As with the wheelchair users in our previous article, for those of us lucky to have nearly full use of our vision, it’s hard to imagine what life’s like for the partially sighted or completely blind. For starters, how would you be reading this article?  Most of us are dependent on sight, and not being able to see clearly is an almost unimaginable concept. To help better understand a visually impaired person’s perspective, we spoke to several people who live with reduced vision every day, and they shared some of the unexpected things they deal with.

“Your dog is so clever showing you where to go!”

Imagine you’re heading out the house, either to go to work or nip to shop for 4 pints of milk. For most of us it’s a simple task where we walk out the door, and use visual cues to tell us where we are and where to go.

For a partially sighted or blind person the process can be a little longer. Fiona Watt, who suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, explains that before leaving their home they must memorise their route (although modern technology is playing a huge part in simplifying this process) and retain this mental map for entire journey. It’s one of the reasons visually impaired people rarely venture into new territory and stick to what they know. But after performing these feats of memory, they often hear “Your dog is so clever knowing how to get where she’s going!”

Guide dogs are extremely clever and thoughtful companions who are vital to the process of getting from A to B, “but they are still dogs”. While they can help their human avoid obstacles, stick to the centre of the path where it’s safest, and to judge height and width so they don’t bump their head or shoulders, they do not actually know how to get to the destination and still require commands direct them where they need to go.

Even those who know partially sighted people personally can react with amazement when they hear that their loved one went out on their own. When Fiona was younger, her mother would often ask “How are you going to get to the shop on your own?” Despite being encouraging of her daughter and knowing her to be capable, she would still be surprised when she would leave the house to go somewhere.   

Using a Clock to Eat

Eating uses four of the five senses: sight gives us direction on where our food is on the plate (visually impaired people can cook, especially if they at least retain some of their vision) but it is difficult to know what food is on which section of the plate.

To do this visually impaired people have been taught to use clock references to know where there food is on a plate. For a traditional Sunday Dinner, you could have “meat at three o’clock, veg at five and potatoes at 10. It’s how we were taught to eat when we were at school.”

When eating out, this can be difficult due to unfamiliar plates and waiters and chefs not knowing where to position the food. “It can be a potentially disastrous situation if I pick up the wrong thing, or spill anything. It makes me really nervous about going out to be honest, and I’d rather eat at home unless someone is there to help with my references.” While restaurant staff wouldn’t consider how visually impaired people set their plates or how embarrassed they are to ask, if a person works on their confidence they can explain their needs to staff, who are usually very friendly and helpful.    

Navigating the obstacle course

Theresa avoids going out in the school holidays. “It’s not the kids’ fault, you don’t realise until you’re blind, but they just drop their bikes and prams in front of the doors.” Getting a white cane stuck in the wheel of a discarded bike is a new level of frustration, as the more the user tries to free it, the more it sticks. Even in term time, pavements can be littered with other dangers, like displays of items outside hardware shops, and tables and chairs outside cafes. “Talk about pavement furniture: that really is furniture!”

And it isn’t just members of the public that leave things out to trip over: the council has been known to put up new bottle banks without informing the residents, leaving blind people with a monolithic object looming before them with no warning.

Whilea guide dog can be invaluable, some dogs can be pests. A dog tied up outside can react unpredictably to a person approaching them, scanning the ground with a cane. And extendable leads, connecting a dog three or four metres away from an inattentive human can clothesline a cane user.

Dipped kerbs are a necessity for wheelchair users, but a danger for the blind. People who use white canes tend to drift to the side when they walk, and while normal kerbs let them feel where the pavement ends, dipped kerbs can lead them out into the road.

“Can’t you see my aunt’s blind?”

Ironically, when you’re out and about, sighted people can be the cause of many collisions. A lot of people are buried in their phones, oblivious to their surrounding environment. But some people are just inconsiderate. One respondent was out with her ten year old niece when a woman banged into her. Usually these human obstacles don’t express any remorse, “they look at you as if you’re not supposed to be there.” Another man tried to stare her and her sister down on a narrow street, “as if we were supposed to go around him.” A cane is a traditional visual sign that a person needs more consideration, but it seems like people are simply notobservant enough to make this meaningful.

“We only need some assistance, we’re not incapable.”

It’s mostly an amusing thing for guide dog owners to meet people who believe the dog can read maps, but more frustrating is the belief that blindness makes people useless when they are very capable and productive members of society. With the rise of smartphones, there are more and more gadgets to ov.... Previously getting around independently could only be carried out by memory of familiar routes, but now Google maps can plan a route for Fiona, and Siri can inform her whether or not to turn.

“It’s not perfect, and you are dependent on 3g and Wi-Fi to be able to use it but my phone does so much for me now” New technology has changed a lot, opening up new social possibilities. “I can read peoples texts and reply with my own as well just by telling it what to say.” However, these innovations can be out of budget for their target audience.

Assistive technology can enable work as well as social life. Fiona works as a part-time receptionist and relies on technology such as screen readers and braille displays, carrying out her duties as capably as anyone else.

While new apps and hardware are constantly being developed to help the blind, a plain old rubber band can be a blind person’s best friend. A rubber band, as well as keeping shoes in pairs, can be wrapped round a bottle to make shampoo and conditioner, or brown and red sauce feel different.

And phones can sometimes be a menace. If somebody takes a call and says “Hello,” without being able to see the phone, it seems polite to return to the greeting– leaving you feeling like “such a fool!”

If you want to give your opinion about living with a disability, we’d love it if you got in touch.

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