Today is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts and the date of the annual Boston Marathon. This morning, I read an article which left me feeling as if I had been punched in the gut. I read The Blind Side, a Runner’s World essay. I hurt. If you haven’t already, consider giving it a quick read (if you can stomach it) so we can be on the same page as I continue with my review.
The article is written by Peter Sagal, a marathoner who ran as a guide for William Greer, a runner and completer of 2013’s tragic Boston Marathon. William Greer is blind.
Sagal told his marathon story to a group of young students who attend a school for the blind in Louisiana. He recounts sharing his experience with the children, and running with them.
Sagal describes the school in Louisiana as bland and alludes to the children feeling abandoned. He describes his visit as the likely highlight of a student’s time at such a place. He reminisces about a teenager who has hopes of cheerleading, and concludes “at best, this is unlikely.”
It was easy to see, or read rather, Sagal has little experience with adults who are blind or visually impaired who are working hard and enjoying the fruit of their labor. All I wanted to do after reading was introduce him to my friends who are capable, interdependent, and all around great folks who happen to be blind.
On behalf of every sighted individual with such low expectations, I, a sighted individual, wish to publicly apologize. I am embarrassed. Here’s the reality. Blindness and visual impairments are very low incidence disabilities. Most people, like Sagal, are truly ill-informed in matters of blindness before they meet and get to know a person who has partial or no sight.
For better or worse, you are an ambassador to the sighted population. This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or teach every person everything about blindness, but it may mean you choose to show grace. Practice empathy—understand people will make a comment (in this case, comments) out of ignorance—and forgive.
My two general tips: forgive and if you’re feeling up to it, provide a sentence or two of kind enlightenment. For example, “I know hearing I want to be a cheerleader sounds unlikely, but a person who is blind can be very athletic or ‘un-athletic’, just the same as people who are sighted.” You may choose to give a few specific examples of accommodations, just as you would provide to a potential employer. I know for a fact there are cheerleaders who are blind or visually impaired at the Louisiana School for the Blind, other schools for the blind and visually impaired, and in the public schools. The CareerConnect Program Manager, Joe Strechay, has met many of these individuals through a granted series of teen employment workshops. The individuals may not go on to a professional career as a cheerleader, but they can still participate in the sport as most do not go on to be professional cheerleaders, and even those don’t typically make their living through it.
I would love to hear all of your tips on handling hurtful, blindness-specific comments. And, if you are looking for good tips on running as a person who is blind or visually impaired, read these tips from AFB’s Crista Earl, who has competed in several marathons herself.