Blindness 101

A single finger resting on a line of braille.

A single finger resting on a line of braille.

By: Kit Englard

Welcome to another “Short introduction to…” page here on Femme de Chem. This time I will be covering the topic of being blind and visually impaired. But first thing we need to do is nail down is our terminology. What does blind mean?

There is a legal definition of blindness that is called “Legal Blindness”, you’ll hear me refer to myself this way. The American Foundation for the Blind has a list of definitions available for a quick review, but legal blindness means that someone has 20/200 vision. More plainly this means that what a normal person sees at 200 feet away, someone who is legally blind needs to be 20 feet away to see the exact same thing. This definition also stipulates that this is the BEST CORRECTED in the better eye. People tell me all the time that “Oh, I’m legally blind then!” when what they mean is that “Without correction my vision is 20/200”. If you are corrected to 20/20, or near 20/20, you aren’t legally blind.

A second definition of legal blindness depends on visual field. The average human eye has a visual field range of 155 degrees but someone who is legally blind under the visual field definition has a field of 25 degrees. This has  some interesting consequences, because it is possible for someone to be legally blind and be able to read small print or read the small captions on a TV.

Statistically, very few people who are legally blind are totally blind. Most people you will meet (including me) have some remaining vision, but the usefulness of that vision varies greatly. The National Federation for the Blind has compiled statistics that breakdown the legally blind community. Something that often surprises people are the number of people who are braille readers. Only 8.64 percent of readers use braille as a primary reading medium. Conversely, 30.95 percent are print readers. This does not break down who is using large print versus small type, but it gets the point across.

This is important because there is a misconception that if someone is using a guide dog or cane then it’s impossible for them to read. Once, while I was on a bus I was minding my own business looking at my phone trying to decide which music I wanted to listen to. Someone started to yell at me about how I was faking my disability and was trying to get free services I didn’t deserve. This person went on to take a photograph of me, and this escalated to a point that he had to be escorted off the bus. While this was a more extreme incident, this sort of thing happens to people all the time.  

So what is the deal with canes and dogs? Canes are excellent mobility tools, and are certainly not inferior to guide dogs.  Everyone who goes through Orientation and Mobility training learns how to use a cane first. I think the most frequently asked question I get from people who have a loved one who is losing their sight is “How do I go about getting a dog” and I have to explain that the dog is actually for an advanced traveler, not a novice. Every single person who has a guide dog was, at one point in time, excellent with a cane. Though unfortunately, many people who eventually get a dog eventually let their cane skills lapse. This is not my philosophy, I periodically need to leave my dog at home for cultural reasons (one day an article will appear about this topic) so I maintain good cane skills.

The number of people who use a dog, according to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, is about 2 percent of the total blind population. “But why do I see them so frequently!” I hear from the comment section. To you I say, you probably live in a city, but also in order to get a guide dog you tend to have a certain type of personality. You tend to be a traveler, outgoing, and have decent health.  Guide dog schools are very specific in what they are looking for, and I recommend you look at my Resources page to look at the links to guide dog schools to review their requirements.

There is no one single blind experience. Statistically most of the blind population is older, the prevalence in the total US population was 6.7 percent in those over the age of 65 while only 1.9 percent for those 18-64. Consequently, there is a massive range of needs. An 18-year-old just starting out his adult life does not need the same thing as a retired 79-year-old, and as a whole we’re not the best getting both ends of the spectrum. Even inside the age brackets there is a large range of needs. Some young people want to head to college, others need adult transition programs, and others want to head straight to work.

What is important is the little statistic about income: $35,000 is the median income a year and 30.5 percent of people who are legally blind are living below the poverty line. In 2014, 17 percent of people were uninsured, and there was a 60 percent unemployment rate.

These are a few of the institutional problems being faced by the community, and there are many groups working toward helping to resolve these issues but as the statistics above show, we are a long way away from having solutions.

So there it is: whether you use a guide dog or cane, read braille or print, are a globe trotter or live in a quiet town in Wisconsin, young and old. This is a snapshot of the blind community.