Which Is It? Blind or Visually Impaired?

By Randy Pierce

“Don’t call yourself blind” was expressed to me in a somewhat irritable fashion once after a presentation in which I had done so. I respect the people’s desire to communicate their feelings about my choice of words and the potential for misconceptions, but personally, I would have preferred a more open-minded approach!

I have absolutely no light perception or any other form of visual ability. I’m perfectly comfortable with the word “blind” to accurately describe my situation. This is also referred to as NLP or “no light perception” or total blindness. I respect that for many with varied forms of vision loss, the word “blind” seems like a final and often terrifying status they hope to never reach.

The truth is that blindness has been defined as a legal term–and only roughly 8% of blind people are NLP. This means the vast majority, approximately 92%, might be termed “legally blind,” and have some degree of vision.

“Legally blind” is defined as having vision in the better eye at less than 20/200 with the best possible corrective adjustment or a visual field of less than 20 degrees. Typical people experience 20/20 vision in each eye with a field of roughly 180 degrees.

All these definitions are certainly valid, but they do not take into consideration the reality of emotion nor the detrimental potential in semantics or misconceptions. Whether knowing the definition or not, if someone perceives themselves as not blind but rather visually impaired, they not only may wish to avoid a word they consider detrimental–they they may have strongly negative associations with the word blindness and the use of it may be hurtful to them whether intended or not.

There is pretty clear evidence that services offered to the blind attract statistically less people requesting help than services for the visually impaired, even though the same people would qualify. This aversion for some is a strong indicator of the significance placed upon the word. They avoid those services not likely as a matter of principle or pride but often because they perceive it as not applying to them.

One other interesting impact is the impression of the fully sighted. As they often have the notion that of “blindness” only refers to total blindness, they may be doubt the validity of those whose visual struggle is actually considerable and not wish to classify them as blind.

For example, when I still had some remaining vision, I recall all too well my frustration, shame, and anger as I held my cane to my side and struggled to read a label in a grocery store. A passerby commented rather hurtfully: “You aren’t really blind, you faker.” At the time, I still struggled with embarrassment about my blindness and the very real challenges it presented. The comment was uneducated and inappropriate by all measures, but all too symbolic of another stumbling block.

So in this last accusation as well as the first one about not calling one’s self blind, each comment could have been addressed with open-minded communication. I was in fact blind in both cases, though I might prefer the word visually impaired in either situation. It’s nearly impossible to know for certain how such a diverse word will be taken, and all I can reasonably suggest is just to be reasonable in your communication to explore what is the right word for any situation. I’m quite sure that I am both blind and comfortable with the term and similarly with every well intentioned use of the term. Personally, I will try to lead with the term “visually impaired” when uncertain because I do know the reasons and realities behind the preferences for some.

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