10 Common Questions About Blindness

Loss of vision need not prevent people from leading productive, independent lives. It does, however, require different ways of doing things such as written communication, travel, and daily activities. Blindness may mean total lack of sight or partial vision loss. Many people with a visual impairment have enough useful sight to be able to read materials in large print or with magnifying devices.

As more people interact at work and in the community with individuals who are blind, they are asking questions about blindness. Here are answers to some common questions about blindness.

1. What is legal blindness?
Legal blindness is the reduction of vision to 10 percent of normal. Either the visual field (area of vision) is less than 20 degrees (extreme tunnel vision), or visual acuity (sharpness of vision) is 20/200 or worse in the better-seeing eye with corrective lenses. People with 20/200 vision must be at 20 feet to see objects that someone with normal vision can see at 200 feet. They can read only the big “E” on an eye chart. Only 15 percent of people who are legally blind are totally blind.

2. As vision fails, do the other senses become keener?
The senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch don’t improve when sight is lost. But people who have lost vision learn to concentrate and listen better and to pay more attention to information gained from their other senses.

3. How do people who are blind get around safely?
In places where visually impaired people spend a lot of time, they usually move around by memory. On less familiar paths, most people who are visually impaired use a white cane to search for obstacles. Some may have a guide dog, which alerts them to holes, curbs, cars, and so on. Some people with a visual impairment like to travel to new places by themselves; others prefer to have a friend come along for the first trip. When traveling alone on public transportation to a new place, a person who is blind may ask the driver, conductor, or another passenger to announce his or her stop. People who are blind can receive mobility training which teaches them how to travel safely and independently, use a white cane or guide dog, ride public transportation, etc. This training is available from public or private rehabilitation agencies and schools.

4. Should I offer to help a person who is blind? How?
If you see a visually impaired person who seems misdirected, ask if you can help. If you cannot get that person’s attention because there are many people around, lightly touch his or her arm or shoulder and then repeat your request. Don’t try to assist a person who is blind without first asking permission unless it is an emergency. If the person asks you to guide him or her somewhere, offer your arm. The person will take your arm above the elbow, walk a half-step behind you and follow your movements. You should alert your companion to any obstacles in the way. This method of travel is called sighted guide.

5. Is it ok to pet a guide dog?
Don’t touch a guide dog while it is wearing a harness. A guide dog is working and its job is to be attentive to its owner’s commands and safety. Your touch may confuse the animal or distract it from doing its job. If you know the owner, ask when you may pet the dog.

6. How should I help someone who is blind while we are eating?
To assist with seating, orient the person by placing his or her hand on the back of the chair. Note the location of the salt and pepper shakers, water glass, and other table items if necessary. Offer to help with anything that may pose a problem, such as buttering bread and cutting meat. If you are unsure whether to help, just ask. In a restaurant, offer to read the menu. Sometimes a waiter or waitress will ask you questions that should be directed to your companion. If this happens, direct the question back to your companion.

7. How should I speak to someone who is blind?
Speak as you would to anyone else. There is no need to speak louder unless the person is hearing impaired. Do no avoid words such as look and see — people who are blind use these words and do not find them offensive.

8. Should I identify myself when I see an acquaintance who is blind?
Identify yourself if your acquaintance does not yet recognize your voice. A coworker who is blind may recognize your voice in the workplace but may not if you meet unexpectedly outside of work. You should announce when you or someone else enters or leaves the room.

9. How do people who are blind pick out clothes that match?
There are several systems for coordinating wardrobes. These include wearing only neutral-colored skirts or pants that will match any color top, and having a friend help organize closets and drawers so that matching items are kept together. Another way is to sew braille tags into clothing. (Braille uses an alphabet of raised dots in patterns and is read by fingertip.)

10. How do visually impaired people distinguish between different denominations of money?
Coins are easy to separate because of varying sizes, thicknesses and edges. To distinguish bills, blind people may fold different denominations in different ways or place them in separate wallet sections. They also often announce the value of a bill so a sales clerk or another customer can tell them if they have the wrong bill. As of January 2016, persons who are blind or vision impaired can apply for a free U.S. currency reader.

The answers to these questions do not speak for all people who are blind. People without sight develop their own methods of working around their vision loss. Although blindness poses new challenges, many people consider blindness an inconvenience, not a disability. Offering assistance when it seems to be needed is never a mistake. However, ask before assisting, unless the blind person is in immediate danger.

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