If I asked you to describe a blind person, you would probably think of the classic stereotype. Either an old person fumbling around their house or on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Hollywood fantasy of a blind superhero with supersonic hearing. But the truth is there is a whole spectrum of visually impaired people. Over 285 million people in the world in fact, a lot of whom are subject to these stereotypes daily.
To tackle these stereotypes and misconceptions–which are often considered taboo by sighted people–I talked to member of the blind community Ross Minor. Ross’ story made news in the US in 2006 when he lost his sight in a tragic shooting. Ross, who is now 20, talked to me about some misconceptions he often experiences and how sighted people often get things wrong about the blind.
“I get a bunch (of misconceptions), I have people talk to me like I’m a baby, like ask my girlfriend what I want at a restaurant. People also assume that I count footsteps for some reason. I could go on and on.”
“The biggest example would be people grabbing me when they’re trying to guide me to something, even if I don’t need guiding in the first place.” This is a recurring theme in a lot of stories from the blind community and something that is understandably frustrating.
One factor which many blind people have identified as a major problem is stereotyping and fantasising blindness in the media. Many films, TV shows and books with blind characters portray blindness in the typical stereotype, either as a helpless soul who has to rely on sighted people to get by or a superhero with superhuman hearing.
In an article posted by the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People), particular criticism is aimed at Netflix series Daredevil, which features a protagonist who has developed superhuman senses due to his blindness. The article argues that the series sets an unhealthy perception of blind people and sets unrealistic expectations and stereotypes.
The article reads: “The fact that this guy is a superhero sums it up: you can’t be independent unless you have some kind of exceptional powers. This also encourages the myth that blind people have super senses.”
Criticism of Netflix from the blind community is a reoccurring theme. In 2015 a petition on Change.org was created to add audio description to the streaming service. Netflix soon reacted to the petition and added the feature to its website, with Daredevil being the first show to get the new feature.
Ross argues that this is not the case for all media and in fact there are titles out there that do get it right. He said: “It really varies from director to director. Some are terribly cliché and aren’t true at all like some of the ones in Hollywood films. Some don’t have clichés, but still are inaccurate; such as a blind person using their cane incorrectly while walking.”
Despite a lot of inaccuracies in the portrayal of blindness in the industry, there have been some strides made for inclusivity amongst the blind community in TV and film. Just recently, sci-fi TV show, Doctor Who featured a blind character, Hanne, who was played by blind actress Ellie Wallwork. Her appearance marked the first time a disabled actor has played a disabled character on the show. Game of Thrones has embraced this as well, with partially blind actor Peter Vaughan, who played blind character Maester Aemon in the TV hit.
Ross praises popular show Avatar, The Last Airbender as one of the shows that gives an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be blind. He said: “The only show I’ve watched where a blind person was portrayed almost perfectly would be Avatar, The Last Airbender. They nailed all the struggles of a blind person; the struggles of being independent from sighted peers, the struggle of not being taken seriously. So much, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the directors had a blind relative.” The show features blind character Toph, who is constantly treated condescendingly in the show due to her blindness.
In my opinion, the perception of blind people in the media is one of the main reasons that many sighted people misunderstand the struggles and perspectives of blind people. Along with the simple fact that most sighted people don’t know any blind people. So, when they do interact with the blind community, they don’t know how to behave.
I believe sighted people need to do to better understand the blind community–is not be afraid to ask. As with any misunderstanding, education and having an open dialog are the most important thing. Whether that’s making the effort to educate yourself on blindness, or having conversations with members in the community, asking useful questions to prevent causing offence.
We are all human at the end of the day; we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. So, next time you see a blind person struggling and you are unsure if they need help. Just ask.