Blind academic: I don’t see what you mean, so let’s find new metaphors for knowledge

Off to the office. Guide dog and blind man via Jeroen van den Broek/www.shutterstock.com

As somebody who has been registered as blind for three decades, I’m still startled by the array of presumptions faced by people who have visual impairments. A couple of my own anecdotes share just how likely it is for blind people to be presumed to be either unemployed, or unemployable.

I recall taking a break from working on my recent book on literary representations of blindness to meet a friend for a few drinks at a bar in the city centre. I allowed half an hour for the taxi journey but, owing to an unexpectedly low volume of traffic, arrived 20 minutes early.

Because the bar was noisy, making it difficult for me to order a drink and find somewhere to sit, I decided to wait outside with my guide dog. After ten minutes or so someone walked passed, paused, and then turned back towards me. I stepped forward slightly in case it was my friend, but it was a stranger who indicated in a friendly tone that he was trying to hand me something.

I assumed it must have been a flyer of some description. Print hasn’t been accessible to me for many years, so I didn’t raise my hand. This has become my standard little protest.

The stranger seemed puzzled by my lack of engagement with his gesture, pausing again before asking, “Aren’t you collecting for the blind?” At that point, though not in a can or a hat, a proverbial penny dropped for us both. I explained that I was just waiting for someone and the stranger apologised profusely as he walked away.

19th cenutry engraving of a blind beggar by John Thomas Smith. Wikimedia

I’ve had this experience more than once and it’s nothing short of hilarious on one level. But it also shows how presumptions can intervene on day-to-day experience. Perhaps conjuring up the blind beggar who is a well-known figure in literature, film, art, and so on, the stranger evidently saw me as someone bound to be seeking money.

Yes, I work here

On another occasion, I recall standing in the university’s senior common room, waiting to satisfy my desire for coffee, when someone joined me in the queue. We chatted for a few minutes and it became clear that he thought I must have been a student rather than a lecturer.

This presumption is noteworthy because it’s been made about me by other people and at other institutions. In general, I’ve found that until students get to know me it doesn’t cross their minds that I might be employed by the university. Indeed, some of my students have admitted that upon first spotting me on campus they’re surprised that someone who can’t see can be a student let alone a lecturer.

For some people, the idea of an educator without sight is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps one origin of this presumption is the commonplace confusion between seeing and knowing, as in the phrase “Do you see what I mean?” After all, to confuse seeing and knowing in this way leads to the idea that not seeing is much the same as not knowing, as in the saying “blind to the facts”.

I’m not suggesting we drop all language that uses sight to represent knowledge. Who am I to throw out perfectly respectable words like perspective, enlighten, illuminate, insight, speculate, and so on? But I do think we should change this age-old emphasis on sight and find new metaphors for knowledge.

My two anecdotes might seem rather mundane but they chime with a social issue of great importance. The fact is that, according to Action for Blind People, four of every six individuals who have visual impairments are unemployed. The media’s focus on benefit fraudsters would have us believe this is down to a lack of effort on the part of the individuals themselves. But speaking from experience (of employment and long-term unemployment), I’d argue that by far the biggest obstacle is the array of presumptions faced on a day-to-day basis by people who have visual impairments.

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