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“I’m in the dark here!”

In the movie Scent of a Woman, Colonel Slade (Al Pacino) barks out these few words to reveal how it is to be blind. For those who have seen this film, this is perhaps one of the most emotional scenes. For the blind, however, this scene probably just throws at them yet another example of a common misconception regarding blindness. The thing is, blind people don’t just “see darkness.”

Before taking Introduction to Clinical Psychology (with Prof. Kastner) here at Princeton, I also wasn't free from such a misconception. However, after learning about blindness for a few weeks, I came to the conclusion that I had a fundamental misunderstanding of blindness.

What people usually fail to grasp is that darkness is a relative quality. Without brightness, there is no darkness. Thus, describing what blind people “see” as blindness is a statement wrong on every possible aspect in that:

  1. They do not “see” things with their eyes.
  2. They do not perceive darkness (at least how people with normal vision would interpret it).

According to Sabriye Tenberken’s book, My Path Leads to Tibet, blind people “see” not through their eyes, but rather through other sensory modalities (38-47). Instead of relying on vision, blind people utilize other means of perceiving this world. In other words, blind people have their own ways of perceiving what they need to perceive. This means blind people are much abler than normal people with eyepatches. Because people are often told to wear an eyepatch to experience what it is like to be blind, they tend to associate blindness with not just the state of not being able to use vision but also all the troubles with suddenly being taken away the luxury of vision, without taking into account the plasticity of the human brain. This often results in nothing but a reinforcement of a misconception that works against the blind: sighted people simply assume blind people have to face all these inconveniences that sighted people face when wearing an eyepatch.

This is a very dangerous misconception in that it suggests that blind people always need help and caring, which strengthens the common prejudice against blind people that they cannot stand on their own. Just as a perfectly healthy person doesn’t feel the need for an extra sensory modality, blind people (especially those who are born with it) probably don’t feel the need for vision, since they have already acquired their own methods of perception for survival.

I am fully aware that I can never speak on behalf of those who are blind, but I do wish to point out that offering a helping hand with everything in every occasion can sometimes be another form of discrimination. 

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