Born Blind vs. Becoming Blind

In my inaugural post, I briefly mentioned the social effects of blindness/visual impairment.  These social effects are influenced largely, I believe, by either being born blind or becoming blind.

Before I met Zach, I briefly dated a different blind lawyer (foreshadowing, I guess).  I’ll call him Ben.  Ben was born completely blind, and he had several endearing quirks.  Whenever something pleased Ben, or whenever he thought something was funny, he would snap his fingers or clap his hands, in addition to smiling and laughing.  He was also very social, having no problem striking up conversations with strangers.  And sometimes, he would talk very loudly.

Eventually, I started to think that these behaviors might be linked to his blindness.  When I want to express happiness, a smile is enough, but for Ben, who’s never seen a smile, it has less communicative value.  He would still smile when happy, because that’s a natural physiological response, but it was probably difficult for him to understand how others interpret his smile (since he has never visually interpreted one himself).  He understood auditory feedback (like snapping and clapping) better, and therefore he used it more.  In essence, he was treating others as he would like to be treated.

Ben was also extremely social.  At first, I assumed this was a personality trait, but after meeting a few other born-blind people with similar expressions of extraversion, I wonder if his personality trait was intensified as an adaptation to blindness.  Being blind and alone in a crowded room can be confusing and overwhelming, and taking charge socially probably mitigates one’s fear, awkwardness, and risk of embarrassment.  Instead of submitting to a social situation where it would be easy to feel powerless, Ben gained control by creating his own social situation and getting others to submit.

Statistics say that 65%-80% of communication is nonverbal, including body language, eye contact, facial expressions, volume and cadence of voice, etc.  Think of how much communication is inaccessible to a person who can’t see.  For a person who is born blind, and has never received communication through eye contact and facial expression, perhaps more weight is placed on verbal communication.  Maybe Ben was trying to squeeze in more communication-value by being more verbal.

Lastly, there were times when Ben would talk very loudly.  This would happen most commonly in already noisy environments like parties.  In situations where a large group of people would naturally split into smaller conversations, Ben was usually audible over everyone else.  My theory is that it was difficult for him to tell if people were still listening, since he couldn’t see if they were looking at him and nodding, and so he talked louder in order to keep people engaged.  After all, imagine how embarrassing it would be to realize that you have been talking for ten minutes and no one was listening to you!

These were just some of my observations about the behavior of the blind (mostly from Ben, but also from a couple of others), so when I met Zach (the first person I met who is visually impaired but not completely blind), I was surprised that he didn’t exhibit any of these (what I thought were) typical characteristics.  Now, I think it is because he was not born blind, but is becoming blind.

Even though Zach often misses other people’s smiles, eye contact, and other facial expressions, he is aware of their social and communicative value because he’s experienced it in the past.  Even though it might make social events easier if Zach took charge and introduced himself to everyone around, his personality is set – he’s an introvert, and it takes a lot of energy out of him to socialize with others, especially strangers.  Unfortunately, his vision only makes things more difficult, and he becomes even more timid.  And even though talking louder might be a good strategy for ensuring that people are listening to him, Zach doesn’t want to be annoying, and instead will keep his comments short in situations where risk for embarrassment is high.

Behind all of this is the universal tendency to assume that other people perceive reality the same way you do.  We all do this all the time.  Even the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems to be predicated on the assumption of a shared perception of reality.  Sometimes, how I like to be treated is the opposite of how other people like to be treated.  Really, I think the golden rule can be explained, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were were in their shoes.”  But how can we know what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes?  Even if there is an objective reality (and I believe there is), each person’s perception of that reality is going to be different.

People who are born blind have an incredibly different perception of reality than sighted people, and even from blind people who were born sighted and later lost their vision.  They communicate in ways they understand and appreciate, because visual communication means nothing to them personally.  Zach, on the other hand, who is losing his vision, understands visual communication on a personal level even though now it is nearly inaccessible to him.  In some ways, this might make his social obstacles bigger than if he had been born blind and learned to adapt as his personality was still forming.

Of course, there are other differences between being born blind and becoming blind, but this is one of the major differences I’ve observed from my limited experience.  Each side has its positives and negatives, but in the end we all have to play the cards we’re dealt, learning to accept and adapt to whatever hurdles arise in our lives.

Have you noticed any differences between people who were born blind and those who became blind?

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