What is considered a Visual Disability?

Lack of Usable Sight

This is a very emotionally charged question which invariably leads to extremely emotional and irrational answers. In our society to be blind is considered to be inferior. To lack usable sight means that you are one sense short of the basic five senses. Therefore, the reasoning goes, you have less to work with and so you are, obviously, less capable. Regrettably, these days, less capable means less valuable, indeed, inferior; in the same way that a 4 speed car is considered inferior to a 5 speed car. Nobody wants to be inferior so, naturally, almost nobody wants to admit to being blind! Of course, this way of thinking completely misses the vital point that humans can adapt and compensate whereas machines cannot. But we shall discuss this point in more detail later.
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Fear and Fallacy

Despite progress in so many areas of human thinking, beliefs about and attitudes toward people with little or no vision have not changed much since ancient times. Humans fear the dark today, just as they have always feared it, and they also think that to be blind is to live in darkness so they equate the two and fear them both equally. They reason, wrongly, that being "blind" is the same as the experience of the sighted when they are blind-folded or in the dark. Thinking that they are simulating blindness, sighted people turn out the lights at night or put on blind-folds and then try and fail at doing the most basic tasks of life such as finding a door, buttoning a shirt or pouring a glass of milk. Having tried this experiment they confirm the fallacy which they already believed and are quite sure that they now know what it's like to be blind. Because they failed, when they tried to do even the simplest tasks without using their vision, sighted people decide that being blind means being totally incompetent, just as they were themselves with the lights out or wearing a blind-fold. This ridiculous fallacy and resulting fear lives on, despite the fact that there are innumerable examples throughout history up to the present day, of successful and happy blind people, living and working in their communities and achieving in all walks of life.
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Reality and Renaming

Truth and reality appear to have had little effect in dispelling the ancient fear of blindness. This is because facts and logic can only impact what people believe if they are prepared to acknowledge the truth, and confront and challenge their fears with reality. Such confronting of cherished beliefs with hard reality is usually very difficult for most people. Unfortunately, it is much easier to change our reality by renaming something than it is to work on bringing our thinking and feelings into line with what is real, because we then have to deal with that truth. Some examples of this renaming behavior are when people call small lies "white lies" instead of admitting that they are telling a lie no matter how small; or they describe themselves as "shy" instead of admitting that they are afraid of people and the disapproval of others. Or, they say that they are "visually challenged" or have "low vision" instead of accepting that they are blind. These blind people usually avoid certain tasks or experiences because they can't use their vision to do what's required. To do things non visually would shatter their created reality that they aren't blind. So, they choose to miss out, pretending to be a "sighted" person, rather than joining in as a blind person.
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Legal Definition of Blindness

According to U.S. law, if a person's best eye has an acuity of 20/200 or worse and/or if their peripheral vision is less than 20 degrees, then that person is LEGALLY BLIND. This criteria is used to determine eligibility for driver's licenses, disability requirements, and eligibility for special services. So, legally, those whose best eye, with correction, can see at twenty feet what those with normal vision can see at 200 feet, or whose peripheral vision is less than 20 degrees, are legally blind.
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Social Impact

As we have already said, what makes the term "blind" difficult for legally blind people to accept is the widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of the word blind. The problem is not blindness but the perception of it. The public perception of "blind" is the same as helpless, dependent and inferior. Understandably, legally blind people want to avoid being thought of in that way so, they continue to reclassify themselves into subcategories such as partially sighted, high partial, sight impaired, low vision, visually challenged, vision impaired, visually disabled - anything to avoid being called blind. While this array of choices for renaming is comforting to those who do not want to be called "blind", for the general public all these names serve only to confuse the matter. These terms give no indication as to how much a person can use their vision in their daily life so, To say that one is "partially sighted" is to make a statement that says no more than "I have some sight so don't treat me like I'm blind." This statement is meaningless to all but a handful of professionals, such as mobility instructors and teachers, (and even they usually have their own arbitrary notions of how much vision a "partially sighted" person has). If one is "functionally blind" in many situations calling one's self "vision impaired" or "partially sighted" does not clarify anything it confuses the issue. As we've discussed, the fact that someone has a certain amount of vision does not automatically mean that they are more capable than those with less. Further, just how "functional" a person's vision will be in a given situation depends on many factors and the mere possession of some sight is no guarantee that a person will be able to rely on visual methods to get life's jobs done! So, what is the point of insisting that one's possession of some vision, no matter how unusable, is acknowledged? The only point is to prevent people from calling one "blind"! the overall social impact of this approach to dealing with vision loss has been to encourage legally blind people in their reliance on poor vision and to seek refuge from false public perceptions of blindness in vague terminology. Even worse the proliferation of such "anything but blind" terms has reinforced the idea that to be blind is somehow not respectable and that to see, however poorly, is to be more normal and competent than those who are blind. In short it has done far more harm than good.
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Seeing and Not Doing

The practical reality of the wide variation in types and degrees of legal blindness, and the insistence that to use vision - even extremely poor vision - is always a superior approach to doing things, means that many who can still "see" cannot "do" or, at best, "do" very poorly. For example, many people with quite a bit of usable vision are seriously affected by the amount of glare around them and some cannot see at all at night or in bright sun light. Yet, they continue to rely on their vision as their means of getting information and moving safely from one place to another. It isn't surprising then that many people with some vision are much worse at independent travel than many totally blind travelers. They neither see well enough to travel as sighted people nor use the alternative non visual techniques that blind people use. So, they have no viable means of traveling independently and safely. Similarly, many braille readers read much faster, for much longer and in many more situations than a large number of print readers who have some sight but for whom reading print is a constant strain, even when using magnification devices.

These print readers cannot see the print in many circumstances, such as the index cards in a file drawer, a menu with small print and lots of text, documents with poor contrast between print and page color or even when there is simply too much glare in a room.

However, for the braille reader, if there is braille they can read it. If no braille is available then the braille reader has developed the alternative techniques of asking someone to read it to them, listening with careful attention and memorizing what they hear. They will get the information using non visual methods whereas, the person with some vision will struggle on, believing that no sacrifice of quality of life is too much to pay in order to conceal one's functional blindness.

They may get some of the information or they may get none at all.

Thus, it is clear that to see does not equal ability to "do" and not to see does not equal inability to "do"!
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The Power of The False Assumption

Unfortunately, the misconception that "more vision equals more competence and no vision equals incompetence" perpetuates the false assumption that people who can see can also "do", and people who cannot see cannot do. Because it is an assumption based on false logic it seems perfectly reasonable and people, including blind people, don't question it, they accept it as truth! Regrettably, the falseness of an assumption does not reduce its power to influence thinking, decisions and lives and so this insidious assumption continues, largely unchallenged, to affect individuals and society alike. This terrible, ancient falsehood fosters fear, hopelessness, frustration and resignation. The horrible fact that people resign themselves to a total untruth, based on a totally false assumption about the correlation between amount of vision and one's competence in life, is the real tragedy of blindness. The power of this false assumption can only be vanquished by the truth, as blind people assume that they are competent and then live it out in the hope that the sighted will see.
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Acceptance and Alternative Techniques

While it is tempting to pretend that one is not blind, to rename one's condition, and hide in denial and fear of blindness, it is much more useful to accept the term "blind", if one's vision fits the legal definition, and move on. As the old saying goes, if the shoe fits wear it. Having moved passed denial the wonderful experience of finding the best adaptive, non-visual techniques for minimizing the effects of blindness will begin and the age old fears, fallacies and false assumptions will give place to the joy of success, independence and self-determination. With proper training and opportunity blindness is reduced to nothing more than a physical nuisance; not a tragedy, an inconvenience. Literally hundreds of thousands of blind people are living out this truth every day, all over the world.

The members of the American Council of the Blind are ready, willing and able to assist anyone who is blind to leave the trap of tragedy behind them and joyfully embrace the truth of what it means to be blind. To be blind means no more and no less than to be sighted. It means that we each have a life to live and what we make of that life is up to us. Let us not make the mistake of allowing others to decide what it means to be blind or to tell us who is blind and who is not.
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