Understanding Blindness


The ongoing need of almost all people who are blind is simply to be accepted and loved as individuals who have unique personalities, talents, and abilities.

When I found out that our stake was going to produce a musical show I was filled with the desire to participate. I had been in many plays, but since becoming totally blind three years earlier, I had neglected my love of amateur acting. I was afraid that the directors would never use a blind actress, and I wondered if I would be able to handle the complex stage movements. But my desires overcame my fears, and I auditioned for a part in the show.

The audition went well, but even my very supportive husband warned me not to get too hopeful. To my surprise, I not only got the part I wanted, but one of the directors hadn’t even realized I was blind! Had I let my fears keep me from trying, I would have missed one of the most delightful experiences of my life.

Unfortunately, some people I’ve talked to think that going blind would be the end of the world for them; they’d rather suffer any affliction than blindness!

But life isn’t over if you’re blind. A blind person is, after all, a regular person who can’t see well.

To Be Blind

Some people are born blind because of birth defects or accidents at birth; others lose their vision much later through accidents or through diseases such as diabetes. Loss of vision may come suddenly or gradually, and it may come at any age. Visual impairment is common after age sixty-five from many problems.

Blindness isn’t always absolute darkness. The majority of people who are legally blind have at least some limited sight. Some see broad outlines of objects but are unable to see any detail; others see well enough to read large print. Tunnel vision enables a person to see only directly ahead; other types of blindness enable one to see only to the side. Night blindness afflicts many, while the glare of bright lights causes blindness in others.

For those who grew up sighted, adjusting to blindness can be extremely difficult. But, like dealing with any other change, the person’s attitude—as well as support from others—can make things easier.

When I first became blind I wondered if I could ever take care of my husband and young children by myself. For a period of time I was emotionally and mentally depressed. But then I finally realized that I could still do most everything I used to do if I worked hard, practiced, and used a little ingenuity to find another way of doing it.

The adjustment to blindness can be particularly difficult for elderly people who are newly blinded. I was saddened to learn from an 82-year-old blind woman that she spent her days reminiscing about the past and wishing she could die because she could no longer see to read, sew, or do any of the other activities she had once enjoyed. Another elderly woman told a friend that when she could no longer see to take the sacrament, she would stop going to church.

While such feelings may be typical in the initial stages of a person’s adjustment to blindness, these sisters need encouragement of family and friends to help them realize that life still holds great meaning and that barriers to full participation in the Church are more imagined than real.

Caring and supportive friends can be a source of much needed emotional strength and physical assistance to someone who becomes blind, and it’s important to maintain that support. The needs of the person who is visually impaired may change as he or she learns to adapt and become independent, but sighted members should try to be aware of needs that may persist. The ongoing need of almost all people who are blind is simply to be accepted and loved as individuals who have unique personalities, talents, and abilities.

Seeing People Correctly

Probably the greatest challenges faced by people who are blind comes from sighted peoples’ misunderstanding. Two of the most harmful beliefs are that a blind person is either (1) a “superman” or “superwoman” who can do amazing things even though he or she is blind, or (2) an unfortunate person incapable of doing even the simplest task. It would be far more helpful to the blind person to view him or her—and treat him or her—as a regular person.

An experience related by Bruce Gardner, a blind attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, illustrates both of these beliefs. When Bruce moved into his ward, he met a teenage boy, blind from birth, who was intelligent and friendly. But ward members treated him as though he were helpless: they led him everywhere. “When the people in the ward saw how independent I was, they thought I was unusual,” says Bruce.

“When I was called to be this boy’s home teacher, I immediately bought him a cane. One Saturday morning, we walked the short distance to the chapel together, something he had never done before, and then we walked all over the building getting him acquainted with the hallways and the rooms. After two short sessions he could find his way anywhere in the building independently. The only problem was that some people found it difficult to change their attitude toward him. He is now serving a full-time mission and plans to earn a college degree when he returns.”

Learning to do things without vision or with limited vision requires time, effort, and sometimes even training. But the person who is visually impaired needs neither exaggerated praise nor excessive pity.

“Attitudes toward the blind will always be a problem,” remarks Dr. John Crandell, professor of educational psychology at Brigham Young University. “There are people who are amazed that I can tie my shoes!”

Pam Taylor of Bennion, Utah, agrees. She and her husband, Milt, both visually impaired, have seven children, including two-year-old twins. “It’s frustrating that whenever something goes wrong with one of the children, like a discipline problem, people think it’s because I am blind, not just that every parent experiences such problems with children.”

Serving in the Church

Members with visual impairments have served in virtually every Church calling. Even prophets and Apostles have continued to serve the Lord effectively and successfully despite visual impairment—from Isaac and Jacob, both of whom experienced “dim” vision in later years, to President George Albert Smith and Elder Richard L. Evans, both of whom were totally blind in one eye. President Marion G. Romney was heard to jokingly refer to the visual impairments of aged President Spencer W. Kimball, President N. Eldon Tanner, and himself—then member of the First Presidency—as “three blind mice”!

Dr. John Crandell points out the obvious but often overlooked truth that “not everyone can be a great teacher or leader, but blindness is not the cause of that. Unto each—including each blind person—is given a gift, but few have all gifts. Let the blind person develop his or her own talents and abilities.”

Too many blind members find that their opportunities to serve are limited because of others’ attitudes. Clair Todd, a sister from Norwich, England, who now lives in Homestead, Florida, says, “In some wards—fortunately not my current one—I have not been considered for Church callings because I am blind. These were callings that I could have done without difficulty! In one instance, the bishop was inspired to call me as Young Adult representative, but he kept rejecting the prompting with, ‘But Heavenly Father, she can’t do it!’ Again and again the prompting came, and finally the bishop approached me. Of course I was able to do it!”

Some Other Challenges

No matter how well an individual may have adjusted to blindness, there are still many challenges.

Reading. The inability to read print is one of the biggest challenges of nearly every blind person. Reading mail and paying bills may be difficult if not impossible; keeping current on the latest developments or trends is difficult; trying to help a child with homework can be frustrating for both parent and child.

Modern technological advances such as tape recorders and computers have made it easier for blind people to “read” and write much easier than in days when only braille was available. Since becoming blind, I have learned to use a computer with voice synthesizer; this has allowed me to continue writing and editing, which I did professionally for a number of years before going blind. However, tape recorders and computers are only a partial answer; since the equipment limits the speed with which a blind person can read, there is always more reading material available than we can easily handle.

How can sensitive Church members help? “When people ask me to substitute teach for them,” says Dianne Brown of Salt Lake City, “it would be very helpful if they would read the lesson onto a cassette tape. Finding someone to read to me at the time I am able to work on the lesson is sometimes very difficult.”

Dr. Thomas H. Pettit, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center and associate director of the Jules Stein Eye Institute, notes, “As a bishop, I would frequently set up teams of people to prepare tapes of materials for the visually impaired as a service project. It worked out well, since many in my area had an interest in drama and were delighted to read into a tape recorder!”

Another reading dilemma, says Tommy Miyasaki of Sugar City, Idaho, “is when teachers write on the chalkboard or display a poster without reading what is written.”

I appreciated the awareness and thoughtfulness displayed by one Relief Society teacher. She gave me a cassette tape containing the same message she had printed up for the other sisters. She also made an extra effort during her lesson to describe any visual aids she used.

Transportation. The need to rely on others for transportation and the resulting loss of independence is also frustrating to the blind. Sensitive Church members can make a great difference. “I’ve had home teaching companions who were always willing to drive, even when I lived in wards covering large areas,” says Dr. Crandell. Mary Maxfield, a widow in Salt Lake City, says that ward members take her to the temple monthly and to weekly church meetings.

In my own case, ward members frequently call me to see if I have a ride to homemaking meeting or if my children need rides somewhere. They offer so frequently that it makes it easier for me to call when no one happens to offer.

Other Activities. Wendy Bybee and her son James, of West Valley City, Utah, both blind from birth, have found that a helpful Church leader can make a great difference. “James used to have trouble in Scouting, but his current Blazer Scout leader is exceptional! She has spent extra time helping him learn to tie knots; she also prints up materials in larger print for him and always makes sure the announcements she sends home are in dark enough print for me to read. She has helped me find ways to help James earn merit badges so that it’s fair to him but doesn’t make the other boys think he’s getting off easy.”

Social Acceptance. Although people are kind to them at church meetings, some blind people find that they are seldom invited to do anything socially. It’s more difficult to be outgoing in getting to know people than it used to be before I became blind. I can’t just go sit by anyone I want to or find someone in a crowd after church. And I can’t see who the new faces in the ward are. I often just have to sit and hope that someone will take the initiative to come and sit by me.

Being Comfortable

Perhaps people are afraid they’ll do or say something offensive to a blind person. But since I always make jokes about my blindness, one way I can tell that others have become comfortable with my handicap is that they also begin to tease me about it. I just want people to treat me like they would any other friend.

A ward member told me that one day she saw a car driving by and, thinking I was the driver, she waved. A moment later, she thought, “How silly! Laurie’s blind; she can’t see me wave.” Her mind didn’t find it at all odd that I could be driving the car. “I felt so silly when I thought of it later,” she told me. “But then, I always forget you are blind.” Perhaps that is the greatest compliment I am ever paid—when people think of me as they would any other individual. “I forget you’re blind”—that’s one of the nicest things I could hear.

What Can You Do?

  1. 1.

    Get acquainted with those who are blind so you can understand their individual needs, rather than guessing about what they can or cannot do. Ask if you can help before imposing your services on them. When they say they don’t need help, believe them.

  2. 2.

    Allow them to serve. If you aren’t sure whether they can do something, ask. Don’t guess at their possible abilities or limitations.

  3. 3.

    Identify yourself when you greet them. Don’t play the game of “Who is this?” Many times they will recognize your voice, but they appreciate it when you identify yourself.

  4. 4.

    If they want to walk with you, let them take your arm and follow; don’t grab their arm and pull them along. If they are walking with a cane, ask, “May I help you?” rather than taking it for granted that they need you. When you are helping them find a seat, place their hand on the back of a chair rather than pushing them into it. Remember: they probably require less assistance than you think.

  5. 5.

    Offer to read or tape-record material for them—if it is not already available on tape. When reading, say “quote” and “end of quote” when appropriate.

  6. 6.

    When giving lessons, read the visual aids or items written on the chalkboard.

  7. 7.

    Talk directly to them; don’t ask questions through someone else. Blindness doesn’t affect their intelligence. And talk in a normal tone of voice rather than shouting; most blind people are not deaf.

  8. 8.

    Don’t assume that their other senses, such as hearing, are automatically developed in some unique way. They do learn to use their other senses more fully, but there’s no such thing as natural compensation.

  9. 9.

    Get to know them! Be friends. It will enrich your life as well as theirs.

[photos] Photography by Longin Lonczyna

[photo] Ron Gardner, first counselor in his ward’s Young Men presidency, is also teachers quorum adviser and a Scout leader. On the way to quorum meeting, he chats with the young men about the fishing and boating trip they recently enjoyed.

[photo] Following suggestions of a supportive Scout leader, Wendy Bybee has found ways to help her son James earn Scouting merit badges. Both mother and son have been blind since birth.

[photo] Blindness hasn’t hindered Linda Braithwaite’s opportunities to develop or share her musical talents. She has served as organist and pianist in several wards and currently sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Laurie Wilson Thornton has been totally blind for eight years. She and her husband, Scott, have four children, two of whom were adopted after she became blind.