Emotional overlays Developing self-esteem
I believe you all know that visual impairment is a low incidence disability. The current statistics say that only one percent of the American population has some form of vision loss. The small numbers of people sharing aspects of vision loss are so few that it is very easy to feel different. I was sixteen years old when I met another person who was blind for the first time... Children and adults often pick up the view that they are different and can slip into feeling isolated and as if their life experience is not understood at all. Even worse-misunderstood.
Remember that my personal definition of disability is anything that makes us feel less than who we really are. Feeling misunderstood and different are the leaders of the pack in the erosion of self-esteem.
I like what Dean Tuttle does with his definition of self-esteem. My definition of self-esteem is embracing myself as fully as I can in every moment knowing that I am always growing and changing. Embracing my blindness is part of internalizing my fullest sense of myself.
I want to respond to Melissa Frame’s comment that sighted people and people with low vision can only understand the experience of visual impairment empathically. She seems to minimize this capacity and I want to spend a little time on it now. It is very human to divide life experiences into good-bad, right-wrong, and blind-sighted. We all do it so that we can have the comfort of being aware of ourselves.
I feel that the easiest way to assist someone with a visual impairment is by first having an empathic awareness of vision loss. Are you wondering how someone who isn't limited visually does that? Ah, a puzzle!
An empathic awareness opens when we realize that we are connected to the experience of vision loss in some way. Maybe we have the physical body experience of being blind. Or maybe we have someone in our life that has started not seeing very well at night. Or we get curious about how someone who is blind crosses the street while carrying a baby. The fact that vision loss has got our attention at all means that we are already in an experience of empathy.
So, now you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know anything about blindness.” Doesn’t matter! An empathic awareness of visual impairment will guide each of us in how we negotiate assisting people with visual impairments in ways which support their personal life choices.
The empathic awareness most people begin with is that blindness is scary. Not being able to see where you are going brings up a very deep visceral sense of alarm. Almost all people carry some form of the fear of not being able to see where they are going whether it is not being able to cross the street or not being sure that anyone really loves them. Vision loss reminds many people of their own fears and this is the connector of a great deal of human experience.
If what I just said is making you a little nervous please sit back and take a few breaths. I am not saying that you have to dip into the feelings of fear blindness brings up in order to help people with visual impairments. The way you can get a handle on the fears blindness brings up is by seeing blindness first as a societal metaphor for all kinds of fears and then as a human experience which generates certain kinds of human relationships. We will get to that in a minute.
Blind children and adults constantly hear phrases like, “There are none so blind who will not see,” and “blind as a bat.” Pair these phrases with the powerful visual images which are everywhere in society. If you add in the emotional perceptions of blind people being vulnerable, angry, depressed, and unaware of the others around them you have a very strong tonic for low self-esteem. Take another breath now.
Many blind people pick up an emotional overlay which says that we are dependent, angry, helpless people who have lives which are out of control. Some of that perception is accurate when talking about specific individuals, but the same can be said about people who do not have a defined disability. I know this feels big, but it can be balanced in ways that can assist someone to embrace who they are.
First of all, it helps to realize that we all share the same feelings even if our life experiences are different. Sighted people are just as frightened about aspects of their lives as blind people. Once we realize this we get a chance to investigate what is causing the fear and let it go. The willingness to let fear go shows us the road map for self-esteem.
What I am saying is that in someway we all share (even if it is just metaphorically) the fear of being not able to see. The cool part of that (if you agree with me) is that once we realize this we get a chance to discover how to let the fears go and move toward personal comfort and greater self-esteem.
I like the discussion in the Frame material which speaks to the “stigma” being more about the action of social relationships rather than being assigned to the body experience of an individual. It shows us how much visual impairment is more about how someone feels about being blind rather than being limited by the lack of sight.
Along with feeling like our life experience is different from the others around we are also taught not to embrace our visual limitations, but to “overcome them.” Children and adults both get a lot of praise for trying to do this. Developing life management skills and coping techniques is positive and powerful work, but if it is left in the arena of “overcoming” it may have a backlash effect.The backlash of “overcoming” can be that it is not possible to succeed in achieving it. It can leave the person feeling exhausted and may result in never accepting who they are as an individual with limited vision.
So how do we assist people to internalize a healthy integrated self-image? Well, first of all, by recognizing that every person is complete in every moment of his or her life. Even in the presence of a significant loss (whether it is blindness or the ending of a marriage) a person is always a unique individual.
By starting here we can assist the people we are working with to stay balanced in their life experience. One of the difficulties of having a disability (particularly visual impairment) is that the entire focus of attention moves to the disability. For some people becoming blind is the worst thing that ever happened to them. For others it is not the most traumatic event of their lives.
The over-focusing on the visual impairment is what causes many blind folk to either hide or exaggerate their visual disability. As you see from the Frame essay either choice is a no-win situation. We blind folk do this to try and protect our survival and provide some level of comfort, but it takes tremendous energy to maintain either position and can be hard on our self-image.
If a sighted man gives a flower to a blind woman she may not be sure whether he is doing it because he thinks she is pretty or if he feels sorry for her. This is the level of self-awareness that many people with visual impairments deal with every day. It brings up all sorts of questions about self-identity and how to manage who we are in the interaction.
So how can we assist someone with these issues of self-esteem? First of all we check in with our own feelings of self-esteem. What catches our attention when we are communicating with someone who is visually impaired may be only a mirror of our issue, not an actual concern of the individual. Be mindful that there is often an underlying assumption that people who are blind or visually impaired have low self-esteem. They may or may not.
Then I suggest that we all take some time getting acquainted with the person we are to assist. This is important so that you can get a balanced view of the total person.Now, the goal here is not to get people to love being blind, but to support their choice for self-awareness. Everyone has their own feelings and relationship with their experience. Remember that being unsighted is part of the normal daily experience for the individual you are assisting.
The goal is to find ways to assist the person to respect their experience and support their integrating it into their life. You can do that by noticing what skills the child or adult has garnered from being visually impaired. They may not be obvious, but they are there. Also everyone creates a different skill set out of their relationship with their blindness. When I was young I was very shy. My experience of becoming blind honed my social skills and I now have a huge set of communication tools. That is part of the reason I have the job I do.
I also learned how to break down tasks and map out a plan for accomplishing a project. I am a very good manager because of having to learn new mobility skills a little later in my life.
Every experience of loss attracts skills and tools to balance it. Since everyone is unique, their skill set will be unique to them. Internalizing self-esteem comes when an individual can balance their feelings about being limited in some way with the self-awareness and skills that grow out of it. Children who are born with visual limitations have an advantage because they have the opportunity to grow into their uniqueness while embracing their visual range from the very beginning.
People who become blind later can also integrate their vision loss into the uniqueness of who they are and still come out with a strong inner awareness of self-esteem. Forging self-esteem is more of an internal event than an external one.