Sunday, June 28, 2015

Educating People About Blindness, Pt 2

I did a Q&A on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and I got some really interesting and thoughtful questions. 
A friend mentioned the other day that she had a hard time imagining living as a blind person just because she had no idea how day-to-day things were accomplished. It gave me the idea: why not ask?
So here is what I posted. Ask! Hit me with any question that you've always wanted to ask a blind person but were to embarrassed/tactful/ashamed to ask. No question too dumb or too specific. In fact, the more specific the better. I'll try to answer all of them, but bear in mind, the answers are from me personally and don't represent every blind person out there. Blind people are all really different. Ask about me (low vision) or Abi (blind) or even family members. I'm curious to see what you are curious about!
Blind friends, feel free to chip in. If you feel like sharing how you do stuff or if you want to give the common questions you get. 
I'll lead with a few in the comments to get you started!

Q: How can Abi run around and not be afraid?

A: She is used to it. It's not like when you close your eyes and lose sensory input you're used to having. She pays attention to echoes and air currents and flooring changes and smells, and gets rich sensory input that all feels totally normal to her.

Q: How do you tell your shampoo from your conditioner if you can't see it?

A: Put a rubber band around one, or buy different shaped bottles.

(From a blind friend) Or, when all else fails, touch the tip of your tongue to the lid. They taste very different.  One taste like soap and one taste like lotion. People freak out when I tell them that but it's not like I'm eating it.

Q: How do you keep from stepping on the dog?

A: I step on him until he learns to keep out of the way. Poor dog. 

Q. How would you explain colors to a blind person?

A. Most blind people have seen colors at least one time in their lives. 

For those who haven't, you just have to get creative! 

Q. Are there ways friends/family can make their homes/get togethers easier to navigate and enjoy?

A. That's really individual to each blind person, and it's probably fine to ask that question to the person in an aside beforehand. 

For us, Abi and I kind of like to have people chill out. Don't freak out about Abi and stairs. Don't flutter around and worry. Don't apologize over and over for stuff sitting on the floor. Just let us figure out the layout ourselves and memorize it. We just need a little time and space, and when we need something like a drink or the bathroom, we'll ask.

Q. Bugs. Smashing them, eating them. Etc.

A. Oh my, bugs freak. me. out. It creeps me out that they are around and I don't know it! Abi seems to be the same way. If someone says, "a bee!" she will jump and ask, "where?"

If I feel one on me I'll jump and try to fling it off or I'll grab it in my hand and crush it, which is so gross.

One of the weird things about my vision is floaters that looks like bugs all. the. time. I've learned to ignore them. But feeling a creepy crawly on my skin... ugh.

But those not on me? Ignorance is bliss. 

Q. Do you think with modern technology driving will ever be possible for the blind?

A. I'm pretty skeptical. At this point, all the legislation for self-driving cars says a "licensed driver must be in the vehicle at all times in order to take over manual driving as needed." So how is that any different that just riding with a sighted person driving?

For me, I love walking and taking public transportation, so it's not often I miss driving anyway. I'm not sure I'd get a self-driving car even if it was an option. It's just a different lifestyle, and one I much prefer.

Q. How long have you had low vision? And is it rude, in general, to ask that of a blind person?

A. My whole life. I didn't realize how much coping I was doing until high school, and I didn't tell anybody until a few years ago. It's a long story. Maybe someday I'll write a book. 

Q. How do you learn to read Braille? My fingers don't distinguish between all the little dots!! 

A. First of all, when reading Braille, you don't look at the dots, you look at the shape of the letter. Secondly, you're probably pressing too hard. You use a feather-light touch. Try feeling the hairs on the back of your other hand. That's how lightly you read Braille. If you do those two things, anyone (unless you have diabetic nerve damage) can read Braille by touch.

How do you use a computer for things like Facebook?

A. As for using a computer, sometimes I do it visually, and sometimes I use a screen reader like voice over or NVDA. Abi always uses a screen reader. It just says everything on the screen aloud.

Q2. Wouldn't you have to listen to an awful lot of garbage and advertisements and nonsense to get to the content that you want though? That's the part I'm not understanding… I think it would take forever to do something that way, but I don't think that's actually the case so there must be something different that you do?

A2. Yes, you do. That's why you set it to talk really fast, press the advance key a lot, and bug programmers to make their sites more accessible with less garbage.

(From a blind friend): Speaking of computers; people often ask me if I rely exclusively on dictation.
Every person's needs are different.
I Touch-type just as many people were taught to do.
Dictation is a tool I sometimes use, but I do not depend exclusively on it.

Q: How can I make my website easier for blind/sight impaired visitors without the overload of words?

A. (From a blind friend who is a technology specialist) I can help answer that last one about websites 
when using things like font attributes to create visual heading to separate information, make sure that the HTML tag for headings is also included. Tables are also often a source of frustration for screenreader users. Just because things are laid out to look like they are in a table, does not mean that they are in a table to a screen reader  so again, it comes down to ensuring that the HTML tags are created appropriately. If you are using a CMS and you don't have as much access to the HTML code, check and find another site that has displayed content using the same CMS, and run the accessibility check her from that website on it before choosing to use that particular template. And, when using pictures, use the pictures property dialog box to add alt text to the image. I know that means quite a bit of extra work behind the scenes, but the sighted person cannot see the alt text attached to the image, so you get the same effect… Your cited visitors get their pictures and your screen reader users get the description of the picture and the same information. Low vision users often benefit from a site that has been created using minimal colors, high contrast, and has extra spacing. Sitecues is a pretty cool ad on that site developers can get from aisquared that allows visitors to customize the colors for their particular visual condition and needs. The information above, about HTML tags, also gives a clue to how screenreader users can skip some of the garbage on webpages. When webpages have been structured with functional HTML elements, screen readers recognize those elements and allow users to jump from one heading to the next, one paragraph to the next, navigate a crossroads or down columns in a logical order in tables, and can even skip to the next element that is not one, like a link, that can be interacted with. It takes many years, and a lots of problem-solving skills, for a screen reader user to be very quick and efficient with those skills so it's really helpful when the webpage elements exist in a usable structure One of the most common questions I get, how do you know where IM?  It should be obvious, sound and you're speaking, but it's not always. Some of the other questions I get, is how does the dog no where to go? Can the dog read signs?how does the dog know when the light is green how do you know which dollar bill is which? How do you write a check? How do you know if you're getting on the right bus? How do you know which stopped to get off at? And the list goes on and on.

Q. (To a friend who is a parent of a blind child) Do you have any standard questions people ask you guys?

A. Mostly how she can get around so good. Want to understand how braille works and braille display that we talk about. Will she get a guide dog. Most people don't realize that is for when she is older. I loved the guide dog answer. So helpful. Oh people Always ask if she is completely blind. Ha the old is she blind enough to be blind thing.

(Me): I don't understand why blind people are expected to get around poorly. Being blind is NOT like sighted people closing their eyes and fearfully groping around.

(Another friend): But we sighted people don't really understand that. We try to imagine what it would be like to be blind and all we know to equate it to is walking around with our eyes closed. We actually need someone to tell us it isn't the same.

(Parent): I like the idea of informing people that it is not the same. I tend to understand that because of my experience with J but yeah the average person just has their perspective with nothing else to go on.

(Me): Ok people!!! *hollering* IT'S NOT THE SAME!!!

There, I told everybody. 

(From another friend)
I am legally blind and use a guide dog for mobility, so here are some of the common questions (and answers) I get:

Q: How does he know when it's safe to cross the street?

A: He doesn't make the decisions; that's my job. I listen to traffic patterns and use what useful vision I have to make the decision to cross. His job is to double check for anything in the environment I may have missed (e.g. a turning car that I didn't notice or one that's speeding by).

Q: You can just tell him where you want to go and he finds the place, like doggie GPS, right? (I joke not)

A: Nope, I have to know where I am, where I want to go, and how to get there. My guide dog makes sure I don't bump into anything, or trip, and helps me negotiate crowds and street crossings, among other things. I can, however, "pattern" him to certain locations through repetition and reinforcement. This makes finding routine places much quicker.

Q: Does he let you know when he has to go to the bathroom?

A: If he's letting me know he's gotta go, I must not be paying good enough attention to his feeding, watering, and relieving schedule. Most of the time, he stays consistent on the schedule but I do give him more water breaks and such on the weekends or vacations so he may need to go more often. If he does have to go between scheduled breaks, he will whine and run to the door (if we're at home). If we're at work, he holds it because he's in harness, or he'll snuggle up to me to tell me he has to go.

Q: Does he ever get to be a regular dog?

A: I get this quite a lot because so many people only see us when he's working. Yes, he gets time off-harness and off-leash just like any other dog. He has toys and favorite activities (like fetch and digging around in flower beds). We spend a lot of time playing and relaxing together because, like the working part of our relationship needs upkeep, so does our social relationship. If he's going to perform at top-notch, then he needs some down time to just be a dog and enjoy himself.

Q: Does he bite?

A: The only thing he bites is his food and his toys. He would never bite a person and he is really careful around small children. In fact, if he could live with small kids all the time, I think he'd much prefer that.

If you have any other guide dog questions come up, do let me know. I'd love to contribute to your blog!

Q. Have always wondered . . . . at what level of vision is one considered blind? I always assumed zero vision but I seem to be wrong.  

A. Legally the definition of blind is 20/200 or less that 20° field of vision.

A very small percentage of blind people have no light perception.

Q. Do those who are legally blind prefer to be called low vision?

A. It's different for different people. 

I use the term "low vision" even though I dislike its negativity because it's the most immediately clear to people. In the UK, the term "partially sighted" is more positive.

For me, I'm not even legally blind, because my vision fluctuates so widely. On a good day with the strongest glasses (which cause a migraine within 20 minutes) I see 20/40. And this is what the doctors count. On a bad day, with a headache I can see maybe 20/1600. On most normal days it's probably 20/400. But because mine is "correctable to the best correction," I'm not legally blind. The vision rehab counselor says I'm "functionally blind."

I don't really care which term I use. I don't mind describing myself as blind, except that it's confusing to people who think "blind" means "lights out."

Just like there is no legal definition for me, there is also no descriptive term for me. "Intermittently can't see worth beans" comes closest.

As far as others, some say "legally blind." Some, who reject the "blind is bad" memes and want to advocate, proudly call themselves Blind. Some, who are ashamed of it describe themselves as "I don't see too well." Some say "low vision." It really varies from person to person.


  1. Milena from SwedenJune 28, 2015 at 11:57 PM

    Thank you!
    I found your blog about a month or so ago, and by now I have read back to when you adopted Abi :-).
    Yesterday my children had a lot of questions about being blind, which started with my youngest son asking why there wasn't Braille on the milk cartons. (They know Braille exists from seeing signs and maps with Braille). And I was so happy to be able to give them informed answers from reading your blog!

    1. I love that question! Would the Braille on the milk carton say "Milk"? I saw that there was Braille on a Coca-cola can recently, as part of the name campaign thing. That's pretty cool.

      I've seen Braille on wine bottle labels and boxes of Band-aids. Never on a milk carton though. In fact, just the other day, Abi and I were practicing finding the right end to open by feeling the indentations along the top where it folds back once you open it. Those little creases are handy so you open the side where it's easier to open!

    2. Braille is on all medication here, but not on any food items. And since all milk and juice and yoghurt come in equally-shaped cartons, I suppise it would be kind of hard finding the right one without help. We agreed that there really needed to be Braille, but that it probably wouldn't fit on top of the high and narrow carton but would need to be along the front, vertically. The children were a bit upset about the lack of Braille on food items!
      I am happy that it interests them!
      Thank you again for educating us who see (although shortsighted)!

    3. I expect that you can smell the difference between milk, juice and yoghurt, even if the cartons are the same shape. :)