When People See Your Blindness as Superhuman, They Stop Seeing You as Human
The sixth sense, second sight, third eye. We are supposed to have both extra-accurate hearing and perfect pitch, more numerous and more acute taste buds, a finer touch, a bloodhound’s sense of smell.
The Last JediRogue One
Depictions of the super blind perhaps explain why physical feats are one of the surest ways to get attention, and even have a career, as a blind person these days. When we speak of blind people with super powers, when we have hit television shows and countless articles about the real-life super blind such as Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and Daniel Kish, whose blind mountain bike expeditions helped put human echolocation on the map, we might want some balance with blind people going about the business of ordinary life. The extraordinary feats of the real and imagined super blind tend to obscure the normalcy of most blind people’s lives.
Without quotidian representations, it is very difficult for blind people to have granted to them the same sort of expectations granted to others—expectations that a majority of people have for their lives: a good job, a happy family, and healthy kids with promising futures of their own. How often have you seen or read about a blind character who is also a mother? Or, to put it more strongly, a mother who just happens to be blind?
The dearth of such representations leads to doubts in the minds of our society and unfair pressures on blind parents. And the lack of blind parents in our collective consciousness is perhaps responsible for such nightmares as blind women being confronted by social workers in the hospital just after giving birth. My friend Michelle Kleinberg had just this experience. “I was taken aback,” she said of the moment the social worker waltzed into her room, announced herself as being from Children’s Services, and proceeded to interrogate her about how she planned to care for her new baby: “Did I have anyone to help me? Am I in a good relationship with my husband? And what was my support system? Naïve me, I thought they did this for all the patients not knowing they only did this for patients they were unsure could properly care for their children.”
“Naïve me, I thought they did this for all the patients not knowing they only did this for patients they were unsure could properly care for their children.”
Michelle’s experience of discrimination is not uncommon, and, unfortunately, it is sometimes within the blind community that misleading stereotypes are bolstered. In 2016, Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB), an organization that works to raise huge sums of money for retinal disease research) initiated its #HowEyeSeeIt campaign, which encouraged sighted people to don blindfolds and make videos of themselves doing simple tasks. These videos were no doubt hilarious—people trying to clean their houses blindfolded, care for their children, etc. without using their eyes. While their underlying motivation to get the message out about the urgent need for funding to find cures for some types of blindness is undeniably important (could even benefit me someday), the result was upsetting to many blind people, who felt that it fueled fears of blindness and exacerbated skepticism about the abilities of blind people.
“In particular, suggesting that it is difficult or impossible for blind parents to care for their children is false and irresponsible,” said Mark A. Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in an article challenging #HowEyeSeeIt. “As a blind father of three children who also happens to be married to a blind person, I can say unequivocally that, with nonvisual techniques, we can, and do, capably parent thriving children every day. Yet children have been removed from the custody of blind parents solely because of misconceptions about their ability to care for them, without any actual proof of abuse or neglect, and the #HowEyeSeeIt campaign threatens to worsen this already grave problem.”
If we can be superheroes, we can also be parents. Blindness is not a plot point, but part of our identity.
Part, not whole.
In November 2013, I participated in a performance art piece at the New Museum in New York City. Fruit Machine 2 (named for the British word for slot machine) was created by Xavier Cha, and was performed by blind, deaf, and non-disabled actors, as well as several actors who doubled as interpreters. Although the odd game show-style performance was powered by a random computer selection generator, and the piece basically unscripted, we put quite a bit of rehearsal time into working out Cha’s idea—an elaborate game of telephone across sensory and linguistic differences. During the course of our rehearsals, which probably informed all of us about each other’s abilities and disabilities more than our performance could our audiences, I mentioned how I could easily tell if the actor who was translating the unknown line to me was looking up or down, smiling or frowning. By a simple demonstration of lifting my head and talking, then lowering it and talking, I showed them how unmissable it was if they paid attention to the difference the sound made. In our heightened rehearsal awareness, several of the hearing folk gave little oohs and ahs.
It seems such an obvious thing, once you are blind, to hear smiles and frowns, the direction from which people’s voices come from and if they are turned towards you or away, that the surprise sighted people have at such things is at once amusing and alarming.
So I felt vindicated, excited, and inspired when I read the perceptual psychologist Lawrence Rosenblum’s See What I’m Saying, in which we find the seemingly fantastic feats of the super blind alongside related abilities of the general population, though to a lesser extent, due mainly to lack of incentive and practice. A blind person has more reason to exploit her human echolocation skills than a sighted person, but that does not mean these skills are superpowers. As Rosenblum demonstrates, what we often take as superpowers are really just expansions of what humans do unconsciously all the time: “Our less-conscious brains are absorbing a profusion of sights, sounds, and smells using processes that seem superhuman. While psychologists have long known that our sensory systems can take in information without our awareness, new research is showing that entire perceptual skills are occurring this way. These implicit perceptual abilities are allowing our less-conscious brains to have all the fun.”
I find the idea that all of us have unconscious faculties ready to be exploited very comforting. It challenges the stereotype of the super blind by suggesting that, if given the chance, we can all develop extraordinary powers. This is particularly important for blind people, who are often confronted with outlandish expectations.
As Kleege argues, when sighted people’s low expectations are defied by a singular (as they understand them) blind person “they are compelled to reinvent the ancient myths about compensatory powers, supersensory perception. The sixth sense, second sight, third eye. We are supposed to have both extra-accurate hearing and perfect pitch, more numerous and more acute taste buds, a finer touch, a bloodhound’s sense of smell.”
It’s hard to estimate how often people say things to me like, “Your sense of smell must be so good.” “Your hearing is amazing.” “Do you want to feel my face?” On the other hand, it’s so rare that people ask me what I do for work, that I can sometimes get a little over-excited, like a puppy whose owner’s attention has finally turned back to him after a long conversation with another person. However, when I tell them I’m a writer, they often say, “Good for you,” in a way that suggests, not sarcasm, as it might if it were said to a sighted person, but rather a kind of, “How cute! That’s really neat that a blind person does stuff,” and is often followed by an upper arm pat.
In his memoir Blind, Bela Cipriani tells how, after being violently thrown into the world of the blind and still adjusting to it, he found himself facing the super blind stereotype: “The ‘Super Blind’ make it challenging sometimes for one to mingle with the visual community, because people expect those abilities from the rest of the blind family. At one point, I even had some guy at the bus stop ask me if I could hear his heartbeat.”
Blind people can do amazing things with respect to sighted people’s everyday experience, but so can violinists with respect to non-musicians. As See What I’m Saying indicates, if some people possess talents in music or echolocation, these talents cannot be maintained without constant use and practice. Furthermore, the talents of the gifted do not negate the usefulness of practice for those without natural abilities. One does not need to be a Glenn Gould to be a proficient pianist; one only needs to work at it consistently.
“We all have an onboard sonar system and a type of absolute pitch; and we all can perceive speech from seeing and even touching faces,” writes Rosenblum. “What’s more, we engage many of these skills all day long. What largely distinguishes the expert perceiver from the rest of us is the same thing that gets us from here to Carnegie Hall: practice.”
When I was first venturing out with my white cane, I would sometimes stop at a corner, to feel what that corner felt like without sight, alone, and just armed with my hearing and my prosthetic feeling arm. People would often say, “Do you need help crossing the street?” and I would respond, “Oh, no, thank you. I’m just practicing.”
I never got a reply from that except for maybe a “Huh.” I take from their lack of response that the idea of practicing with a cane is foreign to sighted people. The assumption seems to be that we go blind, are handed a white stick, and either walk into traffic or not, as if the shift is as abrupt as Matt Murdock’s transformation into Daredevil—lose sight, gain super senses, including radar, just like that!I was trapped for a long time—I still am, to some extent—in that way of thinking and it crippled my ability to adapt. As I lost more and more of my vision, I became more and more self-conscious about how bad my mobility skills were. Why can’t I zoom around like the blind kids I used to see at the Lighthouse in NYC? Why did I just walk into that wall? Why, if my hearing is so awesome, can I not perceive where the subway doors are opening? Why am I so scared to venture out by myself?
Because I did not realize, until recently, that all these things come with time and effort, I just told others and myself, “I suck at being blind.” Only after reading countless memoirs, like that by Cipriani, in which I learn how much work he put into getting good at being blind after suddenly losing his sight, and through learning about neuroplasticity from people like Rosenblum, I’m beginning to formulate a new approach with a new slogan: “I’m not super blind, but I’m working on it.”