Dear Media, your portrayal of blind people is wrong

Post date: 
Tuesday, 24 October 2017
Photo of Alex

With blind people always being portrayed as helpless, supernatural or inspirational in the media, blogger Alex Man speaks out to try dispel these misconceptions.

With the media playing such a large part in our lives, nothing says that “you” too are a part of today’s society more than when you see yourself portrayed in mainstream media – right?
 
A heart-warming story of a blind person regaining their sight, an inspirational article of a blind person’s life, or even a blind superhero – hey, that person is just like me! Right? Wrong.
 
It’s very well to say, the more stories about us, the better. That way sighted people will learn about us, so it’s a perfect way to generate awareness. Providing our stories in an entertaining medium means that people are more likely to take notice – right?
 
But are we here to entertain? We say we want to be like anyone else, but not a sightless wreck or a miracle worker. And today’s media is doing just this.
 

Blindness in TV

Let’s start off with TV. In 2015, Netflix added the series Marvel Daredevil, which featured a blind superhero who fights crime using martial arts. But unlike other superheroes, he relies on his extraordinarily heightened senses. He’s able to hear heartbeats, read just by feeling the ink on paper and navigate the world around him with radar senses.
 
Ironically, the series didn’t feature audio description (AD), meaning that blind viewers weren’t able to get the most out of the show. This was until a petition was started on Change.org asking Netflix to add AD and eventually it was. (Now Netflix boasts over 40 audio described titles in the UK alone.)
 
So what about the sighted viewers? What did they take away from watching the series? The fact that this guy is a superhero sums it up: you can’t be independent unless you have some kind of exceptional powers. This also encourages the myth that blind people have super senses (which is false – we simply rely on them more as we don’t have vision).
 

It gives people an inaccurate understanding of what it means to be visually impaired and therefore does the opposite of promoting awareness.

Once when a friend and I were at a restaurant, we overheard the two women sitting at the table next to us. One of them said: “Look at that guy, he can’t see. I wonder how he finds the food on the table. Oh, it must be that girl, she’s probably his carer.”
 
One last thing, we really don’t need to touch your face – often we don’t even care what you look like. I know a lot of media (including Daredevil) features the infamous “blind person touches their face scene”, but this isn’t your average blind person behaviour.
 

Blindness in film

Moving away from the so-called “positive portrayal of blind people”, there’s a movie called At First Sight which is a romantic drama about a blind protagonist who encounters issues with a sighted heroine. These issues revolve around this man’s sight loss and him and his romantic partner eventually drifting apart..
 
Without going too deep into the details of the movie, which contains a lot of positive nonsense about sight not being everything, I’d like to talk about this guy’s occupation.
 
He is, wait for it… a masseur! Until very recently I’d never considered this to be a stereotypical job for the blind, but after some research I’ve come to learn that this is in fact a very popular occupation – especially in Asian countries where it’s one of the few avenues of employment for the visually impaired.
 

Movies like this give the notion of what visually impaired people can do, rather than the attitude of “I’m visually impaired. What do I want to do?”

Instead of exploring new avenues of job prospects, the blind must choose from a list something that sounds the most appealing to them.
 
“Are you good with music? Maybe you can tune pianos!
 
“Are you a computer whiz? Why not try out programming!”
 
Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of jobs are fine – I know a lot of blind people (including myself) who are in these occupations and are content, but this isn’t always the case. We just need to get this idea out of everyone’s heads that these are the only types of jobs we can do.
 

Blindness in literature

There have also been a lot of visually impaired characters depicted in books throughout the centuries, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel novel, where the blind character Andreas is believed to have special abilities because he has no sight, to William Shakespeare’s King Lear, where Gloucester is so completely helpless he could be tricked by the simplest of deceptions.
 
Even today, there are contemporary novels where the portrayal of visually impaired characters remains questionable. One in particular that comes to mind is the hugely popular young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it revolves around a teenage couple who are both diagnosed with cancer and hit it off at a support group. The friend of the male protagonist, Isaac, also suffers from cancer, which affects his eyes.
 
Isaac eventually loses his vision and the portrayal is fairly accurate. Throughout the novel, he tries to adapt to living with his sight loss and we see him performing everyday tasks as a blind person in the real world, not a blind person in the media.
 
However, his role in the story is to lighten the moments of the doom and gloom of the two protagonists, which makes him the proverbial good-humoured disabled person and merely serves the function of the comic-relief within the narrative.
 

In conclusion…

It seems like every story has to portray a visually impaired person as helpless, supernatural or inspirational. We can’t turn on the television or open a book and see that this blind person is just doing everyday tasks. And even if they are, it will be twisted into an inspirational story where this blind person is able to do X and Y, despite his or her disabilities. Because doing anything else won’t meet prevalent expectations or generate interest.
 
Source: This blog originally appeared on Alex Man's website and has been republished with his permission.
 

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