The importance of accessibility and inclusion for vision-impaired people
Blindness is often misunderstood. As the partner of a legally blind person, I must admit it hasn’t always been easy – and not because a lack of vision is an issue. Contrary to popular belief, my partner can still see, just not as well as most. The initial challenges were internal, as I questioned the preconceptions I had about living with a vision impairment… “so… how blind ARE you? Can you see that over there?”
The truth is, my partner doesn’t really need vision to function within daily life like I expected of blind people before I met him. He doesn’t act like the stereotypical blind guy I mistakenly pictured in my head. Hell, he can spot a bad outfit coming a mile off. In fact, while blind people are generally perceived to be less able than sighted people, their contribution to society is no different.
I shied away from asking vision-related questions and learnt to just observe. But it’s so easy forget. If you didn’t know, you honestly wouldn’t notice most of the time. However, having gained first-hand experience of the silent challenges vision-impaired people face, I think they should be cemented within the public’s collective consciousness.
Vision-impaired people, in my experience, don’t like to be reminded of their condition. Especially when they have incredible minds and hearts that a disability should never, under any circumstances, overshadow. It’s like when you’re supposed to wear glasses, people see you squint and say “Oh did you forget your glasses? *maniacal laughter*”. Except after a while, the joke wears thin when there isn’t a Specsavers in the world that stocks your script.
It is important to treat people who live with a vision impairment with the same compassion and respect you would treat anyone else who looks like they may need assistance. You will notice, for example, that I provide detailed photo captions within this article – small things everyone can do to increase accessibility. I’ve wanted to cane (no pun intended) people at the shop who sigh when he needs so much as a little more time.
Just when I was wanting to learn more about living with a vision impairment from other blind people’s perspectives, Molly Burke walked into my life. Figuratively, of course – she was recommended to me on YouTube. The first video I saw of hers was “A Blind Girl Does My Makeup“, and I knew I had to check it out. I’m not one to generally watch makeup tutorials because I have too much stubble and there’s only one Conchita here.
But I pressed play and fell in love with her candid videos and would binge for hours. During one of her videos, I learnt she has a form of macular degeneration called retinitis pigmentosa, which means the cells in her retina gradually break down, causing blindness. Similarly, my partner has Stargardt’s disease – a loss of cells in the retina – though unlike Molly’s, his peripheral vision will remain. Despite there being a spectrum of vision impairment, a study found that the majority of respondents consider all blind people to live in “total darkness”. The same respondents considered blind people helpless and dependent with little to offer society. This is completely untrue, and shows a deep misunderstanding amongst society.
It’s important to understand that there is no known cure for macular degeneration, so those affected must adjust, as hard as it may be. When blind people do not live in supportive communities, this transition is more difficult, as they experience unpleasant situations and tend to avoid socialising.
One thing that struck me about Molly is that she, like my partner, has impeccable fashion sense. She knows what looks great on her, right down to the colour, and she doesn’t need sight for that. She grew up loving fashion and when her vision fully deteriorated at age 14, she turned to YouTube for fashion advice. Her favourite YouTubers would talk so passionately about clothing and makeup, right down to the last detail. Many people would skip over the details ’cause we can all see them, right?
Well no, not everybody can. There are millions of people like Molly who rely on those subtle details, as they enhance the ‘viewing’ experience in ways you cannot imagine. Those vloggers who took the time to talk about what they can see, probably without even realising it, gave Molly and other blind people a sense of inclusion so lacking in a sighted-man’s world.
Molly took the fashion advice onboard, but also began to look to other senses when dressing. For example, how outfits felt texturally, and how they made her feel. She asked for opinions on what colours work well with her skin tone. As she says, she’s a fashionista at heart; going blind didn’t change that, it just changed how she went about expressing it.
Fashion and blindness, the most unlikely pairing for some, can teach us a great deal about the importance of inclusion through accessibility. Things like adding photo descriptions or even reaching out to vision-impaired people can help meaningfully without relying on assumptions. Being blind (or disabled) doesn’t make you unable, but it is our responsibility within the community to make things more accessible and inclusive for every individual without judgement. Imagine Molly had not found this sense of inclusion. Without speculating, I imagine the barriers to continue to fulfil her passion for fashion would have felt far greater.
Indeed times, along with the public’s misconceptions, are hopefully changing. The 2012 London Paralympics was the first to receive 500 hours of prime-time coverage on British television, allowing disabled people to tell their own stories and challenge the notion of disability. 2016 received even greater coverage. However, while it is a positive sign, we seem to be genetically-engineered to idolise sportspeople who appear to defy nature, able-bodied or not. The sizeable difference will be made away from our TV screens. We need to listen to vision-impaired people within our community and actively try to understand their challenges; it could make someone’s day and even change their life.
I would like to acknowledge my fantastic partner who inspired this article and instilled my drive to change perceptions of blindness and fight for accessibility. Despite those who didn’t believe in him, he managed to complete a double-degree with Distinction, enrol in Honours, and has an amazing future ahead. And also, thank you to Coco who informed me of a Reddit page where volunteers are able to transcribe material for disabled individuals who would otherwise be unable to access such content – this is an excellent resource for people who want to do their bit to help. There is also Be My Eyes, an app that links blind people with sighted individuals, who they can call upon when needed, using mobile phone cameras.