A new social change movement has been created to help dispel the misinformation surrounding the capabilities and limitations of those who are blind or have low vision, and to help sighted individuals learn how to interact with individuals with blindness or low vision. BlindNewWorld, sponsored by the Perkins School for the Blind, aims to improve inclusion of the blind population in society by helping the sighted world become more understanding of and comfortable with blindness.
BlindNewWorld is the brainchild of Corinne Grousbeck, chair of the Perkins Board of Trustees whose son, now an adult, is blind and attended Perkins School for the Blind. "The idea struck me when my son was very young. When he was first diagnosed, I was not familiar with raising a blind child; everything I experienced with him was just new," explains Grousbeck. "The idea came to me when I wished that I could do a very broad awareness campaign to get everybody to be open-minded around people who are blind. It has been a lifetime idea." To make this idea come to fruition, Grousbeck sought out a consulting company that could support the vision, eventually banding together with Brightmark Consulting, and together, they began to hone in on her mission.
The result of their efforts is an interactive and engaging website that combines real-life stories about experiences of blind and low-vision individuals with interactive features. Such features include a quiz to test whether users carry fear, bias, or pity towards individuals with blindness or low vision, as well as two PSAs, directed by award-winning director Tom DeCerchio, that challenge viewers to think critically about their perceptions of blindness and low vision. To Grousbeck, the PSAs are one of the most exciting features because they really compel people to think about how they would interact with an individual who is blind or has low vision. "These videos...get people to be introspective. They make you take a look at your own values, and think about things like 'would I go talk to the person who is blind when I go to a party?'"
BlindNewWorld PSA "The Get Together"
For Perkins School for the Blind, which is sponsoring BlindNewWorld, the choice to support the campaign was organic. "BlindNewWorld is very relevant to the work of Perkins....so we're sponsors and provide in-kind support," explains Dave Power, the CEO of Perkins School for the Blind, who has a son who is deafblind. "But the main reason to support this is because the transition to adult living is one of the problems we need to solve to make the education we give pay off. There are so many things that kids who are vision impaired need to know to be successful, which is what makes Perkins School unique and creates a special role for the work we do."
Statistics on Perceptions of Blindness Show Fear, Pity
The work of BlindNewWorld is grounded in a study run by Perkins to truly understand the root of the discomfort sighted individuals feel when interacting (or avoiding interaction) with blind individuals. Among the most shocking findings was the fact that 80 percent of respondents felt pity for those who are blind or have low vision, and even more astoundingly, 46 percent of respondents could not think of a condition to have worse than blindness, even including terminal conditions and conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. How could people truly think that it is better to have terminal cancer than live as a blind person?
To Grousbeck and Power, the root of this response comes from the fact that sighted individuals have no idea what it is like to be blind, so their response is informed by their own perceptions and emotions. Power explains: "these ideas come out of fictional depictions of blindness or from just imagining being blind without really having information about what people who are blind actually do. People who are blind from birth have big ambitions, and unless you've met one of these people, you can't imagine yourself in the situation where you [encounter] barriers, but also have goals." He continued, "a lot of people lose their sight later in life from an accident or disease, and it's hard, but they transform themselves. If you don't have exposure to these people, you might not want to be alive [if you're thinking about what it is like to be blind]; you're not aware of the life you can lead, and the things you can do with lack of vision."
Kate Katulak knows about this firsthand. A teacher at Perkins School for the Blind and a blind woman herself, she owns her identity. "I am blind, and I own that because it is an integral part of who I am." While she isn't surprised by the statistics found in the study, she continues to be surprised at the fear sighted individuals have toward blindness. "I've heard similar statistics before, but when I read the study it just hurt," says Katulak. "It's a sad reminder of how many people are afraid, and it shocks me in a different way every time I hear the words. [I could expect] that people are nervous or unsure, but it never ceases to amaze me that people experience fear when they think about being blind." For Katulak and many other people with blindness and low-vision, the negative perceptions of blindness held by sighted individuals manifest themselves in four specific attitudes pinpointed by Perkins' study: discomfort, stigma, pity, and fear.
The Perkins study gives the following statistics on the four barriers of discomfort, stigma, pity, and fear:
- 53 percent of sighted people say they are not comfortable around people who are blind.
- Only 28 percent of sighted people surveyed thought that a blind person could do [the respondent's] job.
- 80 percent of sighted people surveyed felt pity for the blind.
- 74 percent of sighted people surveyed didn't think they could be happy if they lost their vision.
Grousbeck was particularly shocked by the pity statistic. "80 percent [feeling] pity is disempowering....over half of the respondents said they were uncomfortable with the blind." To Grousbeck, there are serious implications for these statistics in terms of employment. "If somebody gets through all of the hurdles to get a job, if half of the people in that company feel uncomfortable, the blind person will not be included, and they will be marginalized from the culture of the company."
In fact, the implications for employment seemed to be the most serious concern for Grousbeck, Power, and Katulak, and for good reason. Katulak explains: "unemployment among the blind is incredibly high, which tells me that hiring managers need to perceive blindness in different ways. They need to be made more comfortable around the blind and need to be made aware of our abilities. What are the actual limitations to being blind?" She continued to explain that hiring managers' ideas about the capabilities and limitations of the blind most likely come from their own thoughts of what they think they would be able to do if they were blind. She says, "when you are actually blind, it is very different than if you just close your eyes and try to do something."
Grousbeck indicated that there is a disconnect between what employers think about the capabilities of the blind and what blind people can actually do in today's work environment. "People who are blind are already limited in opportunities," she said, as she explained that she recently worked at a startup in which the many millennial workers were dependent on email to communicate with their coworkers. "Every single millennial at the startup was attached to headphones, and emailed the person next to them if they needed to get their attention. This kind of environment is perfect for blind individuals! Today's workplace is completely navigable for the blind."
For Power, promoting the work of BlindNewWorld fits in with Perkins' other employment-related efforts. "We have taken on the initiative to get employers to reduce barriers to employment by creating the Perkins Business Partnership, a coalition in the Boston area that has been doing some groundbreaking work," he explains. "But more work needs to be done, because the world is not ready for kids who are blind." BlindNewWorld is a social change campaign, which is why for us at Perkins it is a real important part of the mix of education, employer training, and social change."
BlindNewWorld "Presents us as Equals"
BlindNewWorld seeks to engage users by challenging their current perceptions of individuals who are blind or have low vision, provide tips on how to interact with the blind population, and showcase stories from the perspective of blind individuals on what it is truly like to be blind. The features of the site make Katulak feel "cautiously optimistic" that BlindNewWorld will change sighted individuals' perceptions of blindness. "I'm hoping that the campaign leads to higher employment, better social lives, fewer awkward moments, and general equality," she explains. "I like that people can take the quiz and think about their behavior and thoughts [toward the blind]. People who are blind and visually impaired are having their stories told, featuring their normal lives." Katulak has already received feedback from people who seemed surprised by how much blind individuals blend in: "several people who went to the website said that there are so many pictures [and stories] of people, that they can't tell who is blind or who has vision....[blind individuals] are doing equally adventurous things, living normal lives. It presents us as equals."
For the many people who may not know how to interact with the blind because they have never met someone who is blind or has low vision, the site not only gives them insight into life with blindness, but also gives them tips on how to interact. The tip page includes advice for different environments and scenarios, such as at work or in a social situation. "Most people are uncomfortable around someone who's blind because they've never experienced it," says Power. "There's some basic etiquette that isn't rocket science, but you wouldn't know. The site gives general exposure to people who are blind, and offers some education on how to be comfortable around people who are blind."
Grousbeck hopes that this will encourage more people to feel comfortable with starting a conversation with someone who is blind. She notes that like anybody else, the personalities of people who are blind vary widely, but there are many blind individuals who are waiting to engage. "Obviously, it is more difficult to start a conversation when you're blind [because you cannot know who is in the room, if they are not speaking]. But when you do [start a conversation], it's worth the effort." She continues, "my advice is to introduce yourself and be attentive with empathy. If something is dangerous to you [that they cannot see], say something to the blind person. Don't be afraid...there's a big hurdle to engaging people who are blind. We have to lower the barrier and make people feel comfortable."
Education and Empowerment
Katulak, Grousbeck, and Power all hope that BlindNewWorld will not only educate the sighted public on the blind community, but that it will start to impact blind acceptance in tangible ways. To Power, the site would be a success if there is an increase in experiences in which the blind are accepted: "I would like to see anecdotes or examples of people going a little out of their way to reach out to individuals who are blind or visually impaired." They all expressed a hope that the site would particularly impact employment as well, and as Power says, to "really have the sense that employers and communities have a higher level of comfort and welcoming to people who are blind." Katulak agrees: "it would be a success [if there is an increase] in the number of people who are blind getting more jobs, in anecdotes we hear from people who are blind...in terms of social life and employment, and if there are more experiences of happiness and successful moments where we are seen as normal."
However, while this site is very much geared toward helping sighted individuals understand blindness and the blind population, it is also devoted toward showcasing the capabilities of blind individuals, as well as empowering them to advocate for themselves. Grousbeck explains that she hopes "this site is a platform for the blind for self-advocacy, that they can use the site and hashtag, and upload information and videos about the lives they lead to get the awareness going." By engaging blind users to educate and sighted users to connect, BlindNewWorld can begin to change the general assumptions and dispel the stereotypes that surround blindness and low vision, and begin to show that individuals with blindness and low vision can be just as capable as anybody else.
Katulak explains that this may not just have an impact on how sighted individuals see blindness, but on how many blind individuals see themselves: "I know there are many people who are blind who sit at home or don't pursue interests because they don't think they can. I hope BlindNewWorld gets more individuals with visual impairment to go out and try new things, not just by seeing that there are lots of people in the world who are blind who are doing amazing things, but by seeing that there are blind people doing perfectly average things. We're all over the spectrum."
BlindNewWorld PSA "The Drive"
Download the Full Perkins School for the Blind Report: "America's Blind Spot: What's Preventing us from Including those who are Blind in Our Sighted World?"