Sunday, September 25, 2016

“There are those with disabilities, and those who haven’t really found theirs yet”

Today’s post is inspired by Design with the Blind inMind. I recently rediscovered this TED talk by a local Bay Area architect, Chris Downey. His entire talk is fabulous. He opens with an anecdote shared in jest, during which he describes the surge of adrenaline he experienced mistaking the sounds of a golden retriever for something much scarier. Although I too humorously share what I commonly refer to as “blindy fails,” or times that not seeing leads to absurd conclusions, I think this particular case depicts something much deeper.

There is a certain amount of anxiety that the blind and visually impaired face when navigating the world. I previously tossed this up to my anxious temperament, but have since communicated with many who share the experience. We live in a sighted world, designed with the sighted in mind. This design means persons who have low vision miss cues from the environment. The consequence of which is feeling like we are always missing something. When we miss small gestures like eye rolls and subtle smiles, we miss cues ranging flirtation to disdain. Downey highlights how constantly missing what is going on around you can make for hysterical misunderstandings and great jokes, and yet, simultaneously makes the world seem foreign and frightening.

Downey coins a term in his talk - “outsights” – referring to truths he’s learned since losing vision. He speaks to several outsights, including the presence of others. While walking the city streets sighted, others mind their own business and don’t engage. While walking the city streets with a cane, others forcefully try to help, suggesting to step here or cross there. Despite good intentions, passersby often offer misinformation that leads to greater confusion. Downey describes accompanying positive shifts in how strangers treat him, such as passersby shouting, “bless you, man” and “go for it brother,” words of encouragement he never received when walking while sighted. I daresay I don’t quite share this final outsight – I have only found the attention I receive walking with a cane to be belittling and frustrating. Nonetheless, I share the outsight that often others’ presence becomes (paradoxically) more visible to the blind.

My most profound outsight has been my realization of ubiquitous struggle. I think I eschewed the reality that everyone has periods of weakness, illness, and disability. Had you asked me before I was diagnosed, I would have imagined feeling sadness, grief, and injustice at having this rare genetic abnormality. I now see my disability as a source of empathy, understanding, and humility. This fundamental belief in embracing the shared experience of overcoming struggle is precisely what motivated this blog. Pardon the cliché religious reference; we all have our crosses to bear. My outsight makes me feel less vulnerable, and enables me to overcome the anxiety of missing facets of the environment. This outsight is articulated powerfully by Downey himself: “There are those with disabilities, and those who haven’t really found theirs yet”

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