11 Wrong Ways to Respond to My Blindness

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I’m probably one of the only blind people you know, if not the only one, and naturally, you’re curious about how I get around, get through school and live my life. I understand you have several questions you want to ask me, and that’s OK. I also know sometimes you don’t know what to say or how to act, so I wrote this to give you some ideas. I’m not trying to reject all your questions, but you do need to know that some things just aren’t OK.

1. Talking about/for me like I’m not there.

This is more of a scenario than a question, but it’s extremely hurtful. I am a person just like you, and I deserve to be treated as such. I am blind, but I can talk, and I need to be asked questions like if I need help, what I want to order at a restaurant and especially questions about my disability. Talking for me and about me like I’m not there is what you’d do to a pet or animal, but certainly not to another human being. It makes me feel less than human when people interact with me like this. You can avoid this by just asking me. Treat me like any other person. I can’t stress that enough.

2. Asking, “Hi honey, do you need help?”

This question is usually asked by complete strangers, which is, well, strange. Honey, sweetie, dear and sweetheart are all words you would use with someone you have an affectionate relationship, a small child or an especially cute pet. Since I don’t have an affectionate relationship with most of the people who ask me this, it means you’re treating me like a small child. If you would talk to any other teenager like that, than go ahead, but I doubt that’s the case. Please just ask, “Hi, how are you? Do you need help?”

3. Not respecting me when I decline help.

When I decline help, it’s nothing personal, it’s just that I don’t need assistance at that time. So please respect that, go on about your day and don’t act wounded like a kicked puppy. I appreciate your offer, but when you act hurt after I decline, it makes me feel guilty for my independence. I’ve worked so hard to be as independent as I am, so please don’t take that away, and don’t make me feel guilty for it.

4. Taking advantage of me.

Yes, this has happened to me, but I’d rather not go into detail about the most embarrassing experience of my life. I’m thankful it only was an invasive touch, not something more severe, and that the guy was punished — but that does not make it OK! Under no condition is it ever acceptable to take advantage of a disabled person sexually and use the excuse that you were, “helping” me. Your unwelcome touch made me feel dirty, like something was taken from me. You saying that you were trying to help me makes it seem like I asked for it, like I needed it, like you were doing some kind of good, and worst of all, it made me hate my blindness for a long time. No one should hate part of themselves because of the actions of another. How to avoid this? Really, just don’t do it.

5. Asking, “Do you need help drinking that?”

This was an isolated incident where a guy asked me if I needed help drinking my milk at school, and he proceeded to lift the carton to my face as if he were going to put the straw in my mouth and give me the milk like a mother gives a baby its bottle. I know he was probably trying to be nice and helpful, but there is no need for that.

6. Asking 20 questions at once about blindness.

This is when people barely know me, and every question they ask is about my blindness and nothing about who I am as a person. I don’t care if you have questions, but ask respectfully, and also try to get to know my personality and not just the blindness.

7. Asking, “How do you kiss someone?”

This is awkward, embarrassing and just weird. Please don’t try to pry into my personal life like that. Please, just don’t ask; some things are better left unsaid. If you really want to know, I haven’t done a lot of kissing in my life, but it’s just like any normal person.

8. Asking, “How do you sleep?”

OK, I only have one response to this: creepy.

9. Asking, “What do you drive?” or “Do you drive?”

The closest I come to driving is using my cane. This is just insensitive.

10. Coming up unannounced and guiding me by pushing/pulling me in different directions.

This genuinely scares me when strangers come up and guide me like this without my knowledge. Please give me space, ask if i need help. If I say yes, let me take your arm, and we will have no issues.

11. Playing tricks on me.

This is just plain unacceptable! Even in high school, I am asked how many fingers someone is holding up, or someone will tell me they’re someone else to see if I can guess who they really are and to try to trick me for  their own amusement. That is selfish and cruel! I am a person, not a circus act.

What to do instead: Treat me like any other normal person.

This covers everything in this article. Please, just treat me like anyone else. If  you don’t act like there is something wrong with me, and you give me a chance, I could be a good friend to you.

To my friends and family who have stuck by me and who do accept me, I can’t thank you enough.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. 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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5 Things I Wish People Understood About Being Legally Blind

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When you encounter me going about my daily life, you probably notice two things right a way. I’m either traveling with the help of a canine or using a long white cane — and I can see.

I don’t fit most people’s image of a blind person. I look at things.

There are numerous terms to describe those of us who live between the worlds of the fully sighted and totally blind: low vision, visually impaired, legally blind and partially sighted.

Some who are partially sighted identify with the blind community. Others do not. Like our amount of residual sight, most of us are somewhere in between. We live in a gray area. It’s a confusing, ever-changing place where people can see some things, but not others. While what each of us can see can vary, we all have some things we’d like you to know:

1. Blindness doesn’t always mean total darkness.

Only about 15 percent of people who have a blindness diagnosis have no light perception, according to VisionAware. Most of us see something even if it’s just being able to tell the difference between light and dark. There are two types of impaired vision: acuity (how clear things are) and field of vision (how much of an environment you see at once without moving your eyes or head). Individuals can be legally blind based on either or both of these factors.

For most of my years growing up, I was legally blind due to severely restricted fields. Technically, my field of vision is less than 2 degrees. That’s roughly the size of a pinprick. If I could find it, I could see it. That meant I could read street signs, but I’d probably fall down a curb.

Now my acuity has also fallen into the legally blind territory. Because of my severely restricted field of vision, it’s difficult to even obtain an acuity reading. When I look at the big “E” on an eye doctor’s chart, I don’t see the whole letter at the same time. On a good day, I can put the puzzle together and see that it’s actually an “E.” On a bad day, I can see there’s something there, but I couldn’t tell you if it was a letter or lamppost. Most of the time, we settle and say my acuity is worse than 20/200 and call it a day.

Natasha in a park outdoors near water
Natasha in a park outdoors near water

2. There is no easy answer to the question, “So what can you see?”

Some people who are legally blind have experienced full sight. Then others, like me, have no concept of what it’s like to have “normal” vision. The answer to the question, “What can you see?” is a complicated one. Some people see colors or shadows. Others may see parts of things and spend their life figuratively putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Some people may be able to see a tiny speck of paper on the floor but will run into a chair that wasn’t pushed in.

For many people with reduced acuity, their sight may be dependent on both internal and external factors. The lighting in a room, the weather outside and how tired they are can all affect how well someone can see. I often joke that whether I can see something depends on the alignment of the sun, moon and stars and whether Mercury is in retrograde. Never knowing if I will be able to see something today that I could see yesterday is confusing for me and those around me. I’d rather you err on the side of me not seeing something. That way we can both be pleasantly surprised if I can.

3. We learn to use our residual sight.

I happen to be rather partial to the fact that I can see some things. I like to look at things. When I was learning to use a long white cane as a mobility aid, one of the things my instructor taught me was to let the cane do the work and let my sight compliment what I was feeling with my cane. She taught me to use my cane to locate objects and my vision to see them. Now that I primarily travel with a guide dog, I let my dog keep me moving in a straight line while I use my eyes to find the landmark I need to tell my dog where to go. The same thing applies indoors. I let my dog take me around people and displays to help me find the general location of items I purchase frequently. Then I use my residual sight to find the exact item I need. It’s a win-win.

Natasha's guide dog.
Natasha’s guide dog.

4. We benefit from accurate verbal directions and descriptions.

Yes, I can see something, but I don’t see more than I can actually see. Phrases like “over there” mean nothing to me other than it’s “not where I’m standing right now.” I may need your help even, or perhaps especially, when I’m traveling with the help of my guide dog. I might even get lost in a familiar area.

If I ask for directions or help locating something, please use words to describe where things are in relation to where I am and how I am oriented. Phrases like “behind you and to your right” tell me much more than “back there.” Likewise, telling me the store I’m looking for is still another block down, across the street and just past the train tracks provides me with excellent landmarks to help find my way. Just use clear adjectives and directional phrases, and I’ll be on my way.

5. We’re not faking.

Please don’t accuse someone who is partially sighted of faking their blindness. We aren’t a social experiment. The last thing we want is extra special attention. We are men and women, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons who have a condition where we live in the gray area of the world. We work hard with what we have. We get frustrated. We rejoice. We compensate and compromise. A medical professional has run tests. Maybe glasses or contacts help. Maybe they don’t. Maybe we use a long white cane just in unfamiliar areas and travel without a mobility aide in areas we know well. I regularly travel to my mailbox without the aid of dog or cane. I know the route well.

So when someone asks me, “Are you really blind?” I take a deep breath before I reply. I spend my life figuratively putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to get some visual semblance of my world. Have you ever tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle without having a picture of what you were putting together? That’s what every day is like for me, except I don’t even know if I have all the pieces.

The next time you encounter someone who is partially sighted and curiosity is getting the better of you, remember that blindness is a spectrum and an individual experience. If you ask about a person’s visual impairment, and I encourage you to, be open to an out-of-the-box answer because the person you asked is stepping outside of their box for your benefit.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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9 Baffling Questions I Get Asked as a Blind Person

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I was born totally blind, and accordingly, have enjoyed 25 years of people’s baffling, strange and sometimes downright ridiculous questions.

Let’s skip over the “Who takes care of you?” and “Where’s your helper?” questions, shall we? Life’s too short for y’all to endure one of my epic rants. Onward!

1. “How do you dress yourself?”

This question, I suppose, is rooted in the sighted person’s belief that looking at things is the only efficient way to get things done. I can understand this intellectually, but I always wonder why dressing oneself is the issue sighted people seem to fixate upon. Cutting steak without looking like a cavewoman, crossing a street without becoming roadkill and negotiating a crowded room without smashing into unsuspecting randoms, though certainly doable as a blind person, are much more anxiety-provoking for me than choosing the right clothes.

The answer: If you’re a classy blind person who has their life together, you put Braille labels on your clothes with colors/descriptions/suggested outfit combinations, learn all the rules about color coordinating and/or arrange your closet in some meticulous order that you’ve magically memorized. Or, if you’re me, you just grab whichever T-shirt and jeans you get a hold of first. Or you can FaceTime your mom. Obviously.

2. “Can you see in the rain like Daredevil?”

No. Seriously, people, it’s a freaking fictional story.

3. “Do you want to touch my face?”

Are you coming on to me? Every time I get this question, I can’t help but feel like it’s an accidental (and bad) pick-up line. The blind face-touching trope has become such a fixture in Hollywood that even when it’s actually totally appropriate to touch someone’s face — like an adorable baby or, you know, an adorable lover — blind people are often too ashamed to do so.

Fun fact: For someone like me, who was born totally blind and, thus, has never seen anything, touching someone’s face doesn’t actually yield a mental snapshot at all. However, for people with low vision or who were once sighted, I’m told touching someone’s face can sometimes give the visually impaired person a clearer idea of what the face looks like.

4. “Do you do that thing where you rub the paper?”

I was asked this by an eager, well-meaning paratransit driver last year, and it made my entire day. Yes, I do read — and love — Braille. But sadly, not all blind people read Braille — a long, depressing story, which involves a combination of a severe shortage of well-trained Braille teachers and increased access to audiobooks and screen reading technology — so this is actually a valid question and can lead to interesting conversations.

Fun fact: To be read quickly and smoothly, Braille actually requires a light, deft touch. Literally “rubbing” the paper, therefore, wouldn’t do much good.

5. “When you roller blade, do you tie a rope around your waist and tie the other end around a friend’s waist so you can follow them?”

One of my beloved friends from UC Santa Cruz asked me this when I told him how much I love blading. Hilarious, but no. I just link arms/hold hands with someone sighted, use my cane or skate solo and empty-handed, if the terrain’s flat and not crowded.

6. “How do you have sex?”

When I’m done being embarrassed by strangers asking me this question — seriously, it’s so awkward — I explain that intimacy is about our other four senses as much as, if not more than, sight. Granted, without eye contact and visual cues like nods and facial expressions, intimacy with a blind person may require a bit more verbal communication than is typical. Still, I’m reasonably confident in assuming that the disparities end there.

Fun fact: Partners get megapoints if they agree to keep the lights off in intimate moments. Sometimes I like to be on even footing in that way, especially while still getting to know someone.

7. “So I bet you have super amazing hearing since you’re missing a sense, right?”

There are all sorts of studies about blind people’s senses and the active and inactive sections of our brain. Don’t ask me about this; I was a freaking literature major, so I don’t know jack about this stuff.

What I think, though, is that blind people often pay more attention to our other four senses because a) we kind of have to, out of necessity and b) visual distractions are omitted for us.

8. “How do you find your mouth with your fork?”

I just… do.

I honestly don’t even have a good answer for this question, but I’ve been asked it many times. Do sighted people watch their forks for every bite? I really don’t even understand this question.

Fun fact: Google “dining in the dark” and see if it’ll be in your area. It’s the best! Also look for Groupons, unless you have lots of bank.

9. “Do you feel like you relate to people differently because of your blindness?”

This is my absolute favorite strange question. So few people ask it, which is tragic, so I always light up when the topic comes up. Yes, I do think I relate to people a bit differently, and — not gonna lie — it kind of fascinates even me.

I can tell so much about a person just from the way they talk to me, touch me and engage with me. Their tone of voice and turn of phrase can often give me a sense of whether they’re distracted, nervous, preoccupied or genuinely tuned in. The way someone touches or hugs me can feel distinctly warm, connected, patronizing or hollow. How someone walks with me often gives me clues about whether or not they’re awkward, anxious or completely at ease.

I also gauge that, sometimes, random sighted people are more readily comfortable around me, and that’s almost certainly due to my blindness. Maybe it makes them feel better to know that I’m not going to laugh at the pimple on their nose or the ratty sweatshirt they threw on that morning. I’m a fairly captive, non-threatening audience, too, and people probably think I’ll be a good listener (I do always try to be).

I’ve had friends tell me they appreciate there’s no social pressure to make eye contact with me. And even though my ability to pick up on someone’s emotional stress signals might seem a little freaky at first, loved ones have commented that my intuitive check-ins and the resulting conversations can be refreshing.

Keep the quirky questions coming, my silly sighted acquaintances. Maybe we’ll be able to swing a round two!

Author’s note: I absolutely do not mind when people ask me questions; in fact, I applaud them for it. Often, this is a nice first step toward getting to know me and understanding how I do things. I don’t at all mean to discourage questions, or to make fun of anyone’s lack of understanding. However, it’s always appreciated if you get to know me as a person before requesting a crash course in Blindness 101. If you hang out with me, you’ll inevitably be able to answer a lot of your questions on your own.

Caitlin's description of the image: "A selfie a sighted friend took when she and three other sighted friends put on blindfolds and watched a movie with me using video description."
Caitlin’s description of the image: “A selfie a sighted friend took when she and three other sighted friends put on blindfolds and watched a movie with me using video description.”
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When I Hear People Make Jokes About My Disability

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Enough is enough. There are so many students with disabilities, and I know I’m not the only one. Some may be visible, some may not be. Yet there has not been a week that went by without me overhearing a joke about ADHD, Helen Keller or being deaf. What people don’t realize is that others around them might have a disability.

Personally, I am legally blind, and while some people may not realize it, others may make fun of it. Some time last year, I remember stumbling over words on the ever popular Cards Against Humanity game when someone remarked, “What, are you blind?” Yes, actually, I am to an extent, I remember thinking. I used to shake off those remarks like they didn’t bother me. In reality, those words hurt – not because I have a disability, but because the attitude that person had about it.

I have to wonder why those remarks are even worth saying and what someone would gain from it.

Having a disability, it seems like people either categorize me as a hero who overcomes it or a person who is unable to do anything at all because I’m different. At least that’s how I interpret people’s actions and attitudes. This mindset is actually quite harmful.

Someone says hurtful things like a blind joke and might try to cover it up by saying, “It’s a joke.” But I believe every joke has an element of truth for the person who said it. I’d like to think I’m as perfectly capable as any other able-bodied person in this world. I just have to adapt to my surroundings in ways others don’t. Hearing blind jokes makes me feel set apart from everyone else, like having something to deal with in life is something to laugh at. This should not be the case.

Not everyone has interacted with someone with a disability, however, so maybe the problem isn’t the people who say them, but not knowing the jokes are a problem in the first place.

“Did you hear about the new Helen Keller doll? You wind her up and she bumps into the furniture!”

This is not the worst of the most common jokes about Helen Keller I’ve heard. I’m sure some of you reading this may find that joke funny, but to me, Helen Keller was an incredible woman. She achieved so much despite many people thinking she was incapable of doing anything. The truth is, every person has things to overcome in life, whether they’re financial problems, family problems, or a challenge that might be related to his or her disability. None of these are a laughing matter, so why make it that way?

No one likes to be seen as different or incapable compared to other people, and this is exactly what joking or teasing can do to a person.

Personally, I don’t mind talking about my disability, but I don’t like people staring or making jokes about it, and I don’t believe anyone else does either. I often hear people exclaiming, “Wow, I’m blind!” when they can’t find an object that happens to be in front of them. More often than not, that person is actually not disabled, and it bothers me because they know nothing about that disability.

No matter how much a disability affects someone’s life, I believe every one of us would rather be looked at as a person with interests, values and opinions just like anyone else. Having a disability means we adapt to our surroundings in ways others do not, and that makes us unique.

People should be more aware of what they say, and remember that age-old saying of “think before you speak,” because what you say does actually matter.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? 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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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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Colorblind Man Uses Special Sunglasses to See a Sunset for the First Time

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This man is seeing things in a new light.

Aaron Williams-Mele is colorblind. Colorblindness, or color vision deficiency, is a condition that affects approximately 1 in 12 men (8 percent) and 1 in 200 women in the world, according to Colorblind Awareness. It can be genetic or it can occur over time as a symptom of another disease or condition. Most color blind people can still see things clearly, but just cannot fully see red, green or blue light.

For his birthday, Williams-Mele’s parents gave him a pair of Enchroma Color For The Colorblind glasses, which use optical technology to make colors more vibrant, even for those who are color blind.

Williams-Mele decided to use the glasses for the first time during a sunset at Whitehurst Beach in Norfolk, Virginia, according to the YouTube video below. He has an intense reaction to the experience and releases a slew of profanity as he chokes up and becomes emotional at the sight.

It’s weird,” Williams-Mele says in the video below. “I’m shaking… This is a lot different than what I thought it was going to be like.”

Watch Williams-Mele experience the colors of a sunset for the first time, but heads up, he uses a lot of explicit language: 

h/t HuffPost Good News

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