Monday, December 3, 2012

Challenging Misconceptions

I'd like to attempt to gently point out a damaging phenomenon that our culture perpetuates unconsciously in our media when even talented journalists write about disabilities from the "outside" or a position of "othering" the group about which they write. I came across such an example yesterday.

Note: my intention is NOT to attack the author personally as she was just doing her job and reporting on the exhibition. Still, her choices of wording made me, as a member of the group to which she refers, feel incredibly awkward inside, as it uses so many of the common stereotypes that range from belittling to blatantly untrue. I'm sure she did not write these words on purpose to offend; in fact her intention was probably the opposite, since the exhibition and the article were intended to raise awareness. It almost makes her complete lack of understanding more difficult to swallow, since she writes in a tone that assumed, "yep, we all know this to be true."

Here is the paragraph in question:

Have you ever stopped and really thought about what it’s like to be blind? Pause and imagine the reality of living in a world of complete darkness where you must rely on your other heightened senses, the sharpness of your memory and the kindness of others. What seems for us an easily accomplished routine task is for them something complex, when making a sandwich for lunch is a slow learned process. Even walking down familiar streets can present them with new and possibly unpleasant surprises, never mind venturing out to new places they’ve not yet explored.

From: this site.

I'd like to point out the subtext of what the author unconsciously states about blindness:

1. All blind people are totally blind.

Actually a small percentage see only blackness. The rest of us see some light, sometimes too much light, since photophobia and glare often cause pain to those with vision loss. Hollywood unhelpfully perpetuates this myth, which has the negative effect that many of us with minimal sight are accused of "faking" when we glance at something we can only partially see, or fail to use a zombie stare. People can and have been very cruel, insisting I can see just fine when I'm terrified of tripping over curbs, or struggling to recognize faces.

2. Blindness is scary.

According to this article, and most media through history, imagining oneself to be blind is a journey through hell, with fear and darkness and shunning on every side. I hope my blog paints a different reality, of living a perfectly normal life using some alternate techniques to make things work. I won't elaborate on this point more, although many blind authors have, and I would be happy to help anyone look up their work.

3. Other senses are heightened.

Oh, how this annoys me! If the input comes in mostly visual ways, you pay less attention to what you hear and smell. People who can't see well use hearing, smelling, touch and memory more. Studies show that their brains even use some of the visual cortex to do tasks like read Braille. BUT we are not Daredevil! Our senses don't become supersonic nor do they compensate for lack of sight. We still hear exactly what you hear. We just pay better attention to it.

4. Blind people rely on the kindness of others.

This is so dismissive, it makes me throw up in my mouth a little. First of all, what human being doesn't rely on the kindness of others? We are all interdependent. When a sighted person crosses the street in front of an idling car, she is relying on the kindness of that driver not to gun the engine, pop the clutch and run her down. Yet, that same sighted person is somehow afforded the respect of assumed independence, not "relying on the kindness of strangers." Most blind people I know are fiercely independent, and while they don't live in a bubble, and like most of us will indeed speak to other people around them, they get from point A to point B without dangling from a sighted person's arm like a bracelet. Even using the sighted guide technique does not signify helplessness, as the blind person can let go and walk in a different direction any time he chooses.

5. Routine tasks are difficult.

Ahem, making a sandwich is really easy. For a newly blinded adult, it might be a bit challenging for a while, but applying that to the blind community as a whole is completely inaccurate. I'll point to Christine Ha, who recently won the TV reality competition US Masterchef. Since most of the challenges were timed, she obvious has some mad sandwich-making skills. And she is fairly newly blind.

6. Walking in familiar places is still unpleasant and frightening.

Only if there's dog poo. Oh, wait, sighted people step in that stuff. We use our heightened sense of smell and walk around. *wink*

7. Blind people don't venture out to new places without a lot of anxiety.

Well, this one is pretty much true. When I went to Africa in January to bring home our adopted daughter by myself, I was pretty nervous. But I was also pretty proud of myself when I got back home in one piece.

Having unpacked some of the ways the underlying message of that paragraph (not to mention exhibitions like that themselves, but I won't get into that here), felt condescending and full of misinformation, I'd like to humbly propose some alternative wording to say the same thing, namely introduce an exhibition that the sighted author found unique and interesting:

Have you ever imagined what it's like to be totally blind? A few of those living with vision loss experience no vision at all, a phenomenon that this exhibition in Budapest attempts to demonstrate. Although practice and training allows most blind people to live rich, full independent lives, the transition from sight to blindness can seem disorienting and frightening. Visitors to this exhibit get a glimpse into the world of a newly blinded individual and also discover some of the tools and techniques utilized by those with vision loss.

Not as emotional, dramatic or sensational, perhaps, but a lot more accurate and respectful, this possible alternate paragraph hopefully demonstrates that it's possible to write about a disabled group from the perspective of a non-disabled person and avoid "othering," belittling or using stereotypes that frustrate and annoy.

Again, I intend this criticism to be directed toward media and society in general, NOT this particular author. I merely used her as a convenient example, and I hope she doesn't feel as belittled as I felt when I read her article.

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