This post has been sitting in the back of my mind for a while. It started with a post about disability binarism, the idea that everyone is either completely disabled or completed abled. On its face, most reasonable people would agree that this idea is as silly as the idea of people being only black, white, Hispanic, Asian, etc., when it comes to race, when obviously you have a ton of people who are some mix of two or more races. However, that question that keeps popping up on surveys and forms and the census and seemingly everywhere these days asking everybody to quantify their race with only one box shows that black-and-white attitude toward race obviously still exists. The same is true when it comes to disability, and especially to blindness.
What do you think of when I say somebody is blind? For most people, the image that comes to mind is somebody who is completely blind and can’t see a thing, even light and dark. What if I told you that the vast majority of blind people I have known actually have some vision? There two legal definitions: “Visually Impaired” is a best-corrected acuity of 20/70 or worse in the better eye, and “Legally Blind” is a best-corrected acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better eye. There is a huge spectrum between legally blind and total vision loss.
Someone with partial vision may be able to read normal print held in their hand, but unable to see the blackboard in a classroom. They may be able to walk around, avoid obstacles, and recognize faces, but not be able to read the menu at McDonald’s. They may able to see during the day but not at night, or vice versa. They may not have stereo or color vision. They may see the world as if through a permanent fog, or through a broken glass, or in a funhouse mirror. They may be able to see the sidewalk but not the curb, the countertop but not the steps, the table but not the chairs.
Blind binarism and ableism come into play when a person seems on the surface to be able to negotiate the world as well as a sighted person. Binarism says that this person is, therefore, “not blind” and does not need the tools and skills of a “real” blind person. This is a big deal because this attitude exists not only among the general non-blind public but also among some of those very people whose job it is to educate and train our children in the skills of blindness so that they can become independent, functional, and productive adults. Every month, sometimes every week, our blind homeschooling community welcomes a new refugee from the government school system, a family that has been told their child doesn’t need Braille even though they can’t read regular print, that their child doesn’t need to learn to use a cane even though they trip over every curb and step, that their child doesn’t need to know the skills of blindness in the kitchen or around the house even though they might injure themselves or be unable to live independently if they don’t.
This attitude also affects how blind people choose to function in the world. Should I carry my cane into this new place so that I can be sure of not falling over something, or should I wing it so that I won’t be identified as blind? Or, conversely, should I carry my cane into this place that I know well enough not to need it just to spare my family from being berated by somebody who thinks we don’t need our handicapped plates? Do I use Braille on a daily basis for those things for which it makes sense, or do I struggle to use declining vision so as not to appear disabled? Do I fight for the accommodations I need in the workplace to function on a level with my peers, or do I settle for lower wages and substandard employment and a government check? There is a lot of pressure on “high partials” to pass for sighted, to blend in with the sighted world and not cause trouble.
All the visually impaired people in my family fall along this spectrum. I have one daughter who is not legally impaired but has low vision in one eye, another daughter who is not quite legally impaired but can’t see well enough to drive (that cutoff is usually around 20/50), one son who is impaired but mostly functions as sighted since he is not in school, and another son and husband who are partially sighted in one eye and have no functional vision in the other eye. None of them look blind when people first meet them, unless they notice my husband’s or my son’s deformed eyes. All of them are impaired to some extent, though, and benefit already from using various skills of blindness at various times. All of my impaired children are being taught the skills of blindness, as their condition can be suddenly degenerative, and they could need these skills later in life.
It’s not all or nothing. There’s a lot of gray.