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.