Due to a rare genetic disorder, my father and three of my uncles are blind. So even though I've had sight my whole life, I know that most people's definition of blindness ("Uh ... their eyes don't work, right?") misses a huge chunk of what going through life without vision is really like. So while you've probably already figured out that blind folks aren't all ninja warriors like Daredevil and the guy from The Book of Eli, you may not know that ...
Let's say you're at a fast-food joint and a guy comes in with dark sunglasses and a walking cane. He goes up to the counter, looks at the menu, and orders from it with no problem. At that point you might think one of these things:
A) He's just come from a costume party where he was dressed as a blind guy.
B) He was just pretending to read the menu, because he thinks it's funny.
C) He's running some kind of scam.
D) He has mastered echolocation and is in fact part bat/orca.
That's because the average person thinks you're either blind or you're not -- the moment your blind friend compliments your haircut, your first reaction is, "What, is that sarcasm? You're blind." The reality is a lot more complicated. Like cheap liquor, blindness comes in a huge variety of flavors and varieties -- and while all those flavors are vaguely reminiscent of butt, they do all have their unique takes on it. "Legally blind," for example, doesn't mean your eyes don't work, it just means they're one-tenth as powerful as they should be, which effectively means that you can't see below the big E on an eye-doctor's chart. So even a lot of legally blind people can read books, provided they use a computer screen or anything with a massive enough font.
You can, in fact, gather 50 blind people and not have any two of them see the same way. That's because there are several dozen conditions that can cause blindness, all in different ways. Even my uncles, who suffer from the same rare genetic disorder, lost their sight very differently: One lost his peripheral vision in his teens, while another lost his central vision in his 20s. Only 18 percent of visually impaired people are classified as totally blind.
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And having people toss you stuff to see if you catch it gets old real fast.
And yes, this disparity between what blindness is and what everyone thinks it is causes all sorts of ridiculous problems. Years ago, my father had a co-worker who saw my father's partial vision as proof that he was faking blindness, and would passively hassle him with "tests" like moving his work supplies.
In Italy, meanwhile, people have turned harassment of the blind into a national pastime. Because of their economic problems, Italians have taken to spying on neighbors drawing blindness benefits to "catch" them doing things that sighted people believe blind people shouldn't be able to do, like walking across a street without getting hit by a Scion. These "fakers" are reported to the police and have their benefits taken away until they can prove in court that they're not faking.
And god help you if you're walking around with a cane, regardless of what country you're in -- for some reason people freak the hell out at the sight of it. When my dad was learning how to use a walking cane (which isn't as easy as you might assume) a bystander called the freaking police, thinking he was an armed maniac on a rampage.
That happens all the time -- in 2012 some well-meaning citizen in the U.K. alerted the authorities that a man was walking down the street with a samurai sword -- the police showed up and shot him with a Taser, despite the fact that the "samurai" was Colin Farmer, a 63-year-old blind man with a cane (the cops were not charged). In 1989, California police beat a blind man standing at a bus stop when they saw him put his foldable walking cane in his pocket and assumed they were nunchakus. Shortly after 9/11, Six Flags held three blind men at the gate for hours as they tried to assess the threat these men posed with their canes.
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The World Is Not Enough had also been on TV the night before.
Seriously, is this something you've ever heard about? Is there really an epidemic of people faking blindness just to get in on that sweet sympathy and cane action?
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Now here's something I'll bet you've never thought about: How does a blind person tell a $1 bill from a $20?
You sniff to see how much cocaine is on it, of course.
Well, luckily blind people -- like most people -- are kind of amazing. They generally fold their bills differently depending on their value, or store them in different folds of their wallets. They even have apps that help identify bills using a smartphone camera -- though of course these apps require proper lighting and angle to work, and are operated by smartphones with completely smooth, featureless screens. Close your eyes and try to take a selfie. Did it work out? If you said no, then blind people are better at using smartphones than you are.
"Of course paper money is hard to use for blind people," some of you are saying, "you can't see the numbers! Nothing can be done!" Actually, it would be as easy as incorporating raised numbers, or a variety in bill size -- both of which are fairly easy and would help keep thousands of Americans from accidentally handing $100 to an unscrupulous gas station attendant for their Doritos and six-pack. So easy, in fact, that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't do exactly that.
"Yeah, well, join the club." -The metric system
Why? Who knows. Maybe we're too busy entertaining the idea of trillion dollar coins. Maybe resizing our cash register trays, ATM slots, and wallets is too ambitious an endeavor for a country that can't even be bothered to go to the moon anymore, even though it's right there. Even a U.S. judge found that the Treasury was discriminating against blind individuals by printing paper money with only visual features. The Treasury responded by raising the print on Ben Franklin's shoulder. So yeah, never mind, that totally solved the problem forever.
Since I brought up The Book of Eli, remember how the twist-ending reveals that Denzel's bible is written in braille, so evil Gary Oldman can't read it? In real life, braille is so inefficient with page space that getting the whole bible down takes 37 volumes, meaning old Denzel would've been stuck lugging a U-Haul library across the wasteland -- and that's assuming he could read braille in the first place, which would have been against the odds considering only 10 percent of the blind can.
Ixitixel via Wikipedia
Which probably means that nobody uses that awesome braille computer from Sneakers, either.
While braille is an excellent language code that gives many blind individuals independence and the ability to read printed words, for the blind it's actually about as convenient as playing street hockey during rush hour. First off, teachers are harder to find than, well, a complete 37-volume Bible in the middle of an apocalyptic wasteland (heh, I just came up with the single most irritating Fallout side-quest ever). On top of that, the process of putting these books together is incredibly expensive, largely because the pages are so delicate that the books have to be assembled by hand.
It consistently comes down to a conflict between convenience and inconvenience, and inconvenience tends to win. Printed braille labels could be useful for differentiating between your groceries (have you ever conditioned before you shampooed? It's a nightmare), but braille printers are stupidly expensive, with most quality models starting around $5,000 and going up to $40,000. Even the cheap-o models are a solid grand. For the cost of a braille printer, you could pay your rent and have enough left over for an e-reader and a bad-ass sound system. Why clutter up your home with 5,000 volumes of braille Dungeons & Dragons books when you could listen to Ice-T read them to you in glorious surround sound?
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If you listen carefully, you can tell he's in the middle of filming a Law & Order episode.