How to say the right thing where visual impairment is involved

Funny, but ridiculous, things people say that tell me we need to be more aware of visual impairment….and no, I’m really not kidding…

When you have a disability, like being blind, you get used to the routine of explaining to people that you’re visually impaired and what that means, etc – now whilst many people attempt to be quite sensitive and careful in asking questions about my disability, you get used to being asked things that obviously haven’t been thought through…at all. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for encouraging anyone who wants to understand more to ask me questions, (that’s how you learn after all) but it does amaze me sometimes just quite how little some people understand about visual impairment.

Stranger: “When are you going to get one of those dogs that read?”

Me: “I don’t know, as soon as we’ve trained dogs to read?”

I’m afraid (at least as far as I am aware) we have unfortunately not trained dogs to read…yet. The type of assistance dog these people are referring to are Guide dogs and the clue really is in the name…they guide! People do often make the assumption that all blind people have guide dogs when actually the majority don’t. This can be either because they prefer to use different aids or methods of getting around (including the more dangerous ‘cars will just see me and stop’ method), or their sight isn’t quite bad enough to need a dog (remember blindness is a spectrum, it’s not just no sight or fully sighted). Maybe a better way to phrase this would be “Do you have a guide dog?”

Stranger: “So do you know sign language then?”

Me: “Well, no…I’m not deaf so it wouldn’t really help me”

You’d be amazed at how often this comes up – it takes a one second thought to realise that sign language is for people with hearing loss – for people with sight loss this would literally be one of the worst ways to communicate. People tend to get very confused by visual impairment, especially if you don’t physically appear visually impaired, and so it can get mixed up with other conditions, but unless we say we have other conditions, it’s just the eyes!

Stranger: “Could you hear it if I threw something at you? Would you be able to catch it or jump out of the way?”

Me: “Nope, it would just hit me in the face”

As much as I wish I was Daredevil, I’m afraid I’m not (although writing this has just given me a great idea for this year’s Halloween costume!). Whilst some of our senses might be a little better trained, most of us haven’t yet got to the point where we could take on an army of ninjas (I’m probably about a week off of that).

Stranger: “Oh, I completely understand, when I don’t have my contact lenses in, I am so blind”

Me: “Hmmm…”

I’m sure it is genuinely difficult for people who need glasses and contact lenses to do and see things when they don’t have them on, but even then I’m afraid most people who are registered as visual impaired have a lot worse sight than that; whether it’s tunnel vision that means you only get 5% of your entire field of vision or acuity problems which mean that (even with glasses) you have to have your font set to 36 to even have a chance of straining to see it. The point I’m making here though is very different to when people say “Gosh, I struggle enough without my contact lenses in, I can only imagine how difficult it must be”.

You’d be surprised at just how frequently these exact questions and comments come up and it really does make me think that we need to work at making our society more aware of visual impairment (or failing that, let’s simply encourage a little common sense!) – after all, over 2 million people in the UK live with sight loss and that statistic is predicted to nearly double in the next 30 years.

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Georgie Bullen

Georgie Bullen is a GB Paralympian and the Director of Team Insight-a team building and visual impairment awareness training events organisation

Edits by diversityjobs 

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