Visually impaired must raise voices

By James Alan Fox
Auguest 15, 2008

If you can read these words—that is, without straining, squinting, holding the paper under a magnifier or using any other low-vision aid to decipher this small font—then this column is not about you. Still, please read on, as the message has everything to do with you and the majority of people who are uninformed about the special struggles of the visually impaired.

By way of establishing my own credentials in this area, I was for very many years registered with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind as "legally blind." I received wonderful assistance from the agency, as well as certain government benefits, such as an extra tax exemption and excise tax abatement on my automobile (an irony that always amused my friends). More recently, after eye surgery, my vision no longer falls within the limits of legal blindness. Whatever it may be called now ("illegally blind"?), I still struggle in a world that is itself blind and ignorant to vision impairment unless it comes with dark glasses and a white cane.

The examples of low-vision challenges—some rather unnecessary ones—are all around. These are but a few:

Presumably to save space and cut costs, most daily papers put certain features well beyond the abilities of those with less-than-normal sight. I thought my vision had improved, yet I can no longer distinguish lefty from righty in the daily pitching form. And there is surely no space-saving purpose for using a gray background for certain graphics, with aesthetics trumping readability.

I always seek out the tiny large-print section in bookstores. But for some unexplained reason, these editions are sometimes arranged on the very top shelf where the titles can't be read except by people who needn't read them. Although I complain, bookstores fail to see the incongruity and choose not to alter the corporate-imposed store layout.

Traveling is consistently difficult for reasons that make little sense. Why do airport monitors have to be hung so high? The new check-in kiosks, which are not all that simple to read or follow, have at least freed up the ticket agents to stand around and look on with puzzlement as I bend or kneel to read the computer screen.

And there is absolutely no blind justice at airport food courts. Forget about reading the menus placed high up on the walls behind the fast-food counters. It is demeaning and embarrassing to ask some disinterested cashier to read off the breakfast selections while a line of hungry and impatient travelers grows behind me.

Entertainment must really be a luxury, as so many house policies seem to be stacked against those like me. On countless occasions, the visually impaired "accommodation" at concert halls and sporting events is the wheelchair section located in the very back row. To add insult to injustice, the ticket-seller for the rock concert has the nerve to ask why it matters where I sit because all that is important is hearing the music. Do you suppose the "good seats" are expensive just because the music is louder up front?

I do not mean to suggest that all businesses and establishments turn a blind eye to issues of sight impairment. A few enlightened Major League Baseball teams, for example, have a wonderful policy of reserving a few selected seats for visually impaired fans, right behind the protective home-plate screen. This seating arrangement definitely helps, though I must truly look stupid to folks watching the telecast at home in high definition when I raise my powerful binoculars to see the batter some 40 feet away.

Of course, there are those in the crowds who complain when, on occasion, people like me have access to purchasing some really choice seats without being scalped in the process. They simply fail to see what I don't see: The front row seems as close up to me as the back row does to them.

It is high time for we of limited vision to raise our voices and collectively demand fairness. The farsighted world is blind, or at least myopic, when it comes to seeing the somewhat unnecessary struggles of those in the low-vision set. The fundamental problem is that when people think disability, they think paraplegic. When people think accommodation, they think wheelchair accessible. Meanwhile, many midrange disabilities go unacknowledged.

The U.S. Congress is working to reinforce the prescriptions and requirements of the Americans with Disability Act. However, lawmakers give relatively little thought to the challenges of the visually impaired. It is yet another disappointing case of out of sight, out of mind.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminal justice and law, policy and society at Northeastern University. His sight impairment has existed from birth.