Karen Karsh: "Blindness is one of the scariest concepts on the planet to people who aren't blind"
To me, it seems like even in 2012, there still isn't a lot of awareness around visual impairment in American society.
KK: I think there is a huge lack of awareness. I mean, gigantic. Blindness is one of the scariest concepts on the planet to people who aren't blind. For some reason, it seems like when you think about blindness, you think about the absolute living in total darkness. Which, it's truly not that way at all; it's simply an adaptation to what you do and how you do it.
I don't ever feel like I'm living in darkness. My eyes don't work like yours do, but I don't feel like I spend my life, you know, in the nighttime. But I don't. It's a question of how you envision, if you will, what blindness is truly like. For some reason, I don't know, is the scariest concept of disability there is. Because people feel like it would take away so much of what they do and how they live.
For sure, I don't get to drive, and it's frustrating to the teeth. In our part of the country, you have to have a car - so I do miss those kinds of things. But in terms of living an independent life, anyone who's blind and really wants to, yeah, you have to work at it, but you can certainly live a very normal, very independent life.
BB: One of the major issues that comes up is - we are a very visual world.
KK: That's true.
BB: Most of our work is with seniors who are now losing their vision. (They) have spent their lives seeing and doing. And yes, the older we get the sooner our car keys go away, but sometimes it's even sooner because you can't see. It becomes "how am I going to survive? I'm so used to seeing." You have to learn this whole new skill set and you're seventy years old.
KK: It's terrifying.
BB: It's not impossible, but it is absolutely terrifying.
KK: See, Barbara, I would have never thought of the visual world part, because I don't see it that way.
BB: Right, because you've never seen the world.
KK: But that's why having a sighted cohort helps. She sees it differently and knows what its like if you might lose your sight.
As a sighted person, I realize that I don't even have friends who are visually impaired -- so I never thought about what it's like. Maybe it's that sharing the world with you from the seeing perspective shouldn't be terrifying, as much as it's about understanding where you're coming from as a visually impaired person.
KK: Exactly. And not just to be understood, but to know that if it happens to you, you can handle it. And besides, if you're a friend of mine, you're not really that scared of it anymore. (Laughs.) I mean, you don't want to be blind, that's for sure, but you know people who are my friends are very well acclimated to what it's like. But I'm totally blind, so that's different than visual impairment, too.
BB: When I started here (with ACBCO) seven years ago, I didn't have friends or family members who were blind or visually impaired. I heard a lot about "oh, sighted people don't understand" and almost some hostility. What I learned from observation and getting involved with the organization - it was just ignorance about it. (For sighted people) it's like, "do I offer you help? Do I hold the door?"
As people learn - like with our "In The Dark" events - when people put on a blindfold, it's like "Oh! I can still eat dinner." I literally have sighted people ask me, "how do they eat?" Well, they put the fork in their food, and they put the food in their mouth and they chew.