On the second Thursday of October, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness celebrates World Sight Day, which coincides with National Blindness Awareness Month here in the United States. The purpose of World Sight Day is to spread awareness about the importance of eye health and regular eye exams, as well as educate people about low vision and blindness.
Here are some statistics I pulled from http://www.iapb.org about blindness and low vision:
- About 285 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with low vision or blindness- 39 million people are blind and 246 million have low vision
- 90% of blind people live in low-income countries
- An estimated 19 million children are visually impaired
- About 65% of all people who are visually impaired are aged 50 and older- this age group comprises only 20% of the world’s population
- Increasing elderly populations in many countries mean that more people will be at risk of age-related visual impairment.
At first, these statistics can seem terrifying. Odds are, you will interact with at least one person in your lifetime who has blindness or low vision, and you may have no idea how to do so. This person could be a student in a class, a new person at work, a neighbor, or a family member. Alternatively, a person you already know could develop blindness and low vision, and you may be wondering how to support them. Here are my tips for interacting with someone who recently lost their sight, or for interacting with someone who has low vision and/or blindness without any prior knowledge of the topic.
Don't scare them
While I was eating lunch with a friend, a person that I had recently met decided to sneak up on me from behind and yell "hello" in my ear, giving me no other identifying information. It was very startling and I spent the first few moments of our interaction very confused, as I had no idea who they were. To avoid situations like this, make sure to identify yourself when approaching someone, and definitely don't come at them from behind. Read my post here for more tips on how to approach someone with low vision or blindness.
Learn how to be a human guide
I use the term human guide to describe someone that helps me navigate my environment. I specifically use the term human guide to avoid confusion- many people hear the word "guide" and imagine a guide dog or GPS app. Being a human guide is a fairly easy process, but it can get some getting used to. As long as you don't walk someone onto train tracks when there's an oncoming train, or let them fall into water, then things should be fine. Read my post on being a human guide here.
Make devices accessible
I remember having a conversation with someone who told me all about how the font size seemed to have decreased with the latest software update on one of their devices. Upon further investigation, the alleged software update happened at the same time they began having trouble reading fine print in general! Luckily, it is very easy to enable accessibility settings on different devices to make them easy to read. Read my post on making Android phones accessible here, iPad and iPhone accessible here, and Windows 10 computers accessible here.
Some activities may require adaptations, but inclusion is possible
While it may seem like including someone with blindness or low vision in an activity is difficult, the truth is that most activities just require a few adaptations or accommodations. Menus at restaurants can be enlarged, dance students can have a partner, movies and plays can have descriptive audio, and people can even go on an Easter egg hunt. Here is my low vision guide category that describes adaptations for people with low vision in over two dozen activities and growing.
Understand classroom needs
Many students with low vision and blindness may require extra support in the classroom, which is given with an IEP or 504 plan in the United States. While students may feel stigmatized because they receive special education services, it's extremely important that students receive accommodations in the classroom when necessary. For an idea of what support I needed/wanted in the classroom, read my letter to elementary school teachers, my letter to middle school teachers, and my letter to high school teachers. And for an idea of what I learned from my teacher of the visually impaired, read this TVI post.
It's okay to ask questions
You don't need to know exactly how much sight someone has before interacting with them. That said, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them, but don't be surprised if they do not want to talk about it, or if they don't know how to answer something. I am more open about my condition than most people, and have written a series of posts about how to answer questions from strangers- read through my articles here.
Should I avoid the word "see?"
Using the word "see" in conversation is not offensive to people who are blind are visually impaired- it's only offensive if used in context like "I can see and you can't, you're silly!" For more of my thoughts on this topic, read this post for my view on "see" and other words that mean sight.
I'm proud to be an American and a resident of the great state of Virginia, where I am able to receive services from government agencies for my low vision. Like every other state, Virginia has a department dedicated to assisting the blind and visually impaired, where I can receive training on how to use a blindness cane, assistive technology, and other resources as I need them. The state department of education also has many special education resources available for students and parents. And while it isn't a government agency per se, the Disability Law Center of Virginia, our state protection and advocacy organization, can help me ensure that I receive equal opportunities for things- read my post about Disability Law Center of Virginia here.
Accessing print materials
I can't talk about low vision or blindness without mentioning my favorite resource of all time, Bookshare. Bookshare is a service that creates accessible copies of any book one could think of- I have a full post about Bookshare here. Libraries also have many services for people who do not read standard print- read my post on online services here, and college library resources here. And of course, there are always eReaders- read my eReader post here.
Low vision and blindness are not things to be feared, as there have been so many technology and medical advancements over the years. If you have any additional questions, feel free to comment below and I will do my best to answer them.
"Even without sight, there is still vision." -Helen Keller