By Katherine Schneider
What’s it really like to be blind? I’ve been asked this question in various forms thousands of times by children and adults in my public education talks. In talks I have to give a quick answer like “It’s like watching your favorite television show with your back turned” or “It’s like getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom without turning on a light.” But for the intrepid few who really want to know more and are willing to put a couple hours into it, I offer Blindness 101.
Social science research is full of articles about various simulations to raise awareness of what it’s like to be old, a wheelchair user, blind, etc. Research tends to show that although these simulations are well meant, they may have unintended negative consequences. They make people aware of the initial difficulties of having a particular condition without giving them the coping skills to deal with the frustrations. So the person experiencing the condition bumbles and fumbles around, feels inadequate and leaves thinking “That’s horrible. Those poor people can’t do much.”
I’ve designed my simulation to present challenges but also coach throughout to achieve successes on every task.
Participants in a recent 101 were a County Board member, his preteen daughter and a friend of hers. I started by having them don their blindfolds while I read them a bit of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go with emphasis on the line “You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” They walked using a cane, played a game on an app on my iPhone, and mixed, baked and ate cookies along with a cup of hot cider. Throughout the experience, I verbalized auditory cues that would be useful to them and suggested helpful ways to do the tasks blindfolded. For example, feel around for your cup of hot cider with your hand touching the table instead of from the top down which is more likely to upset the cup. I taught them a simple dice game and one young woman walked away with $1.20. Each child also left with cookies they’d baked to share with their family.
Graduates from 101 often comment during the experience that “this is hard.” By that they mean learning skills like walking with a cane, listening for cues instead of glancing around the environment, etc. They also often comment on how they notice sounds, smells and tactual sensations more. Each person does 101 their own way, just as each blind person does blindness their own way. People who don’t enjoy getting messy are a bit squeamish about checking the eggs to make sure there are no shells before they dump them in to the cookie dough. One person reported that she noticed you really had to be willing to make mistakes, which to me is a pre-condition for any learning.
Two examples of learning how to be more accessible mentioned by the recent graduates were:
“It is actually unhelpful to open a door for a blind person! Although it may seem polite and helpful, it is better for a blind person to open their own door, which helps them understand where it is located and which way it opens.”
“Some blind people like Facebook, but it is unhelpful when people post a photo and write “look at this!” or make comments like “amazing!” since blind people might be able to have Facebook text digitally read to them, but pictures are inaccessible. Instead one could label these photos as: The first photo below shows Kathie and her two students standing next to a beautiful bronze Service Dog sculpture at the university. (The sculpture was amazing to feel when we were blindfolded!) The second photo shows a blindfolded Ella with a white cane, ahead of Kathie and Luna, with Ella’s friend standing on the grass giving step-by-step guidance and encouragement.”
As the teacher of Blindness 101, I learn something every time I teach it. Recent graduates have told me about apps that make the sound of a whip cracking (no comment on my teaching style I’m sure) and a totally inaccessible game app that would be best played when drunk. I learn anew each 101 class that people really do want to understand my world and enjoy it as I do.