What People's Stares Mean to Me as Someone With a Vision Impairment
“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.
Follow this journey at The Way Eye See the World
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