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Twelve myths about blindness

By Rob & Catherine Davies

  1. Blind people have no sight at all
  2. Blind people have improved hearing or touch
  3. Braille is used by most blind people
  4. Blind people cannot use computers
  5. Guide dogs are used by all blind people
  6. Guide dogs can take blind people anywhere
  7. A blind person will recognise your voice
  8. People with limited vision can use large-print books
  9. Blind people lead difficult & dangerous lives
  10. Blind people cannot live on their own
  11. Blind people do not enjoy TV or theatre
  12. All blind people are super-saints

1. Blind people have no sight at all

In the United Kingdom, about one million people are either registered blind or partially sighted. Out of these, 4% have no light perception, 10% can only see hand movements and 86% have degrees of useful vision in ideal conditions. There are about 200,000 people on blind registers and there are around 800,000 registered as partially sighted.

There are less than 40,000 people who are regarded as totally blind in the UK. The majority of the 200,000 on the blind registers have retained very small degrees of remaining sight. Among these are those who can only see the difference between night and day. There are others who see a vague blur; as if they are looking through frosted glass. Another group has no central vision and there are some who have lost their side vision. It is possible for some registered blind people to have enough sight to read an adapted computer screen but not enough to safely cross a road.

2. Blind people have improved hearing or touch

There is no truth in the widely held belief, that blind or partially sighted people are somehow endowed with a better sense of hearing, touch or scent. They have similar senses to everyone else, except that they have serious sight loss. Many face further difficulties due to hearing loss, poor touch, or inadequate scent or taste; especially if they are older in years.

Sadly, there is no acquired sixth sense which helps visually impaired people overcome their sight loss. However, many of them have been able to improve their circumstances by learning to become sensitive listeners or by making the best of limited training and resources.

3. Braille is used by most blind people

Out of the two million known visually impaired people in the United Kingdom, there are about 20,000 fluent Braille readers. Many others use Braille in a limited way, to label items or to make simple notes. To be able to read Braille, it is necessary to have good touch sensitivity. Many blind or partially sighted people lack the sensitivity needed. This is especially true of older people who often use large print or recorded tapes as an alternative. Braille is vital to those who are both blind and deaf. A small number of older people use Moon instead of Braille. Moon is simpler to learn, because its tactile curves and lines are easier to feel than Braille dots.

4. Blind people cannot use computers

An increasing number of visually impaired people use computers, either at work, educational establishments or in the home. Some use large text or modified colour displays. Others use audio screen readers and a further group have electronic Braille displays. Many blind and partially sighted people have access to specialist software which enables them to use standard office programs, browse the Internet and communicate by email. This web page is written by someone who is registered blind and the visually impaired Echurch-UK members communicate with each other by email.

5. Guide dogs are used by all blind people

There are slightly less than 5,000 guide dog users in the United Kingdom and there are up to 200.000 people who are registered blind. Whilst these valuable dogs are able to considerably improve the independence of their owners, they are not always the right solution for everyone. Looking after a trained guide dog takes extra time and effort and not everyone likes dogs.

6. Guide dogs can take blind people anywhere

Guide dogs work within simple limitations. Generally speaking, they are only useful if their visually impaired users have a good mental map of each journey being undertaken. Established routes are worked out in advance with the help of guide dog professionals. A guide dog has been trained to safely lead someone along a length of pavement and to sit down at the next kerb. It will also stop if there is a hole in the pavement or if there is an obstacle on the path. In each case, it will await further instructions from its handler. The handler must know the route well enough to instruct the animal on where to go next. A guide dog is not able to take a blind person across a busy road. A dog does not have the ability to make such complicated decisions.

7. A blind person will recognise your voice

Some people have very distinctive voices, but most do not. You will have noticed this when using a telephone. It is more difficult to recognise people by voice when walking outside or in a busy room. Blind people are no different from everyone else; except that they are unable to see that someone is speaking to them.

When you meet a visually impaired person, introduce yourself by name. If you know their name use it, then they will know that you are speaking to them and not someone else. This is particularly important if there are other people within the vicinity. To further attract their attention, gently touch their upper arm with your hand. When you are leaving, say you are going away. Nobody likes to find that they have been speaking to an empty space!

8. People with limited vision can use large-print books

Large print is a great help to many of those who have limited sight. But some visually impaired people may be able to find their way around a room quite well, but not be able to read large print. They may have lost a major part of their central vision or find difficulty in dealing with the glare of white paper. If this is the case, they may appreciate having important items read to them by someone who can see, or to be given a recorded tape message, or a Braille or email version of an item of news or literature.

9. Blind people lead difficult & dangerous lives

This is only partly true. The biggest danger is from the unconsidered actions of sighted people. These include obstacles being left on pathways, like bicycles. It is common to find vehicles parked on footpaths and even on pedestrian crossings. Most visually impaired people use a mixture of common sense and mobility training to improve their independence in the community and at home. Blind and partially sighted people now participate in a wider range of sport and recreation, and have a good record of safety.

10. Blind people cannot live on their own

Many visually impaired people live on their own, either by choice or circumstances. Some of them have full time jobs or have children of their own. They may receive some sighted help, but will do most things by themselves. There are a range of items to assist them in safely preparing food and doing their household chores or gardens. Most major supermarkets have trained staff who are able to assist blind and partially sighted people with their shopping.

11. Blind people do not enjoy TV or theatre

Not true. Some blind and partially sighted people can see quite a bit of a television picture. It depends on the usefulness of any remaining sight. Even if they have none, many programmes provide enough information, through the spoken word, to make sense of what is happening. Some stations offer audio description with an increasing number of programs. Deaf blind people are now able to access Teletext using an electronic Braille pad.

Theatre is a social experience as well as a show. Looking forward to going out with friends is often part of the enjoyment. As with television, the spoken and sung words often contain enough information to support the story. Many theatres and cinemas provide audio description facilities for blind people. This gives a descriptive narrative of scenery and costume.

Museums, art galleries and stately homes increasingly provide audio commentaries, Braille booklets or tactile displays to make a visit to their premises of equal interest to visually impaired people.

12. All blind people are super-saints

Visually impaired people do not have a special gift of patience and tolerance. Nor are they exceptionally religious. Like anyone else, there are times when they feel depressed, frightened, get angry or frustrated with their circumstances. Some struggle with deep spiritual questions, relating to their blindness or their self-worth. Quite a few trust in God and derive much comfort from their faith. Even so, they would not claim to be super-saints, but just ordinary people trying to get the best out of life.

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