my already weak eyes were getting quite a workout, I was able to make do with a magnifier or in worse case scenarios, a borrowed camera lens from my boyfriend at the time.

All was going well until one day when an elderly guest in a mobility scooter paid me a visit looking to buy an annual pass. One thing was thrown at me towards the end of my transaction that somehow in all my training, I forgot about. How to refund a parking fee.

I apologized to the women whose parking I accidentally forgot to refund, because at that point I couldn’t do a refund. My booth mate that day was in the middle of taking care of someone else and was slowly telling me there was a way to fix it.

As I went to explain to the guest what happened, and that I was new to the job, a hurtful comment was made.

“Why are you even working here if you don’t know what you’re doing?”

“OK,” I thought. “I can handle that.”

Then she spouted at me, “Disabled people should never be in the workforce. You’re too blind to work here. Who was the quack that let you in to begin with?”

Between her yelling and my booth mate trying the best he could to help me in between juggling an already backed up line of people, my mind drew a blank and I just shut down at that point. I thought to myself, “Disabled people shouldn’t be in the workforce? And this is coming from a woman in a scooter?” Despite this, I was pulling off my best “Tour Guide Barbie” face.

My manager swung past to say hello as chaos ensued, and I tried to play it off like I was a capable “goodie goodie” who knew everything.

Miss Scooter saw my manager’s normal clothes and name tag and put two and two together as she whizzed behind my booth screaming her head off about me.

But my manager’s reaction was one that surprised me.

“Miss, I understand your frustration, but my team here are all capable of doing their jobs, including Manda. There is no need for my intervention. They’ll have this fixed in no time.”

She said, “capable.”

I was capable? Never in the history of me holding a job had that word ever come into play, let alone in my defense.

After we got our guest on her way, I melted into a sea of emotion. I excused myself from my position, not wanting to be seen or bothered, at which time I sat on the floor in the back of the booth just wanting to disappear.

It was then that my manager picked me up off the ground, gave me a hug and said, “You did an awesome job sweetie.”

A year later and I’m still working here, because people believed in me.

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At times of great doubt in the big crazy world that is my job, I look back at that day and what I have accomplished since then, despite what others think of me.

I can only hope the woman who came to my booth looks back at all that has happened and realizes a little bit of compassion and patience can go a long way. Especially with those who are trying to help make your vacation a good one.

Experience is something learned beyond a classroom, and this experience for me will last a lifetime.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

Want to end the stigma around disability? Like us on Facebook.

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