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The Problem With Simulated Blindness

As we struggle to convince the average member of the public of the real capabilities of people who are blind, we are often told "I can't imagine what your world is like."The world is simply the world. Blind people do not inhabit another planet. Obviously, we get our information about the world without the use of sight or with the use of very limited sight. Still, our world is not a different world. Curiosity about what blindness must really be like is almost universal. One sighted toddler I know was found walking down the hallway of her home with her eyes closed, swinging a mop from side to side to simulate the movement of a long white cane. When someone asked her what she was doing, she said she was playing at being her blind aunt. My own children are reaching the age where the blindness of their parents is no longer taken for granted. It has become a matter for questioning. "Mommy, how do you know I'm in the refrigerator when I'm not supposed to be?"

One would think that the musings of immature children would be different from the thoughtful curiosity of mature adults. Surprisingly, it often is not. Many seemingly intelligent people have told me that they have gained new understanding of my life after a late evening power outage. They seem to feel that their disorientation while searching for a candle and matches in a darkened house is similar to my daily life. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. I also find power outages disorienting and annoying. No one likes to have their regular routine disrupted by circumstances beyond their control. But my daily life as a blind person is not disorienting and frustrating. My lack of eyesight sometimes imposes problems. It often encourages the development of creative problem solving skills. It does not keep me from leading a full and active life.

All of this leaves us with the problem of devising a way to satisfy the legitimate curiosity of our sighted neighbours. Everyone committed to good public education about blindness wants to take the mystery away and replace it with constructive thought and genuine understanding.

So why not use blindfolds to teach people "what it's really like?" After all, we function without sight. Isn't blindfolding the sighted nothing more than creating a level playing field?

The answer depends on the context in which blindfolding is used. Progressive rehabilitation programs for the blind use blindfolds for students with some remaining vision in order to teach them the skills of blindness. Often these students are afraid of the consequences of losing more vision. They wonder if their life will become more limited every time their visual acuity drops or their field of vision narrows. By simulating total blindness in a controlled training environment, these students can face and conquer their worst fears. Instead of clinging desperately to every shred of remaining vision, they learn to develop alternative, nonvisual methods for leading their lives. When the blindfold comes off after approximately nine months of training, the remaining vision is actually of much more use to them. Instead of using it in desperation as a primary, but insufficient, means of functioning, they use it as a backup to supplement the effective alternative techniques they have learned.

What about blindfolding sighted rehabilitation workers? Again, the use of blindfolding as part of a long term training program for sighted staff members can be extremely beneficial. As blindfolded sighted people learn the skills of blindness and gain confidence in those skills, they become genuine advocates for the capabilities of blind people. They can tell their future clients with certainty "I know these techniques work because I've used them myself." For both blind rehabilitation students and sighted staff members, the key to the successful use of blindfolding is its use in combination with solid training and candid discussions about the attitudes surrounding blindness. Both of these things take time - at least three months in the case of staff members and longer for blind students.

This brings us to the question of simulation exercises. Many organizations, believing they are acting in the interests of raising awareness, run programs in which participants simulate blindness and other disabilities for an hour or a day. Participants are not given rigorous instruction in the alternative techniques of blindness. They may be guided by a sighted person with some knowledge of blindness skills. But the purpose is not to 'rehabilitate'. It is to 'raise awareness' about 'the problems faced by blind people'. Negative attitudes and misconceptions about blindness are deeply ingrained in our society. Good will is present in abundance, but it is usually coupled with misinformation. It takes a long time to provide accurate information about blindness. 'The fear of the dark' is so much a part of most people's lives that it requires emotional courage to face and overcome. It takes longer than an hour or a day to work through the process. Unfortunately, the use of a blindfold in the guise of 'creating awareness' often has the effect of reinforcing the deepest emotional fears and worst negative stereotypes about blindness.

Do I exaggerate? The Kelowna District office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) conducted an 'awareness' program in which they blindfolded sighted community leaders for part of an afternoon. The program received extensive publicity on CHBC, the local television station and in the Kelowna Capital News. Read the transcript of the television news report and the newspaper article and judge for yourself.

CHBC News Wednesday, February 7, 1996.

Anchorman: But most of the time, they don't have much more than a white cane to guide them. Well today, several people in Kelowna walked a few steps in the shoes of the visually impaired. Our reporter, Mohini Singh, was one of them. She filed this report.

Mohini Singh: It's a world that only a visually impaired person knows. It's a struggle only a person who can't see faces each day. Imagine if you went from being able to see all this, to this!

CNIB Employee working with a Blindfolded Man: Put your hand down the front . . . to the . . . in front of . . .

Blindfolded Man: Oh! This is a fire hydrant!

CNIB Employee: Good, good!

(Audible traffic signal begins to beep)

Mohini Singh: But the visually impaired want those who can see to know what they go through on the street. So today, eleven Kelowna residents, including politicians and the media, attempted to find out.

(End of audible traffic signal)

CNIB Employee Guiding a Blindfolded Person: OK, that's great! You're doing well!

Reporter Mohini Singh: The blindfolded people were taken through the streets, shopping centres and back alleys of Kelowna.

(Blindfolded Man Groping a Mail Box)

Blindfolded man: Mail box

CNIB Employee: OK

Mohini Singh: And those who did the walking say it was an eye opener.

Woman who had been Blindfolded Discussing Her Experience: People who have mobility problems, people who have visual problems have a hard time in the city.

Acting Mayor of Kelowna: Well, I learned one thing, and that's to thank God that I'm not blind.

Mohini Singh: The acting Mayor of Kelowna vows to make some changes.

Acting Mayor of Kelowna: A little cut into the asphalt across the street, so that they can line themselves up and go on a 90 degree angle. Because, it's pretty hard! You know, we don't realize that! We don't realizeYou knowyou look, and you go across the street. But they don't have nowhere to . . . to . .. other than their cane.

Mohini Singh: Those who are visually impaired say this little walk may have been tough for those who aren't used to it, but it is a small example of what they go through on a daily basis.

CNIB Blind Employee: This is a learning experience. There's no way that we can ever simulate what it's like to be blind.

Mohini Singh: In Kelowna, Mohini Singh, CHBC News.

Anchorman: By the way, this is White Cane Week, right across Canada. The CNIB in Kelowna is attempting to raise $8,000 this week. Volunteers from that organization are going door to door selling magnifiers in the price range of $5 - $15.

Kelowna Capital News Wednesday, February 7, 1996

As part of the annual White Cane Week, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind conducted an exercise where several local people were blindfolded and led around downtown by guides to help them experience what it is like to navigate through this city without the aid of sight.

Comments

Hi Kelly,

I am looking to engage in a similar experiment for blindness simulation for a extended period of time. I am wondering what option you used to block your vision and how your experience went?

Feel free to email me at flugelhornfox@gmail.com if you prefer.

Thanks!

Michael

Hey, I'm trying an experiment where I simulate blindness for an extended period of time.

I'm trying to determine the options available for depriving myself of sight. Part of the aim is to be perceived by others as actually blind, so blindfolds are not an option.

The strongest option I've come across is completely opaque contact lenses that I would put on and remove in a lightless room before and after sleep.

Does anyone have any stronger alternatives?