The Shaming of Low Vision

Large print on a tablet device (Photo by Richard Orme)
Magnified reading device.

Recently I attended a convention directed toward blind people, in various stages of their lives. I sat next to a women while we were listening to a presentation from a young lady who is blind, but also has low vision. As she gave her well thought-out and planned speech, the woman next to me leaned over and said, “I hate how she is holding her paper so close to her face, she really shouldn’t be allowed to speak at such an event, only braille readers should be able to.” This statement caught my attention and really got me thinking. I, myself, am a braille reader, who also uses my low vision to read print at times. Braille is my first choice but I’m slow at it, I am not up to a reading speed that is sufficient for giving a speech that wouldn’t drive people nuts. For many year now, I have felt a lot of shame in this.

Recently I was asked to speak at a conference. I wrote my speech notes, in braille, and practiced for hours (my husband can attest to this). The day of my speech came and as I practiced I felt slow, I fumbled around, I lost my place a few time, my hands would shake…I just couldn’t follow my notes. I felt like what I wanted to say was important, worth sharing, and in the last minutes before presenting, I opted to use my iPad in large print. I started sobbing as I sat on the podium, waiting for my turn to present. I was so ASHAMED that at a blind conference, for an organization that promotes the use of braille so heavily, I was about to read my speech in print!

I choked back tears as I presented, still so ashamed to be up there. It was a hard experience for me and one I’ve thought about many times since.

Why did I feel so much shame? Why do some shame those who do us their low vision? Why is it so shameful to read large print?

First off, if you know me at all, you know I am enormous fan, and major advocate for the use of braille. I believe with all my being that all blind and low vision kids should learn it. I will go to my grave advocating for this. However, there are many like me, who were not fortunate enough to learn braille as a child, who were told we would be better off reading large print. I didn’t learn braille until I was 23 years old, well past the prime time to learn it. My story is the same as many, the majority really. I am thrilled I learned braille and I use it often, it has saved me in many situations. But I have read large print my entire life, it’s what I know, it’s my natural instinct, it’s how I learned to read.

It bothers me that I feel ashamed when I use my vision, whether it’s reading print or seeing something that my other blind friends can’t. I’m been told before, by dear friends, I just couldn’t possibly understand how hard it is to be truly blind, because I have some vision. Whether people realize this or not, it’s hurtful. When us low vision-ers feel like we struggle to fit in, to the sighted world or the blind world, and then comments like this are made…it makes things a lot harder for us. I’m not asking anyone to feel bad for us, but to understand that we struggle to fit in, we struggle to know where we belong and when we are shamed for using our vision, it’s hurtful.

Perhaps we need to all stop and take people for where they’re at, stop the shaming of those with low vision, encourage everyone to learn braille, but accept people where they are at. There needs to be a change in attitude; blindness encompassed a lot of people, at varying degrees of vision, and various reading mediums.

The lucky ones that know braille should be admired, and those who do not should be encouraged.

To shame someone for using their vision is discouraging and disheartening. Sure, we should always encouraged those around us to use non-visual techniques, that will make their lives better, but we also must love and accept those who are still on their journey.

It’s not shameful to have vision, it’s not shameful to be in the midst of your journey and it’s certainly not shameful to have some vision. Braille is wonderful, the best really, and no matter the amount of vision, everyone should learn it and use it whenever possible. Be encouraging and empowering, not hurtful and discouraging.


crazymusician said...

I completely agree with your premise, but also have experienced some of the flip side. I don't fit in with most people who are totally blind, though I have little to no usable vision... but I find that many people with low vision just don't want to take the time to explain things to me in a way that I can understand. While I do agree with your point, I have received my own share of arrows from those with low vision (not regarding literacy, but other things).

Sean Randall said...

I had a very interesting experience recently and see some parallels, so forgive a little waffle. I am a totally blind Braille and screen reader user, and I provide IT and AT support (i.e. computers and various assistive technologies) to students with visual impairments at a school in the UK where the majority of them live whilst studying. A new arrival to our college (the students age from 11 to 19 years of age) has some useful vision and he came to me to improve his JAWS skills.

One of the things he had been doing, which annoyed some of his teachers, was enlarging documents he was sent before working with them. This meant that JAWS struggled to track as effectively, line spacing and pagination was thrown off and it generally took him a lot longer to progress through a document than his peers, who either relied entirely on speech or on an established font size. Had we not worked on it together I feelthat he would have been told to stop using his vision for such a task and to rely entirely on the speech output.

we've been working on this for a while now and it appears that he raises the size of the print when he can't make out what JAWS is trying to say, and so having it in huge (we're talking over 80 points) type means he can look at it as well as hear it. The strategy he now employs is just to increase a sentence or few words at a time, the problem areas, and he seems to feel that as his familiarity with the synthesizer increases he'll need to do this less often.

It was interesting to me, as someone without any vision at all, how effective this approach was and I was puzzled that other people who could see hadn't mentioned it. I don't think he's yet on a par with his classmates, but he is also new to the screen reader and a laptop, so that's not unexpected. The point is, I feel, the time he spends fiddling with his work rather than doing it has shown a marked decrease, and he is in control of how much he uses his vision and how much he relies on the speech.

I just wanted to bring it up, as it's a recent example that's happened to me in the workplace. I do struggle, as a teacher, with some students who rely on their eyes a lot more than their ears, but this was one fortunate situation where I was able to be of use.

Alicia said...

Good article. i'll admit, I've been guilty of this. I've been totally blind all my life, and therefore have no understanding what it's like to be someone with low-vision. I think some of the hostility comes because we know the sighted public doesn't consider most low-vision people "broken," as they do those with no vision. Many blind people dealt with the hierarchy of vision present in many schools for the blind, and it engenders this anti-low vision stance. But whatever the reason, it's not right, and it shouldn't happen. Only after hurting my very best friend several times by such shaming did I become conscious of doing it, and I have endeavored to stop it, both where it concerns my friend or anyone else with low vision. I'm glad you wrote about this.

Unknown said...

Excellent article, Deja! It can be so hurtful when we tear one another down. Building each other up is so much more fun (though it takes a bit more work at first).
Your post also brought to mind an issue my blind (low vision) daughter faces -- her dyslexia. Though she had the opportunity to learn braille early on, she remains a slow reader (both in print and in braille). She knows both codes. However, her dyslexia prevents efficient decoding. She (and I) have long felt disapproval from others (whether or not they meant us to feel it).
She still reads, but most of her content comes through audio. It's not what any of us prefer, but she needs it -- and with the audio content, she is now finally on her school's Honor Roll.
Please let us all practice THINKing before we speak:
T: Is is True?
H: Is it Helpful?
I - Is it Inspiring?
N - Is it Necessary?
K - Is it Kind?

Thank you again, Deja, for an EXCELLENT blog post!

Unknown said...

The problem is that teachers of the blind and visually impaired shame children into using what little vision they do have. They want these children to use this little bit of vision in place of teaching them braille. Putting your face 5 inches from the paper in unacceptable for reading. If we accept these standards within the blind community then it spreads to the schools and teachers A use it against teaching braille. Too many kids are shamed into being so called blind by using braille or a cane.
Using what little sight they may have left leaves them at risk of waiting to late to learn braille.

Miss Deja said...

Hey Vickie,
I just want to clarify that I am 100%, without question FOR BRAILLE. I think, EVERY SINGLE child who is blind or visually impaired, SHOULD be taught braille, not question about it...and every TVI or TBS should be teaching it! I also think that we must education parents of blind children, to stand strong to ensure their child is taught braille. I also do think it's unacceptable, to put a page very close to your face. It doesn't make for the best public speaking or positive self image. I tried to make it clear, in my post, that I am 100% for braille. I was simply trying to share that we need to stop shaming ourselves, and others, when we are all not proficient braille readers, 90% of us who didn't learn braille as kids. I hoped this post would suggest that we can avoid this problem altogether by teaching braille early on. I'm sorry if it came across any different. Thanks for your comments.

Emily said...


I had commented on Facebook about this. However, today I was rereading The Nature of Independence and this quote caught my eye.

"We absolutely must not become so rigid and dogmatic about the means and precise details of achieving independence that we make ourselves and everybody else around us miserable. Down that road lies bigotry, as well as the loss of any real independence or true normality."
-Dr. Jernigan

I immediately thought of you and this post. Emily

Anonymous said...

The complicating factor in this is that the deck is stacked against those who go through vision loss as an adult. Learning braille from scratch in adulthood is no easy task, and developing enough proficiency in it to read a paper out loud before a large audience is next to impossible. Trying to stare at giantly magnified print that you can't really see is no solution, either. I don't think that being judgmental about a person's struggling to do the best he or she can helps the situation at all.