The “not there” effect.

Lester headshotThis is going to be a post that talks about something many sighted people do but don’t want to acknowledge they do. It’s something I am calling the “not there” effect. The “not there” effect is when you are with a blind person and a sighted person talks to you and not the blind person as if somehow lack of sight also means they lack the ability to communicate. It is rooted in the popular misconception that blind people are fragile children and are not equals.

One day talking with my supervisor, she suggested that I pay attention to how others treated my co-workers who were not sighted outside of the Institute.

Ironically that night my fellow interns (all of whom are blind, as noted in previous blogs) and I went to the inner harbor here in Baltimore, Maryland. There was a running joke to make one of the interns fall into the harbor (this came from a previous event which I wasn’t at where one of the interns was close to falling into the water). So of course jokingly they were trying to get that same intern closer to the water, mind you while using canes – meaning they were well aware of their surroundings.

When the intern was fully aware but finally walking near the ledge playing along a woman jumped up and screamed to me (instead of them) they were going to fall in. I looked at her and said they are fine, which she responded with a death stare. I could tell she thought I was allowing my toddlers run around a Walmart unattended, and proceeded to watch them like a hawk with her hand over her heart all without ever talking to them directly.

Personally I knew that the interns would not actually fall into the harbor, but this woman didn’t.  This woman also clearly had a built-in cultural bias, the concept that because a person is blind they are not able to take care of themselves: that somehow they can’t joke, that somehow they can’t hear, or don’t deserve be spoken to. This bias nearly gave her what I can assume was going to be a heart attack. But knowing my co-workers, what they were capable of, and becoming aware of how others treated them, it gave something to me as well: anger– anger at society, and anger at myself.

Of course this is an extreme case of the “Not There” Effect. Still it got me thinking, and as somebody who studies morality, I believe it is my unwritten duty to cultivate the virtue of honesty. So I have to be honest with myself and you my readers, starting this internship I would have been that woman; I would have freaked out, I would have believed on some level that these adults who were joking by the water were helpless, helpless children who needed my help. Would I have addressed them directly?  I like to think that I would have. Still I fast forward 3 weeks and having been around my co-workers I actually cringe thinking of the person I was four weeks ago. Furthermore, as a co-caregiver to my mother who is blind but also has other issues I have been quite ignorant at what she was/could be capable of.

The National Federation of the Blinds mantra is “We know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back” (NFB). The reality is, blindness doesn’t hold anyone back (who doesn’t buy into the rhetoric of low expectations). Blindness is really like having pale skin–sure it can be annoying having to put on sunscreen every 15 mins but it doesn’t have to prevent you from being a fully functioning person and enjoying life.


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