Answering Questions About Visual Impairment

By Lauren Bishop and Morgan McConnell

We are not visually impaired people who happen to be students; we are students who just happen to also be visually impaired.

As visually impaired students with two very different levels of sight, we are often asked about our experiences. Because the number of visually impaired students on Rollins’ campus is increasing, we hope to explain our perspective. Of course, these are only our personal opinions; other members of the visually impaired community may have disparate views. Still, we thought that it would be beneficial to answer some of the more general questions about visual impairment.

How much can you see?

One day, I was at a costume store, browsing all of the options before Halloween. I looked closely at the different outfits and decorations, barely using my cane as I strolled through the aisles. Anyone watching me would probably realize that I am not completely blind.

“Excuse me,” a middle-aged man said. “I just wanted to let you know that when I first saw you, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that poor girl.’ Then, I realized that it’s a costume. You got me!”

I guess that he noticed my expression.

“Wait,” he stammered. “Are you actually . . .?”

“Visually impaired?” I finished for him. “Yes.”

I was so upset that I had to leave the store.

Visual impairment falls on a spectrum. Some people may still be able to see, while others are completely blind. This means that some of us can see large objects and read with magnification. Meanwhile, others may occasionally run into walls and use braille and screen readers. Likewise, some of us may rely entirely on a mobility cane, while others may alternate between using one depending on the situation. Some people only need their canes in certain lighting. Other times, people may have blind spots that slightly obscure their vision. Some people may have what appears to be perfectly good vision but struggle with depth perception, which requires them to use a cane when going down stairs. In fact, some people carry small identification canes that they use so other people can identify them as visually impaired, even if they do not need the cane for travel.

Another thing that many people do not realize is that the amount of vision a visually impaired person has can vary at any given time. A person can be walking on a sunny day, pass under a tree, and temporarily lose sight because of the rapid change in light. Even streetlights may not be bright enough for someone who is visually impaired to see at night. There may even be good and bad eye days. For instance, if someone still has enough sight to read, that person may experience eyestrain after reading for an extended period of time, resulting in a temporary loss of vision.

With such a wide variety of eye conditions, situations that are easy for one person may cause problems for another; it all varies. Sometimes it can be challenging to articulate why we can see some things and not others, because we do not always understand ourselves.

What is the most difficult part about being a visually impaired student on a college campus?

In terms of academic accommodations, there are few difficulties. Rollins is very accessible, especially when compared to other colleges. The most difficult part about being a visually impaired student is not the schoolwork but the social aspects. While everyone is extremely friendly, you would be surprised how difficult it can be to establish new friendships when you cannot see people’s faces. It always feels like you are surrounded by strangers. On occasion you can have conversations with people and not even know whom you are talking to. There comes a point when it is awkward to ask people for their names, and some people seem to feel uncomfortable when they realize that you do not recognize them. It appears that most sighted people are under the impression that the visually impaired possess supernatural voice recognition abilities. While there are some who have mastered this form of identification, most of us are not so skilled. If you know people who are visually impaired, please say your name when you are speaking to them. It will be much appreciated.

Another issue is that the visual nature of social media makes it difficult to stay connected. Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are not accessible. Thankfully, some social media platforms are improving their accessibility (Facebook now describes pictures to a minimal extent), and this will likely make things easier in the future. However, until this technology is perfected, there will always be a social barrier.

How do you do your schoolwork?

This depends on the degree of vision that the person has. Some people can read with magnification, using either a handheld magnifier, e-book with increased font, large-print texts, or other devices. For example, a CCTV allows the user to increase font size, change color, and scan the page to convert it into audio. People may switch between reading with magnification and using an e-reader based on how long the assignment is. If an assignment is too extensive, reading may fatigue the eyes and take up an unnecessary amount of time. This is when VoiceOver technology, which automatically comes with all Apple devices, and audio books become useful. (If you don’t feel like reading an assignment and have an iPhone, go to Settings → General → Accessibility → VoiceOver. Now, you can do your laundry and your homework at the same time!)

Some individuals may rely on their screen reader 100% of the time. Others may switch between braille and the screen reader depending on the assignment. For math, science, and foreign language, people will use braille if they have the proper materials, including a braille display or braille books. A braille display is like a braille computer screen. There are little pins in the braille display that form the dot combinations. Small holes in the surface of the screen allow the pins to rise. Some e-books are accessible this way, while other books have to be hardcopies.

When it comes to writing, most assignments are typed, because the computer can read the assignment back to you. It also announces which letters you are typing. However, the setup of the keyboard allows you to type based on memory so that you do not need sight to type. (Actually, no one should look at a keyboard when typing.) Students with more sight can handwrite on paper with darker lines or larger spacing for increased writing size. Students may also opt to write with markers or 20/20 pens as opposed to regular pens and pencils, because the thicker lettering is easier to read.

Is it offensive to ask you questions about your visual impairment?

It is not at all offensive to ask questions about visual impairment; if anything, it is preferred. However, it can be difficult for someone who is visually impaired to open up or explain to people what he or she can and cannot see. We don’t want to weigh people down with all the details if they do not want to hear them. However, it is nice to be able to explain to people what it is like to be visually impaired so that they can be more educated on the different kinds of visual impairment. Asking questions allows this conversation to start; just don’t make all of your conversations about their eyesight. People with disabilities are normal people and have a variety of interests. Your relationship with someone who is visually impaired or disabled in any way should go beyond that disability.

How do you feel about people asking you if you need help?

This tends to be a more nuanced issue, and everyone has a slightly different perspective on it. If you see someone who is visually impaired and you genuinely think that he or she needs help, always feel comfortable to politely offer your assistance. People’s willingness to help is always appreciated. Even if help is not actually needed, it is nice to know that people are kind enough to offer. The problem really only occurs when people offer help and then refuse to accept that the visually impaired person does not require assistance. Here’s an example from an experience of mine on campus:

I approached a flight of stairs. As I was about to walk down them, a man stopped me.

“Do you need help going down the stairs?” he asked.

“No thanks. I’m good,” I declined.

“No, let me help you,” he insisted.

“No, really. I’m good.”

“No, no. Here.”

The man then grabbed the arm that I was using to hold my cane. He proceeded to pull me down the stairs, restricting my ability to guide myself. If it were not for the fact that I was already familiar with these steps and had a handrail to hold on to, I would have fallen. The ironic part is that there was actually a ramp only a few feet away.

There’s nothing wrong with offering help, but nobody wants to be grabbed by a strange man and pulled away after saying no. Be polite. Help and respond to us as you would to any able-bodied person that you think may need assistance.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many different ways to experience visual impairment. The most important thing to remember is that disability does not significantly alter the fun that we have on campus. Having a disability is only one small part of a person. We are not visually impaired people who happen to be students; we are students who just happen to also be visually impaired. All students have the same goal in mind, and in this sense, we are not at all different.