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Dear Society: You Can Be “Blind” and Still Use a Phone

We’re all aware that technology has been developing at a significant speed – we now have phones that are just as smart as our computers at home, can serve as a GPS, or even as a digital assistant. For many of us, our smartphones have become a lifeline, something we can no longer live without. The same applies to people with disabilities, but it seems that a large part of the public is still uninformed about how smart technology is helping them too.

The infamous Facebook post

CNN recently reported that a user on Facebook shared a photo of a woman with a visual impairment gazing at her phone, posing the question of whether she was faking her disability. The caption read, “If you can see what’s wrong, say ‘I see it'”. The post has since been shared over 33,000 times and has sparked many replies from other users, explaining that mobiles and other technology can be used by those who are visually impaired and can even serve as a lifeline in some cases.

The photo that was widely shared on Facebook of a woman with a visual impairment looking at her phone, which led to people questioning her disability. Image: CNN

The post was hurtful to others with a visual impairment

The post on Facebook was obviously hurtful to those who are living with a visual impairment, or any other disability for that matter. Dr. Amy Kavanagh, who is a visually impaired activist, said that the post on Facebook made her feel angry and disappointed, adding that disabled people are frequently turned into memes or online jokes. She admitted that she was hurt by the fact that a visually impaired person just like her was photographed and mocked for just going about their business.

Amy Kavanagh said that she was disappointed and angry when she saw the Facebook post. Image: CNN

Kavanagh has also been accused of faking her visual impairment many times before when she was using her phone. She admits that it infuriates her, because people use Siri or Alexa on a daily basis, but can’t understand how a blind person can use a phone. “My phone is my lifeline. I use a range of accessible functions and apps to magnify and zoom on my phone. I can order taxis with it, use GPS to plan a route and call my partner when I’m lost or stuck,” she said.

Others came forward with similar stories of their own

Editors note: One of our favorite Bad Yogis, Nysha Charlene, is a low vision advocate and also a full-time yoga teacher. She shares her story and perspective, below: 

I’m 28 years old and five years ago, I had perfect eyesight. When I was diagnosed with Stargardt disease at 23, I learned that my eyesight would slowly diminish over the next 10 years. Initially, I was terrified. Previously, I’d been planning to go to dental school, which was immediately derailed. I was also terrified because I had no idea what blindness would look like. I thought maybe the world would slowly turn black. I was ignorant.

I am now visually impaired beyond legally blind (20/200) with a visual acuity of 20/800, and I now understand that blindness comes in many different forms.

The Facebook post that questioned whether or not the blind woman using the smartphone was pretending, is hurtful to me, yet it is understandable because people have no idea what it is like to be blind. We need to demystify blindness. So, here I am to help you understand ONE of the 285 MILLION unique cases of people who are visually impaired and use or rely on their smartphones for help.

Let’s talk about low vision: My Story

In my case, I have a large central blind spot that deletes everything that I look at directly. It deletes your face, street signs, cars… anything I look at. I have peripheral vision, which means I can vaguely see the things I am not looking at. It’s the reason I look away from you when we speak. If I were to look directly at you, it would feel normal for you. For me, I would be staring into a headless shadow.  So how do I manage? I rely on contrast, motion, and zoom to see as best as I can using my periphery.

Since looking directly at my smartphone deletes it, I look slightly away and use accessibility features to zoom the screen 5x the normal size. I am then able to read a few words at a time with the phone held close to my face.  Let’s take a moment to remember that this is my way –  others with different visual impairments may hold the phone at a normal distance and use other accessibility features such as voiceover. I use voiceover to read long captions on Instagram. My smartphone also has a magnifier feature. Without this, I would not be able to do my grocery shopping on my own. It uses the camera zoom to allow me to see the price and ingredients on items so that I may look away and read with my peripheral vision. If I forget my cellphone, I am unable to read anything at all and must ask for help with the simplest of tasks. I’ve found that people often do not want to be bothered unless you have your white cane with you.

There’s just one more thing I’d like you to understand

When you cannot see detail, you rely on contrast to distinguish between items. If I drop my black marker on a black floor, I may not find it. If I drop my black marker on a white floor, I will see it. If someone sees me pick it up, they usually make this comment: “Oh, so you CAN see!” That hurts me very much because what they do not realize is that I work hard, constantly moving my eyes around in order to avoid having my blindspot mask an object to be viewed. Maybe I look “normal” because I’m a social butterfly, or because I’m attractive, or perhaps even because I have an advanced yoga practice. Understand that it takes extra effort to walk without tripping and to notice if someone might be talking to me. I smile constantly because I’d rather not have you think I ignored you if you smiled or waved at me and I didn’t see. So, if you ask me, the hardest thing about my blindness is appearing to be “sighted”. From my heart to yours, thank you. And thank you, smartphone.

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    February 8, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    Thank you for your article. My daughter’s vision is 20/400. The only way she is able to attend school is through the use of her iPad so she has access to the same information as her classmates. I am hopeful that articles like this one will help her avoid people making the same assumptions about her use of technology. And yes, thank you smartphone and tablet!

  2. Marica Laing

    Marica Laing

    February 9, 2019 at 8:56 am

    Tell her she is a warrior princess! I too hope that society will start to become more informed about how technology helps people who are visually impaired. It basically allows them to function just like those of us who see just fine, even if it takes some of them a lot more effort, and I believe that we should respect and celebrate their courage and perseverance.

  3. Jeanne Slattery

    Jeanne Slattery

    February 10, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Lovely description, Nysha!

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