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Why Blindfolding Is a Really Dumb Idea

Frequently, with the very best of intentions, someone decides that blindfolding people who are sighted will help them understand what it’s like to be blind. Superficially, this sounds like a great idea; after all, it’s a walk a mile in my moccasins moment, isn’t it?

Describing it as “really dumb” is pretty strong language so let me explain.

There are some experiences that can’t be appreciated by only walking a mile in those proverbial moccasins. You have to walk a lot further. Sociologists who study this sort of thing have learned that people need about six months of being immersed in an experience to begin to truly comprehend complex events with which they are unfamiliar.

Spending a week as a tourist in New York City, for example, gives a visitor from a small town a better understanding of what it is like to live in a large metropolitan area than if they had never left home, but a week in the “big apple” can do little more than provide a very superficial awareness of what daily life is like if you were to live there. The list of things the visitor will be unaware of will be long and important, and they may leave with impressions that are more negative than they might have if they’d spent a longer time in the city.

So, what does this have to do with blindfolding?

There are essentially three reasons why I think blindfolding is really dumb. First, it only provides an extremely superficial notion of what blindness is like. It’s the equivalent of five minutes in New York. If that weren’t enough, the person being blindfolded is almost always placed in a situation requiring blindness-related skills they don’t have. It’s like expecting the tourist from Wolf Jaw, Montana to know how to negotiate the subways as soon as they hit town.

A quick digression may be in order at this point. There is a skill to using a cane. Like any other skill, it requires training and experience. It’s not just a matter of waving a stick back and forth. To facilitate learning, students are typically blindfolded to force them to not rely on any residual vision they might have and, instead, concentrate on hearing and touch. I’m perfectly good with this because the blindfolding is designed to serve a practical purpose and not just be a gimmick.

Second, blindfolding, albeit unintended, emphasizes the things a subject can’t do. I can, for example, remember the very first lesson I ever had in learning to use a cane. The instructor took our class to a quiet suburban area. He explained that all we had to do was walk around the block. It was a simple rectangle with sidewalks all the way. He promised that there were no obstructions; all we had to do was follow the sidewalk. Because I still had some usable vision, I was blindfolded. Nonetheless, I remember thinking, “This will be a piece of cake. All I have to do is follow the sidewalk and make three ninety-degree turns to the left.” Wrong! Since this was something I had never done before, I was concentrating so hard to follow the sidewalk that I quickly lost track of how many turns I had made. The entire experience was profoundly disorienting.

However, when we repeated the exercise later in the same day, it really was a piece of cake. The first lesson dramatically underscored the things I couldn’t do. By the time we did the afternoon lesson, even though it was only a few hours later, I had developed some very basic skills, and it emphasized what I could do.

The typical blindfolding of sighted people never teaches the appropriate skills and never gives an opportunity to practice them. Without ever consciously thinking about it, the message that is conveyed is let’s see how helpless we can make you feel.

The third reason is somewhat counter-intuitive: Blindfolding contributes to a more negative feeling about blindness. To test this hypothesis, researchers at the University of Colorado blindfolded some students and asked them to perform some very simple tasks like walking down a hall or sorting coins. The study found that 53% of these students felt that blindness made people less capable as contrasted with 34% of those who had not been blindfolded feeling the same way. In other words, blindfolding made the students 55% more likely to have a negative view of blindness.

I’d argue that, if blindfolding is going to be used (something I’m still not very crazy about), it should be designed and supervised by someone who really is blind. This way, it’s far more likely to be both a realistic and constructive experience. After all, we don’t just turn over the keys to the car when someone turns sixteen and expect them to know how to drive without appropriate training and experience.

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