Even when I was partially sighted, I never used the term “visually impaired” to describe myself because it was too avoid-the-reality-by-using-a-warm-and-fuzzy-word for my tastes. Instead, I simply used blind.
Life has recently caused me to re-examine my feelings about this. A friend who is partially sighted and I shop at the same grocery store. We’ve noticed that employees who have worked with one of us first then assume the other one is exactly the same in terms of abilities and needs. The initial blind individual a TAB meets seemingly becomes their working definition of what it means to be blind, shaping assumptions that inform their expectations, perception of needs and predictions of ability. When the same word is used to describe markedly different individual circumstances, TABs cannot manage to grasp the difference.
These TAB behaviors shaped by the assumptions formed from observation of two people self-described as blind but with differing vision are at the core of the tension between those who are totally blind and people with usable vision. The totally blind are annoyed with those partially sighted for creating unachievable expectations in the minds of TABs. Those with usable vision are irritated when totally blind individuals describe themselves as visually impaired for the lower expectations engendered in TAB minds.
Guess what the common thread is here? Expectations of TABs. Aren’t they the ones to hold responsible for their tendency to assume one blind person is representative of all blind people? Yet, within the blindness community, much energy is expended arguing about blind versus partially sighted instead of viewing TAB attitudes and actions as the source of the friction.
Unfortunately, all that neat and clean logic hasn’t helped me. Spending time with people who can see some and identify themselves as blind, I have increasingly become frustrated. Their usable sight puts tools in their toolbox I do not have in my own. With these tools, they are able to do things not possible for me. For example, follow another person without needing verbal cues, identify landmarks even if they are just a blob and perceive grass from dirt by color. While they may seem small, they add up to something meaningful.
There is a flavor of privilege in those who are partially blind that irritates me. By using the same term, the benefits of usable sight are dismissed as unimportant. Think about it. I can’t make eye contact and that has major social disadvantages. Someone partially blind may be able to simulate or achieve eye contact and reap social benefits. How is that not privilege?
I’m really struggling with all this. I think using the word “blind” to label yourself is completely understandable and reasonable regardless of the amount of usable vision one might possess. I just equally find it frustrating that the privilege bestowed upon those with some vision goes unacknowledged by them. I want such individuals to call themselves whatever they want, understand they have privilege kind of like African Americans who can pass as white have privilege and not pretend we are exactly the same. Privilege is about socially sanctioned benefits based on social perception of the individual. If I could pass as a white, able bodied, heterosexual man, then even if I were a black, disabled, female lesbian, I would still receive privilege. How unfair would it be to pretend otherwise?