Definitions of Legal Blindness Social/cultural definitions of visual impairment Valerie’s definition of disability

Session I Lecture


Welcome to the Psychosocial Aspects of Visual Impairment course. This semester we will be exploring the relationship between how people with vision impairments relate to their impairment personally, professionally, and socially. There is a relationship between the ways people with vision loss feel about their impairments and how they handle incorporating it into the rest of their lives.

Definitions of Vision Loss and Legal Blindness

As we begin discussing the meaning of vision loss we want to start with defining it. As you start interacting with children and adults who are visually impaired how you think and feel about their disabilities will have a profound affect on the ways in which you assist them.

I believe you know that the legal definition of visual impairment is 20/200 corrected vision in the better eye. This classification of vision loss is used to demarcate who can receive state and federal services. This definition of legal blindness does not, however, embrace the uniqueness of people’s level of vision and how they use it to manage their lives.

The American Social Security Administrations’ definition of visual impairment

The 20/200 medical definition is only one of many definitions operating within the United States. You should know that families, neighborhoods, communities, and other cultures each establish their own definition of what it means to be blind. A perfect example of this is the definition of vision impairment the U.S. Social Security Administration uses to determine whether or not an individual should receive disability benefits.

The Social Security Administration defines a “disability” as a condition which prohibits someone from being able to work. Determination of benefits is based on how much a person earns and how their physical, emotional, or mental condition interferes with their earning power. Financial assistance may be provided in the form of Supplemental Security Income (an S.S.I. check) or a Disability Supplemental Security Income check (D.S.S.I.). S.S.I. is a welfare program and D.S.S.I. are disability benefits awarded to someone after they have worked enough to earn them.

My Social Security record lists me as being both “blind” and “disabled.” Blindness is the medical condition and not being able to work is the disability.

Now here is what happens with the Social Security Administration’s definition. Once I reach a certain level of income from earned wages my “disability” is eradicated. I am just about there now financially and when I reach the magic number my record will be changed to indicate that I am still “blind,” but no longer “disabled.” I will remain blind, but my disability is gone forever or at least until my income drops back down below the financial standard. Pretty interesting, huh!

Social/cultural definitions of visual impairment

The way the Social Security Administration handles defining vision loss shows that there are social definitions operating in all sorts of arenas. My family defines my vision loss based on how I can or cannot contribute to the family system. I am not expected to drive anywhere, but I am still expected to help out with cleaning and other chores. My mother never asks me to vacuum, but she likes me to wash the dishes (even though she has a dishwasher) and play with her dog.

In other cultures vision loss is defined by the role that is associated with it. Many shamanic tribal communities assign the role of spiritual leader to the blind person. Usually it is a man, but not always. This definition comes from the belief system emerging from the tribe which says that physical disabilities are signs of divine communication.

Other cultures hide their blind citizens. These cultures are using the same religious belief in reverse. They feel that disabilities or handicaps are marks of divine disfavor. Needless to say, the blind people living in these cultures probably have a less comfortable life.

Differences between “visual handicap” and “visual disability”

Tuttle points to the difference between the “visual handicap” and the visual disability.” The handicap is not being able to see well and the disability is not being able to drive a car. The disability is a result of the person’s relationship with vision loss and how they can manage life tasks.

A relational definition of visual impairment

There is also a relational definition of visual impairment operating in our society. This definition has to do - not with the individual with low vision or blindness – but what happens when a sighted person sees or encounters someone with an obvious visual disability. When a sighted person encounters a blind person the one with sight has an emotional reaction. It can be strong or mild. Negative or positive feelings will usually surface as well. The emotional trigger is not personal to the individual who is blind, but the presence of the trigger can change the social interaction of the sighted and blind person.

I refer to this as a “heart-centered” definition of vision impairment. Whatever is being held in the other person’s heart starts to come out when they encounter a blind person. The person who is visually impaired is not the cause of this event, but since we are all in relationship with each other in some way this can bring on feelings of disapproval if the blind person doesn’t know how to balance it.

We will be talking about this more later in the semester.

Valerie’s definition of disability

So, as we wrap up the definition section of this lecture, I want you to consider the possibility that someone can be blind, but not disabled at all. My personal definition of a disability is that a disability is anything which makes a person feel less than he or she truly is. For me this opens the door to exploring my life as a blind woman from the perspective of being unsighted, but not disabled. This is pretty exciting stuff for me.

Historical Backdrop

We have a tendency to think that people with visual impairments have always had a difficult time surviving in their communities. There are lots of stories about blind children being euphonized at birth or treated with cruelty by the people around them. That is all true, but it is not the entire story.

There have been a number of historical snapshots where people with visual impairments were regarded to hold great power in their communities. People with vision impairments were thought to have psychic powers and assisted their communities by serving as oracles. Blind people also held positions as entertainers in royal courts either as story tellers or singers. In the Middle Ages in Europe blind tradesmen had their own unions and earned wages in an organized way.

The most common historical view we hear about is that blind people are a burden on society. This is the prevalent position in the United States. What can be confusing for everyone is that people with vision impairments are also regarded to be blameless and not responsible for their situation.

This double-edged sword leaves people with visual impairments in a tenuous position. If being blind is not our fault then we can’t be judged for being bad and deserving what happens to us. On the other hand we are viewed as drawing on precious social resources because we can’t work and therefore take care of ourselves. This is a no-win situation for everyone and it leaves the blind individual feeling disempowered and like they are doing something wrong.

The consistent historical pattern we can discern from going back through the historical accounts is that blind people have always been on the fringes of their societies. Either their skills were exaggerated or under-stated. Rarely are people with vision impairments seen as part of the mainstream of society or contributing to the culture’s forward motion in the same way others do.

This is a very light gloss on the historical milieu from which our attitudes have grown. I want you to notice, however, where some of the wisps of stories and feelings about vision come from.

That’s enough for now. We will be expanding on many of these points throughout the semester.