How to be respectful to the visually impaired

By: Jasper Scelsi, Columnist

Picture this – well actually, picture isn’t the right word as you wouldn’t be seeing anything at all. Imagine a sport meant to be playable by the visually impaired and the sighted alike, where you are blindfolded and have to stop a ball with bells inside from getting into your team’s goal using your body to block and your ears and hands to get a sense of your surroundings.

You rest on your knees waiting for the other team to roll the ball and quickly react by laying down to block the ball when you pinpoint its location. It’s actually a lot of fun and just about anyone can play.

This sport is called goalball, and the team in Towson was started by two visually impaired students in 2017. Towson is the only university in Maryland to have a goalball team. One of the founders of this team told me that goalball is a great way to meet people and that many people who aren’t visually impaired play too.

Goalball is one way to meet people, but a lot of people meet through classes and other interactions. But there is a lot of stigma associated with blindness and seeing someone with a guide dog or a cane can be a reason for some people to stay away, or to make ignorant comments.

On the contrary for some, it can be an excuse to get too close – some people will excitedly squeal about the dog or come over to pet it. Please do NOT do this. The dog is working and it is distracting to the animal and can be dangerous. Dogs do allow for greater independence travel-wise and keep people from bumping into things, but are higher maintenance. “Canes don’t eat, sleep, or poop. They just assist,” the student said. Dogs assist too, but others can interfere. 

Both have pros and cons, and obstacles. For instance, all the construction TU is under keeps changing walkways and making it hard for dogs and cane users to get around. The student I talked to had no guide dog his first semester and was able to learn his way around campus on his own, then teach his dog his preferred routes. But those have had to change often.

Another way visually impaired people interact with the world is through using assistive technology. An example of that is a screen reader, which is software that reads everything on a webpage and allows people to get around a webpage using their keyboard. The screen reader JAWS is available on some computers in the TU library, but a commonly used and free screen reader called NVDA is preferred by many of the visually impaired people I speak to. 

VoiceOver, available on Apple products, is also common. The student I interviewed had VoiceOver on his watch, phone, and iPad. He also used magnification programs, because he has partial eyesight. He navigated to Pandora and played music using magnification. Screen readers can help people who aren’t visually impaired, too — it can help people who struggle with reading, like dyslexics, or it can read emails aloud while you’re doing something else, for instance.

The student tells me that people should remember “everyone has their own thing going on, people should enjoy college while they can and be cool with everyone.” If you see a visually impaired student, treat them like anyone else. Good friends do not coddle, they respect each other and offer help when asked, not when they assume. 

Maybe ask if someone is really struggling because help is appreciated, but don’t butt in and do something for someone. Don’t allow differences in perception to prevent a good friendship.

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