How do you see me? Understanding Another Point of View

by Patty Arnold

(Editor's Note: Patty Arnold is a certified vision rehabilitation therapist (CVRT) and certified low vision therapist (CLVT) at the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She has been a professional in the field of blindness and visual impairment since 1984.)

(Author's Note: I've geared what follows to be shared with family and friends of a person with a vision impairment, or as a thought provoker to others. The quotes are based on real conversations with my students.)

"Some of my friends came around for awhile, but now are avoiding me. I think they are uncomfortable because of my vision impairment."
"My friend and I used to go out to eat once a month, but since my vision loss they call and ask what they can do, but never want to come over or go out to eat."
"My husband wants to do everything for me. He's afraid I'll hurt myself, and says I'm too slow. It doesn't seem to matter to him that I'm learning how to adapt and can do a lot for myself."

As a professional in the field of rehabilitation for people who are blind or visually impaired, students sometimes tell me about things that bother them. Mostly they are not looking for pity, but just want to continue to have a fulfilling life, not letting their vision impairment stop them.
Imagine a friend of yours has become blind, with just enough vision to see light and some general shapes. You tell her to let you know if she needs any assistance, and she takes you up on your offer a couple times. Then your friend offers to do something for you, but your first reaction is to think, "Oh, my poor friend is blind and I should do for her ... she needs all the help she can get." Yet something tells you to accept the invitation, like you've done before, and when the time comes you find you enjoy the gift your friend offers.
In "Seize the Day," 1 Cox and Hoover say, "Giving and receiving go hand in hand. While it's true that our motivation for giving should not be to create indebtedness in others, someone who gives all and accepts nothing in return is fulfilling some sacrificial need in his or her personal agenda."
One student shared this story. "I told my friends that I'm having vision problems, and that I'm learning braille and using talking books for my reading. Yesterday there was something shiny on the floor and when the light hit it just right, I was able to tell that there was something there. I didn't know what it was exactly, but I saw it. Now my friend thinks I'm faking, and has told everyone else that. I tried to explain that when the light hits something shiny it becomes more visible, and how if there's a lot of contrast, like something black on a white table, I can see that better than something white on a white table. He still seems to think vision problems are an all-or-none sort of thing. He doesn't seem to understand, because he doesn't see the way I do."
That last statement is particularly revealing. And while there's value in the statement in a literal sense, I think the concept also applies to situations not related to vision loss. If I were at a crowded conference and lightly bumped someone and they yelled, "Don't touch me," I might think, "Why do they come to a crowded place if it bothers them to be touched?" But would I think differently if I found out they loved being around people but had recently developed a condition where even a light touch could cause pain and discomfort? Probably. How often do we focus on our own viewpoint and forget that there are other ways of seeing an event or person? Might a shift in thinking change what we believe, to the advantage of ourselves and others? Maybe there's more to the situation than what seems obvious. And maybe someday you or I will be in a similar situation and need respect and understanding (not pity).
So in summary here's the "vision" and creed I will do my best to live by.
I will:
Give as well as receive.
Be open to perceiving unfamiliar ideas in a different way… through another's eyes.
Accept others, as I would like them to accept me.
Try not to judge people too quickly or harshly.
Do what I can to make some small difference in my little corner of the world.
Remember there are many ways a person can make a positive contribution.
And ...
I will remember there is greater purpose to life than my own problems -- call it a higher power or karma or common sense. Whenever I can, I will connect to that purpose. I may still have to work through some challenges, but if I am just willing to make the effort I will be more fulfilled than if I only perceive things through my limited past experiences.
If you would like specific ideas on how to interact with a blind or visually impaired person, do a search on the Internet for how to interact with a blind person, or in the case of a person who also is deaf or has a hearing impairment, search for how to interact with a deaf-blind person. Everyone is a person first, with their own preferences, so a general rule is if you think the person might need assistance, ask first.

1 Cox, Danny and John Hoover, "Seize the Day; 7 Steps to Achieving the Extraordinary in an Ordinary World," New Jersey, Career Press, 2002.