A LESSON IN VISION IMPAIRMENT: THE THINGS THAT SHOULD BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOL
We learn about sixteenth century monarchy, we analyse and annotate classic literature, we decode the complexity of algebra… But where does life’s realities slot into the equation?
More specifically, where is the disability awareness? Where are the lessons that will cement the foundations to a more positive portrayal of disabled people and the classes that will aid in eradicating some of the stigmas and stereotypes that are ingrained in society?
It’s been five years since I left school and when I mull over my time there, my mind is peppered with the memories of the misconceptions, the questions and the hushed comments that were traded when I walked into a room.
It’s no surprise that these recollections take centre stage when I cast my mind back to that time because school was the first place I was confronted with questions about my life as a disabled person, the first place I found myself having to make adaptions, the first place where I was made to feel ‘different’.
To me, all of this signals a chasm in the curriculum, a gap that deserves to be suffused with lessons that will impart thought-provoking details that might help to loosen the negative attitudes that are so deeply rooted in the school grounds and wider society alike.
Some pockets of society are ripe with stereotypes and I know that it’s impossible to snuff out the brightness of their flame, but imagine this; a curriculum that sets out opportunities to foster more positive attitudes, to quell misconceptions and even the playing field in terms of knowledge and understanding of disability rights and equality.
Obviously, when I rule the world — which should be any day now, I’m patiently waiting on a few emails — all of this will be a reality. But we’ll have to stick to a trusty blog post whilst we wait, all of the world revolutions start on the internet nowadays anyway, right?
So, what are some things I think should be taught in schools, but aren’t? Break time’s over, it’s time for a lesson in vision impairment.
LESSON 1: VISION IMPAIRMENT IS A SPECTRUM
Let’s set the record straight from the get go, nothing is ever linear.
The vision impairment landscape is populated with so many different stories, and whilst some people’s experiences of living life as a VIP will align, the likelihood is that how we see the world will differ, even for those who have the same condition.
Most often than not, ‘severely sight impaired’ or ‘blind’ doesn’t mean complete darkness. It’s a spectrum, something that looks different to everyone.
The RNIB state that 93% of vision impaired people can see something — we like a good old stat in this school — this one in particular illustrates the variety that exists within the vision impairment realms.
Some people might have light perception whilst others have central or peripheral vision. Some mmight be able to see shapes and colours and others might have night blindness. The take away point here is that there is a whole host of experiences out there.
Nothing is ever black and white which is why I think this is an important lesson to begin with. Everyone’s experiences are different and it’s important to recognise and respect that.
LESSON 2: VISION IMPAIRED PEOPLE DON’T LOOK A CERTAIN WAY
Oh boy, this misconception is a very old acquaintance and one I’ve dedicated a full word count to addressing in a past blog post. I enlisted the help of fellow vision impaired and disabled people to curate that post, with over 100 people relaying their experiences to me, signalling the magnitude of such misconceptions.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve come across people who have stated that I don’t ‘look vision impaired’ and the concept has always baffled me.
Things such as the media have played a huge part in evoking false representations of disabled people over the years, laying the groundwork for people’s preconceived ideas and prejudices.
It’s clear that this prompts some people to believe the idea that vision impaired people look a certain way, what that image looks like I don’t know but what I do know is that honest awareness is vital to challenge those fallacies.
LESSON 3: THERE’S NO NEED TO BE AWKWARD
My time in lessons was soundtracked by the tapping of keys on a laptop, the shuffling of braille laden paper and the soft hum of an electronic voice reading through the set books. Leading my life with these adaptions and being the only severely sight impaired person in school meant that awkwardness permeated many of my interactions with other pupils, something that stemmed from the fact that I was seen as being ‘different’, I can imagine.
It’s also been true beyond the school gates with people altering the way they speak to me when they realise I’m vision impaired, or even dismissing the idea of speaking to me completely in favour of addressing the person I’m with instead.
Whilst I can understand how some people might feel a tad wary at times, perhaps out of fear of saying the wrong thing or committing to a stereotype, the lesson here is that there’s no need for that scepticism or wariness when interacting with a vision impaired person.
We’re not a different species so don’t dilute your usual character when in conversation, don’t subscribe to the misconceptions because that’s what keeps them alive.
LESSON 4: NOT EVERYONE IS LOOKING FOR A CURE
This one might prove to be a slightly more sensitive topic but we don’t shy away from anything here.
An incredibly important note to kickstart this lesson is that, like most things, everyone’s experience will differ and it’s vital to respect that.
I’m basing this lesson on the comments and questions I’ve heard over the years from some people who believed I was set on the idea of finding a cure. These attitudes were particularly prevalent in school with fellow pupils asking me if I could have lazor eye surgery and reeling off all the risks “when I would have it one day”.
I branded this inquisitiveness as curiosity but it also magnified the negative views that hem the fabric of vision impairment. At the time, it prompted me to believe that others viewed me as someone who was broken, someone who needed to be fixed.
Perceptions like these stunted my acceptance journey at times which is why I think it’s vital to portray the message that it’s possible to live a happy and fulfilling life as a vision impaired person.
Sure, there are harder days than others, that’s all part and parcel of life as a disabled person, but we learn to adapt, we adopt different techniques and routines to go about our daily lives in the most accessible way for us.
I’m happy leading my life in the way that I do and honestly, right now, I wouldn’t change it.
Everyone’s choices are completely personal and it shouldn’t be up to outside forces to question someone’s desires when it comes to their own impairment.
LESSON 5: MOBILITY AIDS CAN BE EMPOWERING, DON’T DEGRADE THEM
Honestly, I think this one counts as a lesson I could have benefited from when I was in school.
I took to using countless amounts of aids during my childhood and teenage years, magnifiers (handheld and electronic), screen-readers, glasses to watch TV that made me look like I’d landed from outer space, you name it, I tried it. But my hesitation about using the white cane didn’t dissipate until I was about 17, it lingered even then.
I’ve written about this in depth on here before, surprise, surprise, but in a nutshell, I viewed the cane as something that would label my impairment, something I wasn’t ready to welcome into my life in my early and mid teens.
My own internalised ableism fuelled a very strong dislike towards the concept of using a cane and it saw me withdraw from any conversation regarding it for years. In retrospect, I do think I needed that time to adapt and learn to accept other aspects of my impairment, but I do think that a lesson or two in the benefits of using a cane, and other mobility aids, could have proved invaluable.
But it’s not just a lesson for the VIP’s out there. No, I think this class would magnetise our spheres and deliver the message that as vision impaired people, we shouldn’t feel ashamed of something that has the potential to give us independence, and for those who aren’t vision impaired, it’s vital not to pass judgement that could potentially provoke those feelings of uncertainty.
LESSON 6: WE’RE NOT THE PROBLEM, SOCIETY IS THE PROBLEM
Ableism has been ingrained in society for years and years, I don’t think I’ve mentioned the misconceptions quite enough yet but they saturate so many aspects of our world, leading some to view disabled people as ‘vulnerable’ and perhaps even broken.
It’s easy to believe the misconceptions when they’re so tightly laced around the concept of being disabled, but I’ll tell you now that, as disabled people, we don’t need to be fixed. Society on the other hand, does.
We live in a world which quite often subscribes to the ideology of the Medical Model of Disability, something that portrays the idea that barriers and challenges are a direct result of having an impairment. Whereas the Social Model of Disability places the onus back on society, labelling societal attitudes and barriers as the real disability.
The concept of the Social Model is incredibly empowering and it offers disabled people jurisdiction over the way we perceive our own impairments. It might also aid in reversing and eroding some of the internalised attitudes we might adopt as a result of the misconceptions.
There’s so much history in terms of the disability rights movement and the development of the Social Model that would make for a really interesting and eye-opening lesson, and I’d go as far as to say that it deserves top priority in the pursuit of a more inclusive curriculum.
LESSON 7: THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE IN A SIMILAR SITUATION
This last one is a lesson to all the vision impaired students out there who might be feeling alone in what they’re experiencing.
It’s so easy to feel isolated in an environment when you believe that you’re the only one, this applies to anyone no matter what challenge they might be facing.
So, through providing gentle reassurances, this lesson could serve as an empathetic escape, a safe harbour to recognise that you’re not on your own, and an opportunity to pledge to yourself that you will remember as much.
You will find your way, you will find your people, and when you do, it’s going to be the best feeling.
So that’s it, that’s all we have time for today. I could go on and on but that might be the perfect excuse for a part two, if you’re interested.
I’m a reasonable person so I’m not going to ask you to take an exam at the end of this lesson because I know that revising the facts over and over again can lead to neglecting them, to viewing them as something you have to learn rather than wanting to. But I hope this provided a little insight into some of the things that are worth being educated on right now.
The concept of vision impairment and all there is to learn about it is a huge tapestry that’s punctured with holes where the misconceptions find place to fester. But, through education, I believe that we can prevent some of the threads from eroding into a longer string of preconceived ideas.
Lessons like these could cultivate opportunities to open people’s minds to alternatives, to halt judgement and to challenge what’s real and what isn’t.
Ideally, these lessons would be taught by disabled people themselves to amplify that authenticity and hone in on facts that only we know how best to disclose.
In school, we’re introduced to facts about inventors of the past, but now it’s time to foster and become architects of equality, inclusivity and an open-mind that’s ready to welcome it all. This shouldn’t be purely assigned to the classroom either, because the pursuit to learn new things shouldn’t end when the last assignment is handed in, that should only be the beginning.
Have you got anything to add? I’d love to know if you have some words of wisdom to share. Is there anything you wish you’d learned in school, or a lesson you’d impart on the populace now if you could? I know we have a wise community in this little corner of the internet so I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. I won’t put the marker away just quite yet.