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The Blind Leading The Blind

Editor's Note: The following was the winning essay in the AEBC's Essay Contest in connection with the 2005 International Day of Disabled Persons theme of "Rights of People with Disabilities: Action in Development."

In 1982 the United Nations General Assembly adopted December 3 as the International Day of Disabled Persons. Have things improved for those who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted in the past 23 years? In some ways perhaps, but we have not made the advances in public awareness that we might have hoped for.

As an example, take the use of the word "blind" in the title of this article. What sort of image does this conjure up for you? May I hazard to guess one of an incompetent individual fumbling around attempting to assist an even more incompetent individual? You probably did not envisage someone blind like myself showing their partially sighted friend around Ottawa after attending a conference.

How about the phrase "blind to his faults" or "blind to the consequences of their actions"? In our culture these phrases refer to ignorance, the inability or unwillingness to be aware. Or what about "blind faith"? Here, we are referring to a lack of critical intelligence. Or what about the recent television commercial that had a rather distraught person exclaiming "No way! What are you, blind???"

These are all phrases we hear every day. We hear them on the television, in song lyrics and even from the pulpit. We have heard them all our lives and they evoke a very negative image. We recognize that the person in question is not literally blind (cannot see with their eyes) but that the individual is metaphorically blind (exhibiting certain negative characteristics or behaviours).

Given the continued use of these metaphors in society today, is it any wonder then that the capacity of individuals who are literally blind is still questioned? It is my experience that it is very difficult for those with fully functioning eyes to comprehend how someone with poorly functioning eyes can possibly have the same capacity for awareness, knowledge and critical intelligence as sighted individuals. Surprisingly, this perception is often shared by the disabled community as a whole and even by some blind individuals themselves.

Our culture believes it is necessary to see in order to perceive. But our culture has it wrong. We do not perceive with our eyes but with our brains. Our eyes are only one of many senses that transmit information to the brain and it is the brain that makes sense of that information. The difference is that persons who are blind learn to use their other senses, along with technology, to gather the information they need to perceive the world around them and to function in a capable way.

Blind individuals who demonstrate their capabilities are often considered super men and women. But blind individuals who learn to use their other senses effectively, along with other skills such as reading braille and independent mobility, are not super men and women; just as their sighted counterparts who master how to interpret the world around them, read print and drive a vehicle are not super men and women either.

Living in a modern nation, Canadians believe they have evolved beyond the discrimination often seen in less developed countries. We do not hide blind people behind closed doors, we do not usually feel shame in having a blind relative and we certainly do not tolerate blind persons being abused. But when it comes to believing that individuals who are blind are as capable as their sighted counterparts, Canadians are still not so sure.

Take the blind woman who witnessed an individual struggling to assist a nurse to plug a radio into an outlet located behind a large piece of furniture. When the blind woman offered to have a go at finding the outlet, the individual said, "There's no way you can do it!" Rather than trying to convince the individual and the nurse to let her try, the blind woman simply waited until they had left the room and then proceeded to plug in the radio.

Granted blind people cannot do everything sighted people can do, but they can definitely do most things sighted people can do and they can even do some things sighted people cannot do. Blind persons cannot read a print document, but most can read it if it is available in alternate formats and some can read it even when the lights go out.

According to a study conducted by the CNIB, entitled "An Unequal Playing Field: Report on the Needs of People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Living in Canada", released Nov. 2, 2005, only 25% of the working-aged blind adults surveyed were employed, 49% did not have jobs but wished to work, and 26% were unemployed and did not wish to work. Compare this to a Government of Canada study (2002), which reported that 51% of disabled persons in general and 82% of the non-disabled population is working. Many blind persons have given up the pursuit of paid employment, yet just under half of those in the CNIB study volunteer on a regular basis.

So why is it that, with so many blind people wanting to work and make a contribution to society, such unacceptable levels of unemployment still exist in a prosperous country like Canada?

I believe that part of the answer lies in the premise that the disability of blindness is not due to the blind person's inability to see, but due to the inability of society to acknowledge (I won't use the word "see") the capacity of the blind person. The idea of vision loss, especially blindness, is still highly stigmatized socially, and many people still believe that losing one's vision produces lifelong dependence and incapacity.

The CNIB study participants identified that the most common barrier encountered in the attainment of employment involved employer attitudes. Twenty-seven percent of working-aged participants reported that employers do not see the blind applicant's potential, and another 26% reported that employers are simply unwilling to hire someone with a vision impairment.

Where does such a discriminating attitude still come from? It comes from a continuing lack of awareness and fear of the unknown, which I believe is perpetuated by the prevalent use of the word "blind" to evoke negative images. I say it's time to start insisting on some political correctness.