The Experience of Blindness

This article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Abilities Digest.

Blind person walking with dog

While updating ability-specific guidance provided by the National Special Needs and Disabilities Committee (NSNDC), we reached out to the National Federation of the Blind. With the help of Christopher S. Danielson, its Director of Public Relations, we have developed the following guidance for “Building Empathy with Activities.”

The best way to help the sighted members of the Scout unit understand what life is like for the blind is to talk with blind people in the community and watch while do ordinary tasks.  Local blindness support agencies can help you with this.  The Scouts will probably be amazed at what those with blindness can do, not what they can’t do.

A leader may think that any blindfolded game or activity would promote empathy and understanding, but it takes a careful and nuanced approach to succeed at this. Asking a sighted person to perform a task while blindfolded does not give the same experience as not being able to see.  A blind person has had plenty of time to become comfortable working without vision and to find ways to adapt.  A blindfolded exercise will make being blind seem harder than it actually is. Another risk is that the exercise will unintentionally make light of the disability or make it seem worse than it is.  This can encourage ableist attitudes. 

If you are thinking of including a blindfolded activity at an event to build empathy for a blind Scout in the unit, discuss this first with the Scout and the family to get their perspective on whether to proceed and, if so, how to present the activity so that it is not offensive.  At a minimum, plan on an age-appropriate interpretation talk before the exercise to focus the Scouts’ attention on what they CAN do while blindfolded, and plan on completing the activity with an introspective reflection discussion about how their beliefs and attitudes have changed.  While we want Scouts to be caring and relate to one another’s life experience, we don’t want them to “feel sorry” for others and treat them as anything less because of a disability.