A young student from the University of Karachi proves how a visual disability doesn’t always lead to inability
If you are amongst the visually impaired, this article may not be for you. Some people will tell you this without beating about the bush; others might convey it via their actions. But either way, it will hurt you. I can tell you this because I have myself faced the same situation many times. People who do not comprehend blindness will assume and act on things sans any confirmation or even a moment’s thought on how their actions might affect us, the visually challenged. According to them, if you cannot see, you probably cannot think or feel either. But they are wrong: the visually impaired are also people. People just like them.
I distinctly recall feeling nothing but hatred every time someone referred to me as blind or a special child. The feelings arose soon after I was told that I would be completing the course of my life sans the ability to see the world — something I was most definitely not prepared for. You see, I was not visually impaired by birth but succumbed to a disease called retinitis pigmenthosa, a genetic condition that degenerates the retina, eventually leading to a total loss of vision. Every doctor I visited would promise that I would be alright soon enough, but they all forgot to mention that science is yet to devise a stringent cure for the disease.
And therefore, I had to recommence my life as a special person. For me, the very term implied a difference. Many people consider it a matter of pride but for me, it was downright humiliating. Soon after my diagnosis, I began to notice how people reacted upon hearing that I was seeking admission at a special children’s school. Their attitude was weird and made me equate the school to abnormal persons in my mind. I consequently repudiated the idea of going there, lest I be tagged as an abnormal person as well, but I was wrong. The passage of time and liaising with other, fellow visually-impaired people made me realise that it is not our sightlessness that makes us unsighted but society and the people in it.
It is a general misconception that the visually challenged are incapable of performing even the most routine activities independently, and so, cannot lead a normal life. On the contrary, there is almost nothing that a visionless person cannot do today. This can kill talent in our society, regardless of the type of disability one may suffer from. There are plenty of success stories across the world, proving that we can achieve anything we set our minds to. We are successful professors, managers, engineers, CSS officers, media persons, entrepreneurs and what not. I myself have been serving as a radio-jockey at a leading radio station whilst pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mass communication for the past three years. I was also given a Youth Icon Award from the government of Sindh in 2012. Therefore, the only problem in my opinion is that no one really tries to learn about blindness, or any other disability for that matter. If they did, they would realise that being visionless is not synonymous to physical or mental abnormalities.
Through this article, I aspire to rectify this lack of empathy in our society. My own experiences have shown that there is a great communication gap between the visually impaired and those who can see. I can practically sense the latter growing conscious while talking to me. Sometimes, they raise their voices or refuse to speak directly. At other times, when they do talk face-to-face, they will go out of their way to avoid using words like ‘see’ or the topic of sightlessness altogether. Some people go as far as to ask questions like ‘Do you recognise me?’ which are nothing short of extremely awkward to have to reply to. Of course, we are open to inquiries about our lifestyle but questions like ‘Can you tell who I am?’ only put us on the spot.
This disparity is but a consequence of the aforementioned communication gap. Pakistan offers little inclusion of the visually impaired, as a result of which, there is limited social exchange. The visually challenged are educated in special schools, interact with other special individuals and given little exposure to the ‘non-special’ world.
Ultimately, neither group gets to learn about the other and that is how the differences arise. Of course, this is not because those who can see are disrespectful or do not care about the visually impaired, no. On the contrary, they care too much. I have noticed that new acquaintances with which I have shared my most challenging moments are unsure of how to behave around me. For instance, they will grab my arms to provide support while walking or move much slower than required. Some of them become overly cautious and take brief pauses after every step, even if I convey that the problem lies in my eyesight, not my legs. Yet, people will try and sit me down should I be standing for too long. The truth, however, is that I would also like to stand. For me, it is always better to stand with friends and family than to sit alone.
The point is that encouraging dialogue and interaction will help eradicate these tiny disparities. It will help others realise that it is always helpful to politely mention their name to help the unsighted register their voices mentally and that walking normally is better as we can sense others’ body movements and decipher our own accordingly. Guide our hands to the backrest and we can manage to sit ourselves down just fine. Interaction will show the world that it feels much better for us to have an arm or two to lean on, rather than be grabbed by the hand and lead across like children.
I reiterate that the visually impaired are as normal a people as any other in the world. We enjoy movies, picnics and parties just like others do. Technological advances have granted us access to virtually everything except for the ability to see itself, including smartphones and social networking websites. We can be just as much fun as the sighted persons next to you, equal citizens of the world with fewer limitations on our capabilities today than ever before. It is simply a matter of social acceptance, appreciation and understanding.
Ali Khan Tareen is a social activist and a motivational speaker. He is currently pursuing his Masters degree in mass communication. He tweets as @ak_tareen
Blinded With Success
While most people think the visually impaired to be incapable of going too far in life, there are plenty examples that show us otherwise. The following is a list of people who have achieved world recognition, despite their inability to see.
At just 19 months of age, Helen was diagnosed with an acute congestion of the stomach and brain which left her deaf and blind. But she did not let her challenges get in the way. Helen is credited as being the first deaf and blind American to graduate from college, after which she went on to become an author, lecturer and activist. She is remembered as an advocate for the people with disabilities and various other problems.
This musical genius was blind from infancy but his talents led him to a record deal with Motown Records at only 12 years of age! The singer, song-writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist continues to make music today and is amongst the most loved artists of the last century.
An Olympic runner and a three-time national champion in the women’s 5,000-meter race, Marla was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative eye condition that caused her to become legally blind. Despite this, she participated in the 1500-meter finals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
As the namesake of the world’s most coveted literary honour, the Pulitzer Prize, Joseph wasn’t born unable to see but lost his eyesight completely by 1889. Nonetheless, he maintained his fight against injustice and social crimes in his hometown and beyond.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 5th, 2015.