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To Anyone Who Doesn't Understand 'the Point' of Blind Emojis

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In 2018 it was announced that a new series of disability-inclusive emojis would be released in 2019. These emojis included wheelchair users, amputees, deaf individuals and, to my delight, blind characters.

I was so excited to finally have an emoji representing me. It’s a bit strange because I never thought the selection excluded me prior to the announcement. There are female, weightlifting and musical emojis, all representing some aspect of me and my interests. When I saw the white cane-using character, though, it touched something inside of myself I wasn’t expecting. In this modern hieroglyphic, I saw a reflection of my daily lived experience. Emotionally, that was huge.

Recently, there’s been a renewed buzz around the update. For the most part, the social media denizens have been supportive of the inclusive emojis, with one glaring exception — the representations of blindness. The views expressed on social media and in the comment section of news stories illustrate how prevalent and insidious stereotypes around blindness are.

This article is my attempt at demystifying blind emoji users for the sighted world, and to give readers some insight into the experience of blindness and why representation matters to us. In no particularly order, here are five points I’d like the sighted world to understand about the relationship between the blind and emojis.

1. Some blind people can see emojis.

The misconception that all blind people must not be able to “see” or use emojis is arguably the most common objection sighted people express to the inclusion of blind characters, often leading to a long thread of comments and memes mocking the idea that blind people should have representation.

Wrapped up in this is the misconception that all blind people have zero
usable vision. Only about 15 percent of blind individuals are completely blind. The rest of us have some level of usable vision. Blindness is a spectrum that ranges from 20/200 vision to no light perception. It is not an all or nothing situation.

2. Blind people use emojis.

Whether we are completely blind or have some useable vision, emojis are a regular part of our electronic communication. We may not see very well, but we do understand the social importance of emojis and their role in informal communication. Through the help of assistive tech we use and enjoy them too. Some people will use a screen-magnifying feature like Zoom to see the images. Other people will use a screen reader, which will describe the emoji to the user.

3. I don’t care if people use emojis to make jokes.

I have frequently come across blog commentators suggesting the blind emojis should not be created because people will use them to make jokes. The comments come from sighted people who think they are looking out for us. Policing how people use emojis is unneeded. For people out there who are genuinely concerned about the blind, get involved with the real issues we face — lack of accessibility in education, discrimination in hiring, sub-minimum pay, poorly maintained public transit, the list can go on from there.

I expect people to use the emojis in jokes. In fact, I fully intend to use it to make fun of myself! I’m looking forward to laughing and having a picture to represent my “blind moments.”

Want to start a conversation? Download our free app and follow #Blindness to post your own Thoughts and Questions.

4. Representation matters.

When emojis first came into existence, they were little yellow faces meant to convey emotion. Over the years, however, the library has expanded dramatically to include activities, nature, symbols and various skin tones.  Emojis went from emotions to representing the diversity of human experience. According to the World Health Organization approximately 1.3 billion people are visually impaired. If emojis are going to offer diverse representations it makes sense to include the blind.

The blind and visually impaired are often subjected to mockery, discrimination and hegemonic othering. We are a mystery to most of the sighted world partly because many people will never interact with a blind person. The only exposure some sighted people will ever have to blind individuals is through pop culture.

We are frequently portrayed in media as fitting into one of three categories: those in need of rescuing, those who are eternally inspirational or those who have some sort of mystical power. It is incredibly rare that we are portrayed as being “normal” members of society. When was the last time you saw a blind character in a movie or television show that didn’t have the character’s blindness as a central plot point? The inclusion of blind emojis communicates a more subtle level of pop culture representation. We are everyday people living ordinary lives who like to chat through text and post on social media.

On a personal level, growing up, there were no representations of my experience. As a child I played with Barbies that didn’t have thick glasses or a cane They would drive in their dream car when driving was never going to be a possibility for me. In school every year we explored the struggles and contributions of various minority groups with one exception — the disabled. The only time blindness was mentioned was during one lesson about Helen Keller.

As I grew up, time and time again, I witnessed sighted representations of blindness be just that — sighted representations that had no basis in the lived experiences of the visually impaired. The blind community lacks accurate representation, which leaves room for stereotypes to fill in the knowledge gaps. The inclusion of blind emojis in the March update takes a massive step forward for the normalization of blindness in mainstream culture.

It’s funny that a little two-dimensional girl with a white cane, who I can only really see when magnified on my 17-inch computer screen, and who I will only see the vague shape of through the Zoom feature on my phone, would be important. This little character includes us in the larger text culture.

5. It gives us another avenue for self-expression.

Emojis are an efficient way to send short-hand messages, create emotional contexts and accentuate aspects of written communication. We have unique situations we often need to communicate through text, and previous emoji options didn’t get the job done. For example, I am frequently grabbed and pulled the wrong way when traveling alone. If I’m going to meet friends and this happens, sending the blind emoji communicates something related to my impairment caused a delay. Sure I could text the whole story, but emojis keep it short and sweet, something important when trying to navigate the busy city. These emojis also add flavor to stories and self-referential jokes.

In the bigger picture, will the blind emoji change cultural attitudes toward blindness? No. What it has done though is open a discussion about how we engage with technology and visual media. Any time we can share a bit about how we experience the world, we plant seeds that may one day undo the stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination we experience both in person and online.

It also does feel good to be included through digital representation. I am thrilled to have the little, blurry, two-dimensional representation of my lived experience available whenever I text or post on social media. This is the first time I have encountered or have access to a representation of myself in the mainstream, and I didn’t realize just how important that is until the emojis were announced. Now I look forward to sending that first text with my little blind lady emoji.

Lead image via @Emojipedia

Originally published: February 13, 2019
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