Blindness is a condition that few people can relate with until they have direct experience with it. Unless you have a friend or loved one with blindness, you probably don’t have context to realize what it’s like to live with vision impairment.
Hollywood has given us stereotypes about blind people that aren’t always true. When you think of an individual with blindness or vision impairment, for example, you might think of a person walking around with dark sunglasses and a cane.
Blindness is much more diverse than people realize. Today, we’re highlighting 10 things that may surprise you about individuals with vision impairment.
Many Blind People Can Still See: There are different degrees of visual impairment. Because vision impairment is a spectrum, there are many people who are blind who have some remaining vision. Someone may be considered legally blind but can see colors, shapes, and varying degrees of light. In fact, the vast majority of legally blind individuals can see to some degree. Only 10 to 15% of vision impaired people see nothing at all.
Most Individuals with Vision Loss Do Not Use a Cane: When you look up stock images of blind people online, you’re likely to find plenty of individuals wearing dark sunglasses and navigating with a cane. This image isn’t as common as some people believe! It’s estimated that between 2% and 8% of individuals with blindness use a cane, and only about 2% of all people who are blind and visually impaired work with guide dogs. Today, a number of organizations are dedicated to promoting use of the white cane among individuals with blindness, and many people find the cane to be empowering. It not only helps the individual navigate, but it also alerts other people – like drivers – that the individual has some level of visual impairment. Nevertheless, the “white cane” appearance isn’t the only way blindness looks.
Some Have Developed Better Senses, While Others Have Not: This is another stereotype about individuals with visual impairment that isn’t always accurate. Hollywood might portray blind superheroes like Daredevil as having “superhuman” senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing. In reality, studies have shown that some individuals with vision loss have heightened senses while others do not. The brain will use whatever senses are available, and many brains will physically adapt to these changes over time. One study from 2017, for example, showed that individuals who developed blindness before age three experienced plastic changes in their brain over time. The brain rewired itself to better interpret sound, languages, and touch, among other senses. Nevertheless, not all individuals with vision loss have heightened senses.
Braille Was Invented by a French Solider During the Napoleonic Wars: You may have heard of Frenchman Louis Braille, the man who invented braille. The history of braille, however, dates back to a few years before Louis’s birth. In the early 1800s, a French soldier named Charles Barbier serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army created a system called “night writing” that allowed soldiers to communicate safely in darkness. Soldiers were getting killed because they were using lamps to read letters at night. Barbier created a “night writing” system involving raised 12-dot cells, two dots wide and six dots tall, with different combinations of dots referring to different things. Louis Braille, born in 1809, later improved on this system using six dot cells, which were easier to analyze with the human touch.
80% of Vision Problems Worldwide Are Avoidable, Preventable, or Curable: We typically assume blindness is a permanent condition and that there’s not much we can do to avoid it or fix it. That’s true for some cases of blindness. However, the majority of vision problems around the world are avoidable, preventable, or curable. Many individuals with blindness in developing countries, for example, have vision problems because of their cataracts. Cataracts can be surgically removed to improve vision. They can also be prevented or treated by regular eye examinations.
Sleep Disorders Are More Common Among Individuals with Visual Impairment: Our bodies use visual cues to determine when to fall asleep and when to wake up. This is called our circadian rhythm. Our bodies “wake up” with sunlight and fall asleep with darkness. Individuals with blindness often have trouble maintaining circadian rhythm, which is why they’re more likely to experience sleeping disorders.
Individuals with Vision Loss Dream: People who are visually impaired are just as likely to experience vivid dreams as anyone else. The main difference is that those dreams are dominated by senses other than sight. Someone who is legally blind might dream primarily with sounds, smells, and tastes, for example.
People Who Are Blind Have More Nightmares: A study in Denmark found surprising insight after researching how people who are blind dream. Researchers found that individuals with blindness tended to have more nightmares than sighted individuals. An average of 25% of dreams experienced by people born blind are nightmares. Meanwhile, nightmares account for only 6% of dreams among individuals whose sight is intact.
Guide Dogs Can’t Read Traffic Signals: This one surprises many people. If you watch a person who is blind navigate sidewalks with a guide dog, it might seem like their guide dog is reading traffic signals to keep its handler safe. In reality, guide dogs are unable to read traffic signals, and they can’t distinguish between green and red traffic lights. Instead, the handler uses audible cues – like traffic noise – to determine when it’s safe to cross the road. If a vehicle is coming, then the dog will refuse to obey the command. Although guide dogs can’t read traffic signals, there are lots of strategies individuals with blindness may use to safely navigate even tricky intersections.
Individuals with Vision Loss Are Significantly Less Likely to Get Divorced: A study from the American Foundation for the Blind found some surprising results about the divorce rate of individuals with blindness. 65% of Americans who are blind are married or live with a partner. Meanwhile, only 16.5% of individuals with blindness have divorced. That’s significantly lower than the nationwide divorce rate of 40% to 50%.
Approximately 20 million Americans will experience some type of vision loss that cannot be corrected with glasses or contacts. Only 1.3 million Americans, however, are legally blind. That means it’s relatively rare to have an individual with blindness in your family or circle of friends. It’s easy to believe stereotypes, but as demonstrated above, there are plenty of facts about individuals with blindness that continue to surprise people.