The Social Hazards of Visual Impairment

In my view being visually impaired is more of a social hazard than a practical one.  Most practical problems and dilemmas are surmountable, even if they require assistance from a sighted person.  Social difficulties faced by visually impaired people however, are on-going. This might explain why 180,000 visually impaired people in the UK never leave home alone.

There are no easy solutions to the social isolation and discomfort often experienced by blind and partially sighted people. I think that raising public awareness is a start.  Here follows a list of some everyday social hazards which visually impaired people often face.

1.  Bumping into and apologising to lamp posts and other inanimate objects when in a busy street/place

2.  Answering people when they are not actually talking to you – e.g. if someone walks by speaking into a mobile phone

3.  Continuing a conversation when the person you’re speaking to has moved away

4.  Entering rooms through the wrong doors and not being able to find the exit.

5.  Not being able to find a seat and accidentally sitting on a stranger’s lap

6.  Being unaware of having food-stained clothes/teeth, missing buttons or odd socks.

7.  Not being aware that someone is addressing you.

8.  Stumbling or tripping over objects such as cables or steps.  Looking like a fool.

9.  Not being able to recognise body language or read facial expressions.  Often tone of voice can be misconstrued.

10.  Not being able to tell how many people are in a room and where they are sitting.

11.  Dropping food on the table/down your top/on the floor and struggling to locate food on your plate.

12.  Finding yourself alone and separated from the main group.

There are several more examples I could add to this list, but this gives a good idea of the everyday social hazards which visually impaired people face.

Those who have been born with no sight may well have learned to express themselves confidently in social situations.  Research has shown that people born with little or no sight usually have excellent spatial awareness.  The human brain is able to convert audio messages into “images” which enable blind people to picture their surroundings from the sounds they hear.  But the older you are when you lose your vision, the harder it is to place yourself accurately in relation to your surroundings.  Statistically, most people lose their vision later in life so it is likely that a significant number of visually impaired people will experience social awkwardness.

As you can see, several examples on the social hazard list result in the visually mpaired person feeling that they look stupid, are the odd one out, or are excluded from a group.  In a busy social scene such as a Night Club or pub, people tend to move hurriedly with their heads down, more often than not chatting to friends.  This often leads to the visually impaired person being shoved aside or knocked, which is quite frightening when it happens out of the blue. If you happen to be holding a drink when someone bangs into you and it spills on the floor, there you are again – the accident-prone idiot who raises a laugh!  Obviously it helps to be able to laugh at yourself, but this is often a nervous reaction rather than seeing the situation as genuinely funny.  Particularly if someone has only recently lost their vison they may be feeling paranoid and vulnerable, and probably depressed.  Laughing at your own social blunders is not an easy thing to do at first.

A lot of visually impaired people I know find it very hard to make new friends.  Some have adopted an aggressive manner to deal with their social unease.  This means that people usually avoid them, which increases their isolation.  Some others feel unable to assert themselves in a group for fear of making a fool of themselves.  But it is not always about the unease of the visually impaired person.   Strangers often feel awkward approaching visually impaired people  either because they are afraid they might cause offense by offering assistance, or because they are afraid full stop.  My own experience has shown me that if you walk down the street using a long cane most people give you a wide berth.  Walking down the street with a Guide dog however has the opposite effect.  I have to add about ten minutes onto every route to allow for people stopping to talk.  Interesting, considering nothing about me as a visually impaired person has actually changed!   So it is clear that the social unease experienced by visually impaired people is exacerbated by other people’s reactions.  Put these  issues together and you haven’t got great ingredients for baking friendship pie.

I don’t think I will ever completely eradicate my social anxieties.  I readily laugh at myself and my faux pas, but if I’m honest I’d rather just fit in and not have to laugh at myself.  One thing which definitely improves with time though, is confidence.  Although I’m not an extrovert, I know that I can address a bus load of passengers if I need assistance.  My inhibitions do not control me, so I rarely end up in the wrong city nowadays!

Many visually impaired people are advised by professionals and friends to “get out there and make friends” to end their isolation.  Of course this is desirable, but it is never going to be straightforward.  Attending classes for example, poses its own set of obstacles. Unless the premises and equipment are accessible, the visually impaired person is  at an automatic disadvantage which means that right from the start they will be separated from the main group.  It can take a long time for a visually impaired person to feel established in a group and to make a contribution comfortably.  For many, the easiest thing is to stay at home.

But visually impaired people do have some distinct advantages in social settings.  These often lie in the subtle details such as what perfume/aftershave someone is wearing, defining laughs or coughs etc.  Unless there are medical complications, with practise it is possible to sharpen your memory and pay closer attention to detail.  Visually impaired people are often more susceptible to atmosphere, and more astute at detecting other people’s emotions.  Sometimes not having visual stimulus can fine-tune your intuition. Although you may not be able to tell precisely who is in the room and who passes by, you will probably remember who says what and at what point.

Obvious as it may seem, many awkward social situations could be avoided or diffused by simple verbal communication.  Most visually impaired people would not object to being asked if they need help.  It’s a  simple yes or no answer, and far more preferable to being stranded at the side of a busy road or in the middle of a room.

7 comments on “The Social Hazards of Visual Impairment

  1. Think Pigeon says:

    This is a great post Claire – I think so many problems in our society come down to a lack of imagination. Those of us without a visual impairment should be able to work out what the social hazards might be for visually impaired people but I’m afraid we just don’t. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought here. I wonder how the experience of being visually impaired might be different in countries where there’s a much stronger culture of talking to each other and of outdoor living?

    I’m just loving your blog. It’s gripping, funny and informative. I look forward to the next post.

    Denise xxx

    • Clairetrude says:

      Thanks for this comment Denise! You make a really good point. I think often the problem is that people (including myself!) sometimes forget to see things from other people’s points of view. It doesn’t help that most of the time when people are out and about they’re in a hurry or preoccupied with what they’ve got to do. I think this accounts for most of the bumps and knocks I get!! But I never thought about other countries and I’m going to do some research on that one. I sometimes wonder if Political Correctness has inadvertently led to people being afraid to communicate with disabled people?

  2. Think Pigeon says:

    I was wondering that myself. I wouldn’t want to knock the positive changes we’ve seen in recent years which are reflected (to some extent) in equality and anti-discrimination legislation. But I do think that some people are so worried about appearing politically incorrect that they avoid certain topics and even certain people just to be on the safe side. I also think you’re spot on with your suggestion that many people are preoccupied when they’re out. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so lovely when a stranger says good morning and you have a connection with a person for a few seconds. To my shame, I haven’t really given a great deal of thought to the possibility that some of the people I pass in the street might be visually impaired and might not have noticed the smile I gave them as we passed. I’m going to smile and say hello from now on. I’ll probably get a reputation as being the strange smiling / greeting lady of Cardiff but I quite like the idea of that!

    Denise xx

    • Clairetrude says:

      Yes, I agree. Another positive change has been in terminology – when we were at Oxford I remember frequently being referred to as “handicapped”! But in some ways it’s become more acceptable for people to keep their heads down and pretend diversity doesn’t exist. It’s better to say or do nothing than to risk causing offense. The down side of this attitude is that minority groups are often ignored and find themselves excluded. It’s my mission at Worcester Uni to get students talking about seemingly taboo topics and words, I think it’s the only way to break down some of these barriers! I love it when people say good morning or hello to me when I’m out, it makes the difference between a C + walk and an A walk! And you find you’re more inclined to smile and greet other people, so I think it’s true that smiles spread. I like the idea of Cardiff’s greeting smiling lady – one day you might even find yourself on a postage stamp! The iconic smile of Wales – go for it! I can feel a new post emerging about the ups and downs of Political Correctness – watch this space!

  3. Holly says:

    This is such an interesting post and one I can relate to. A year ago I started 6th form at a mainstream school when I had been at a blind school for 5 years. I maintain that it was the best decision I’ve made in my life so far, but definitely not an easy one. I’ve got a really great group of friends, but it took quite a while until that happened and I still find some situations awkward. I’m retaking the year for lots of reasons, and I’m having to get to know a new group of people. Most of them avoid me because they don’t know how to ask me questions, they think they’ll offend me. Because of this I’m doing a lot to raise awareness at my school which will hopefully help other VI students in the future.

    It is very difficult in social situations, the thing that I find hardest is replying to people when they don’t say my name. If someone says “what classes are you taking?” and we’re in a big group of people, because I can’t make eye contact I find it really difficult to know when the question is directed at me. Luckily my friends have realised this 🙂

    • Clairetrude says:

      Hi Holly! Thanks for this comment, I’m glad my post meant something to you as it came straight from the heart. You sound like you’re doing brilliantly mixing in different groups as well as raising awareness among your sighted peers. But I know only too well that it takes time and courage to overcome some of the social anxieties caused by having a visual impairment. I’m glad you’ve managed to overcome some of the initial barriers at least, and it’s great that you’re talking about it to those around you! Although it’s not easy, being open about our difficulties is a giant step towards feeling totally integrated in different social groups. I completely agree with your point about not knowing whether questions are directed at you or not – that’s something I come across so often!! I’m glad you’ve got some understanding friends. Once you’ve got one good friend it paves the way for more.
      Best of luck with getting to know your new group and I hope this year is successful for you.

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