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The Stigma My Blind Son Faces, And What I Decided to Do About It

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My son Campbell is smart, curious, personable — and blind. Despite his long list of assets, his blindness is what society sees first.

Soon after Campbell was born, I realized something was different. I found out he was blind after I noticed he wasn’t responding to visual cues. Ever since, for the past 23 years, I have been studying society’s impressions of him. Even when he was a baby, people wouldn’t know how to act around him — that reaction has only become more pronounced over the years.

When Campbell was only 18 months old, we went on our regular grocery shopping trip. His hands gripped the handle of the cart and his chubby legs threaded through the front slots. Aside from his darting eyes and special blue glasses, he looked like a “normal,” happy toddler. I stood a few steps away as I enjoyed the sight of a young girl giggling and trying to catch his attention. She smiled and cooed at him and he responded in kind.

Suddenly, the girl’s mother made a beeline to us, scooped her daughter up and said, “Honey, leave that boy alone. There’s something wrong with him.” She shot a sympathetic glance my way and scooted off. I stood there, not knowing if I felt worse for my son, whom I later decided was too young to care about the slight — or for her child, who was being raised by a parent with such a closed mind. This was a seminal moment. I knew I had to do something.

The first thing we did, as a family, was to move to Massachusetts so Campbell could attend Perkins School for the Blind, the same place that taught Helen Keller. It was not until he was completing high school there that we began to see the greater challenge ahead: life in the real world.

Campbell was accepted as the first blind student in a two-year university program specializing in working with young adults with mild cognitive issues and various special needs. But a few weeks into his first semester, I learned he was not being assigned homework or receiving classroom handouts.

I called his teacher to ask why he wasn’t getting materials. She responded, “I don’t know Braille, and he can’t read print. How he can do homework?” When I asked how the other students do it, she told me she emails the assignments and they send their work back. In response, I gave her his email address. I explained that not only does he have a screen reader to interpret email and websites, but he also has the ability to complete homework in Braille and send it back in print.

She made an assumption about Campbell’s abilities. And it’s these types of assumptions that prevent those who are blind from full inclusion.

Campbell has also faced discrimination in everyday social situations. During a recent visit to Miami, Campbell was excited to take a family friend out for a drink for her 21st birthday. They sat together at a swanky bar, his white cane folded by his feet, and he proudly ordered two glasses of champagne. Per usual, they both showed the bartender their IDs, showing they were of a legal age to drink.

As they were toasting, the restaurant manager, who had been watching from afar, rushed over to me. As he tapped his pointer finger into my arm, he demanded to see Campbell’s ID. Startled, I told him Campbell had just shown it to the bartender. He didn’t care. As I began to protest, Campbell patted my hand, saying it was OK, and handed over his ID. The manager studied the picture, said his ID was fine and walked away, but not before I told him that, “He can hear just fine — next time you need something from someone who is blind, you need to ask him.”

For Campbell’s whole life, I’ve been wondering how to change society’s perceptions of the blind. I knew it would take a major effort. This is why I’ve been working to launch BlindNewWorld, a social change campaign to disrupt stereotypes and inspire the sighted population to see the full potential of people who are blind.

In a recent study by Perkins, more than half of respondents reported they haven’t seen a person who is blind in the past year. But there are 7 million people in the U.S. who are blind or visually impaired. So I believe those who are blind have been marginalized to the point of invisibility. And because there is so little interaction between the blind and the sighted, fear, pity, stigma and discomfort rule the day. This needs to change.

At a time when there is so much social change happening, and technology is providing those who are blind with more opportunities to engage in the sighted world, I believe we can change the statistics and make blind inclusion second nature. Not just so my son can have the social, professional and academic opportunities he deserves, but so that everyone can.

Corinne Grousbeck is chair of Perkins School for the Blind. Follow the campaign @BlindNewWorld on Twitter.

Originally published: August 18, 2016
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