Breaking biases and barriers
There are a lot of misconceptions about blindness and low vision – what it is, what it’s like to experience it, how people navigate it, or how to help. This gap in knowledge creates unnecessary barriers and biases for people with blindness or low vision, and gets in the way of a Boundless world. So, we sat down with some young people in the community to answer Australia’s top questions and set the record straight. Because the more you know, the more you can change. Ready?
Read on to hear from Harrison, Abby, Jamal, Ingrid, Sarah, Lara and Zara – all young people with blindness or low vision living and working in NSW. These are real answers from real people with lived experience – no one’s experience is the same.
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Everyone’s experience of blindness and low vision is different. In fact, it’s more like a spectrum – some people have no sight at all, some people might have some sight or only light perception, and other people might have a lot of useable eyesight. Even two people with exactly the same diagnosis will have different experiences and what they see will be really different.
A person is considered legally blind when they can see at 6 metres or less what a person with typical vision can see at 60 metres. Either that, or they may see really clearly, but have a 10 degree or less visual field; think of looking through a straw. These measurements are taken with the person using their glasses or contact lenses, from the eye with the most useable vision.
With the right support and services, anyone with blindness or low vision is capable of being fully independent unless there are other factors that might complicate things.
“I live by myself in a studio apartment,” Jamal says. “I cook for myself. I pay my bills all myself. So yeah, independence is totally possible. A lot of blind people are living independently without any issues.”
‘Independence’ looks really different for everyone. For some people, living alone might be the goal. For others, having a solid job might be the priority. It’s up to each individual what independence means for them, and there’s no need for a one-size-fits-all idea.
It really depends on the situation, so it’s always important to introduce yourself and ask first before trying to help someone who might look lost or unaware of an obstacle or traffic situation. Sometimes, an offer of help can go a long way, especially if something out of the ordinary is happening – such as a bus stop that’s moved, or a car that’s driving erratically. But, as Ingrid says, “don’t pounce on every person you see with a cane or a guide dog.”
“If someone’s moving really confidently through a space, they’re likely happy with the way that they’re navigating. One time, I jumped off the train at Central Station and was chatting to someone on the phone. A person just came up to me, grabbed me by the elbow and started guiding me along the platform. Obviously, they had absolutely no idea where I was going, so that was a pretty quirky experience. I had to politely move my elbow out of their grip and tell them that I was fine.”
“We do get trained by orientation and mobility specialists as well as Guide Dog mobility instructors to navigate with our cane or our guide dog or no aid at all,” says Ingrid. “So if we’re moving happily along, we probably don’t need any help. But if you want to ask, always say hello first and just be polite about it.”
The most important thing is to ask – not just assume – and be sure to introduce yourself before approaching someone.
“The best way to offer someone help is to first look and see if they actually look lost or like they need help,” Ingrid says. “If they do, you can go over to them and ask them. If they say they do, then ask how they’d like that help. This means that you won’t get it wrong. You can just do exactly what they’ve said.”
If you don’t ask, you run the risk of guiding someone in the wrong direction, or helping someone who didn’t need help at all. “I’ve had people get behind me and try and steer me from behind like a shopping trolley when they’re trying to guide me,” Harrison says.
“People tend to make a prediction about how you’d like to be guided, but we could walk more fluently together if they just were happy to take a tip on how best to guide me.
“It doesn’t have to be hard or daunting. A simple ‘hi, how are you? I’m such and such. Can I lend a hand?’ is a very useful strategy in the vast majority of situations. Then just listen to the person and be guided by them instead of making assumptions.”
People in the community use a variety of mobility aids such as canes, Guide Dogs and/or Miniguides (a small, portable device that uses sensors, audio and vibrations to alert you of your surroundings) to get around, whether that’s on public transport or on foot.
With these aids, Ingrid says, “I don’t feel disabled. It’s a funny thing to say, even though I very much am a blind person, I don’t feel disabled when I’m walking with my Guide Dog, which is the best part. I feel confident and happy and can go about my day just feeling like, you know, the best version of myself.”
Some people don’t use any aid, or prefer to have a support worker with them when they’re out and about. At Guide Dogs, we offer a range of orientation and mobility training programs to help people with blindness or low vision learn specific routes (for example, to work) or to build confidence navigating public spaces.
“Sometimes people think that if someone’s blind or they have low vision, they won’t care so much about their own appearance because they can’t see it,” Sarah says. “But that’s really a myth that needs to be busted. A lot of people do care how they look and they have their own really strong sense of style.”
For someone like Ingrid, fashion and makeup have become more important since going through vision loss. “I really invest a lot of time and energy curating my look on the daily – but there is this really frustrating stereotype that exists where people believe that those with low vision or blindness let everything go,” she says. “They don’t wear makeup, they don’t dress nice, they just look really drab. I come across this all the time and it’s simply not true.
“I’ve had people on social media say, ‘Oh, she can’t be blind because she’s wearing makeup or she’s wearing nice clothes’ and I just don’t know why those two things have to be in opposition to each other. We can absolutely be disabled and dress well.
“For me, curating a nice look really gives me confidence when I step out the front door like it would for anybody else. But it also shows just how capable I am of just existing, like any other young woman. My blindness doesn’t mean I can’t make myself look fabulous. Nothing gives me more confidence than a bold red lip, just like my Queen, Taylor Swift, and, you know, having to figure it out myself.”
People with blindness tend to have a solid memory and knowledge of what’s in their cupboard, both visually and texturally.
“I know what clothes I have in my wardrobe,” Abby says. “I know what colour t-shirts I have, what kind of skirts and pants I have. And so I think about a colour that I feel like wearing or a particular item. Like ‘oh, I feel like wearing that tweed blue jacket.’ Then I find something that matches that.”
Sarah says that “things also feel really different. For example, the shirt I’m wearing now has a real textural element, so it’s really easy to kind of pick that out versus a t-shirt or something like that.”
“People often ask me if I have other senses that are heightened,” says Sarah, a disability advocate with low vision. “And for me, I definitely rely more on my hearing than what other people do, but it’s not that I’ve got amazing bionic hearing. I’ve just learned to use my other senses more than what someone who’s fully sighted would do.”
There has been some research done that’s shown how people who are born with blindness can develop heightened senses of hearing, smell and touch, as well as things like memory or language. But not in an overly dramatic way. It’s simply a bit of compensation that helps your brain process the world around you.
There are a range of barriers impacting young people in the blindness and low vision community – from unemployment and social biases, to products and services being inaccessible.
“A big one is getting fair and equitable employment,” Jamal says. “It’s quite hard to get a regular sort of full time or even part-time job as a person with blindness. The options are quite limited and then you have to deal with a lot of negative perceptions about people with blindness. Around 60% of people with low vision or blindness who are able and willing to work are unemployed. So, economically that’s probably one of our biggest challenges.
“Otherwise, some of my biggest barriers are social. Like, negative perceptions about people with blindness and people not knowing what our lifestyle is like and what we’re capable, and not capable, of doing.”
Then there are physical and digital barriers. “A lot of the things that sighted people are able to use are not accessible to me as a blind person,” Jamal says. “If people don’t design websites to work well with a screen reader, that makes life more difficult. And in terms of physical barriers, I guess the lack of pedestrian crossings or tactiles (raised dots on the pavement) in certain suburbs can make things a bit more difficult.”
Yes, but shopping online can be difficult if brands have not made their websites accessible or included detailed descriptions of the products available. In fact, many prefer shopping online because they find it easier.
“The main thing that makes like an online store or listing more appealing,” Jamal says “is when they provide better descriptions of what’s being sold, and they make specific references to what’s on the garment. There are certain stores that will describe an item in detail, including what materials it’s made out of. They’ll also talk about the brand and what the brand represents. I find that super helpful for picking out clothes. And I like when web stores list the dimensions of garments in text. The more written description of a product, the more likely I am to purchase.”
Absolutely, especially as more movies are being made more accessible with the addition of audio description. This is where a voiceover explains and describes what’s happening on screen in between vital sounds or dialogue. It can make a huge difference in improving the experience for people with blindness or low vision to know who’s chasing who, or where in the world the scene is taking place – stuff sighted people might take for granted.
While the option to turn on audio description is becoming more commonplace at cinemas and on streaming services, not all shows have this. There’s also no audio description on commercial television stations, which puts us way behind some other countries. This can make content confusing to watch. “A few weeks ago, I went to see Barbie with one of my support workers and a few other people,” Lara says. “I just left it up to one of the people who I was going with to book the tickets and we got there only to find that the session we were in didn’t actually have audio description – whereas all the other sessions that were showing on that day did so it was rather disappointing. It would have been nice to see it with audio description, but I’m very lucky that my support worker is very good at describing and explaining things.”
Sarah has a two-year-old and a four-year-old at home. “I’ve had a bit of a chat to them about me having low vision, but I’ve kept it pretty relaxed. Sometimes I just say to them, remember, my eyes work differently to yours and they know they’re not allowed to pat my Guide Dog when she’s working,” she says.
There are many ways people can get involved in improving accessibility and inclusion for the blindness and low vision community.
- Learn more. The more you know about blindness or low vision, the more you can help break barriers for the community. Share these FAQs with friends and family to help improve understanding and remove biases.
- Get involved in an accessibility project. If you think your brand, product, platform or space could use more accessibility, reach out to Guide Dogs to become an accessibility partner. We’ll connect you with people who can work to understand and improve your offering for the community. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Volunteers play a vital role at all Guide Dogs organisations around the country. As a Guide Dogs volunteer, you’ll be part of a community of like-minded people who are truly committed to supporting Australians with low vision or blindness.
- Become a Puppy Raiser. At eight weeks of age, our Guide Dog pups are placed in the community with volunteer Puppy Raisers. We’re always looking for new families or individuals who can ensure our new puppy recruits get the best possible care, in a loving home environment while receiving necessary training.
- Guide Dogs has a range of Major Gift packages, Regular Giving options and gratefully accepts Gifts in Wills. You can also become a Corporate Partner or join our Community Fundraising program.
“We’ve got strategies for cooking,” Sarah says. “It’s probably not that much different to how other people do it. I mean, I’m a little bit more careful with the knives, and I’ve got a few pieces of accessible equipment like talking scales for if I’m doing baking and that sort of thing.”
Braille or tactile labels (raised bumps) on appliance buttons or ingredient packages can make cooking easier. “I have a cupboard full of herbs and every herb is in the exact same shape container so I’m not able to tell what it is without opening it and smelling it,” Jamal says. “So I put Braille labels on all of those myself. It would be so cool if I could just buy a product straight off the shelf that was labelled appropriately with Braille.”
Guide Dogs also offers occupational therapy (OT) for people wanting to learn new ways to manage daily living activities – from organising your clothes to making your kitchen more accessible.
“But let’s be honest,” Sarah says. “I’m a working mum so often I just love a dinner service.”
Guide Dogs are allowed wherever people are allowed – including restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, taxis, rideshares, and even airplanes. The only exceptions where a Guide Dog is not permitted are operating theatres, commercial kitchens and some parts of the zoo.
Ingrid says her Guide Dog has “been to all sorts of different environments. He’s snored his way through the Moulin Rouge musical. I’m not sure how he managed that because it’s so loud. He quite enjoyed Elton John in concert, though, amongst other performances and all that sort of thing. He’s had a very cultured existence”.
Yes, many people with blindness or low vision want to experience the world just like anyone else.
“Sometimes people assume that I wouldn’t want to travel because I can’t see,” Harrison says. “The assumption has been that travel is all about seeing – seeing the sights and the delights that you can observe physically. But that’s a bit of a myth. It’s also about the people and about the culture and about sharing that experience with the people you’re travelling with.”
There are many tools people with blindness or low vision use to make travelling easier – from undertaking orientation and mobility training, to having a support worker or Guide Dog along for the ride.
“My Guide Dog’s skillset is so ingrained that it’s translatable to any and all environments,” Ingrid says. “He’s now done 29 flights with me domestically, all around Australia. He’s been to Melbourne, he’s been to Noosa, Byron, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Adelaide and he’s just perfect in the cabin. We get assigned an extra seat for free next to my seat and he has space in front to relax. Of course he gets a carrot as an in-flight snack and he’s absolutely the delight of all the staff who happen to be working that flight.
“Next year we’ll be tackling our first international trip to the UK, which we plan to break up over a couple of flights. So Sydney, Perth, Singapore, Europe just to give him some breaks there. Of course, he does sleep eight to nine hours every night, so he can go for a long time.”
People who have some functional vision might identify as having low vision. Their vision can be distorted or reduced in a variety of ways by things like light sensitivity, nystagmus, reduced field of vision, blurriness and more. These individuals likely aren’t able to use common aids like glasses or contact lenses to correct their vision, and may still require mobility aids such as a Guide Dog, a cane or assistive technologies to improve their navigation.
When it comes to language, Sarah, who still has some functional vision, says “low vision is hard to define. I would sometimes describe myself as having low vision. Other times I might say that I’m a person with blindness and I think it’s really important to note that with language. It’s something that keeps changing over time. So it’s really important to go with the person’s preference”.
Braille remains an important way for people with blindness and low vision to read and write. It’s particularly important for kids to develop their literacy. Some people use it all the time and others may just use it to read a sign or label by touch. Either way, it’s as relevant as ever.
However, the number of Braille users has decreased significantly in recent years, and only about 10 percent of the blindness and low vision community can read it fluently. In other words, don’t assume someone can use Braille just because they’re blind.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of Braille readers,” Jamal says, “whether that be due to lack of resourcing during education or people losing their sight later on in life and thinking that they’re not going to be able to learn Braille.
“I learned Braille later on in life, and, although I’m not the best reader, I’m glad I’ve done it. It’s made life a lot easier for me. It’s helped my independence quite a lot, especially in the kitchen, through labelling the things that I use in the pantry and whatever else. So I would always encourage people with blindness or low vision who are interested in learning Braille to do it, because it does make life easier”.
“People don’t assume that we would play computer games and stuff,” Jamal says, “but there are loads of people with blindness that do play video games – with a few hacks.
“Some people who are good at coding have figured out how to recode the game as like a hack to play a card game where all the cards are read out using a screen reader. Or there are people with blindness that know all the sounds in Pokemon games so they know like what is happening on the screen and like what village they’re in, with the soundtrack and all kinds of stuff.”
There are many assistive technologies – and accessibility settings on your smartphone or computer – that allow people with blindness or low vision to read and engage with information.
- Screen readers are apps that can speak aloud what’s on your screen. They can also show the text in Braille with a connected Braille display – a device that turns text on screen into tactile Braille. Screen reader users use a range of keyboard shortcuts or gestures on a touchscreen to control their device. However, this only works if the content or app is accessible.
- A Miniguide is a small handheld device that uses sensors, audio and vibrations to detect and inform you of obstacles in your path while you’re walking around.
- Amazon Alexa is a voice-activated home or office assistant that reads out information to you – from the weather, to your emails – and actions short commands (kind of like Siri on your phone).
- Or, your smartphone! The next question goes into more details about the accessibility tools already available in your pocket.
Sometimes people don’t realise they can use an everyday smartphone or computer to access pretty powerful accessibility settings. There’s certain software that you either have to switch on or install in order to use the device in more accessible ways.
- People with low vision often use a setting called ‘invert colours.’ Abby explains: “Let’s say you have a black word on a white background – that’s really hard because it creates a lot of glare.” Invert colours swaps all the colours on your screen around, so that word would become white on black, which has less glare and is easier to see.
- Dark mode. This makes most of your screen darker colours, instead of white. “A lot of people now, whether they have blindness or not, are embracing dark mode,” Abby says.
- Magnification. This setting allows you to zoom in very close on text or images so that you can see details more easily.
- VoiceOver is a screen reader built-in to Apple products. It makes the iPhone talk to you whenever you tap something so you know exactly what you’re on. “It’s quite fun. Swiping through all the different emojis actually can get quite funny,” Ingrid says.
“I initially thought you had to be fully blind to get a Guide Dog, and I only learned a few years ago after I started working at Guide Dogs that that’s not the case,” Abby says.
Not all people who are matched with a Guide Dog are totally blind; many have some degree of useable vision. However, it is a requirement that your vision is reduced to the extent where you rely on the Guide Dog to get about safely.
“If you struggle particularly with things like cafes, outdoor cafe settings, or if you can see during the day and it’s more tricky at night, that might be a good case where you can get a Guide Dog because they do make general navigation a lot easier,” Abby says.
“Blind sports are pretty popular,” Jamal says. “Whether it’s like marathon running with a tether (a guide rope) or obviously Paralympics. Most Paralympic events can be adapted for people with blindness. There’s even newer sports coming out in the UK, a lot of people are playing blind adapted football – or soccer, as we would say here.”
Zara is a member of the Australian women’s goalball squad and the Australian youth goalball squad. “Goalball is a sport for people with blindness that’s played at the Paralympics. It was initially created for war veterans who’d lost their vision, but it’s kind of evolved way past that. Earlier this year I was selected for the team to go and compete at the World Games in Birmingham, which is a Paralympic qualifying event,” she says.
Just like the rest of the world though, everyone with blindness or low vision has a different relationship to exercise. “Look, I don’t play sports personally,” Jamal says. “I do like to go to the gym and try and stay healthy, but I don’t particularly enjoy sport.”
Lara, a young musician and music therapist-in-training, says attending regular gym sessions and having a personal trainer has been really helpful in keeping fit and healthy.
“A person with blindness or low vision is a great way to start,” says Harrison, “because it recognises the person first and, secondly, their disability. In doing that it hopefully helps us see the disability as just one part of the person – rather than all-encompassing, which could lead to assumptions that, you know, I’m blind, so I might not wanna do this or won’t be interested in that just because I can’t see.”
It’s often still important to include the disability, because we don’t want to discredit or minimise how someone experiences the world so distinctly because of that disability. But ‘person with blindness or low vision’ helps put the person first.
However, it also depends on personal preference. It can help to ask someone how they’d like to be referred to.
People with blindness or low vision are just like anyone else. They parent, fall in love, socialise and connect just like the rest of the community. But there seems to be a bias that exists that people with blindness or low vision wouldn’t date or have a family.
“For many people with disability,” Sarah says, “there’s this false idea that we don’t have relationships and we certainly don’t have sexual relationships, right? People think we just, I don’t know, go off to bowls or something on the weekend and that whole relationship side is taken out, which is fascinating because it’s absolutely not the case.
“It’s quite funny when I’m out and about with my partner,” Sarah says. “Even though we’ll be walking along holding hands, people will often still say that he’s my carer or he’s my support worker. That really cracks me up.”
Zara says: “I wish that people knew that we all had the same brain and the same heart and we thought the same things, felt the same things, regardless of how much you can see or how much you can’t see. Everyone has different and unique experiences, but also everyone faces similar challenges at our age – just normal teenage challenges or normal young adult problems. Like, what uni do I want to go to. Bit of friendship drama, maybe relationships and that kind of thing, family stuff. Just because someone has a really distinct quality doesn’t mean that thing defines them.”
However, it is important to note the world does present certain barriers in the way of social integration. As Abby says, “Blindness can be a little bit socially isolating, which can impact meeting people, especially in terms of finding a romantic partner. And it can be funny how people sometimes either ignore you when they realise you’re vision impaired or they might offer you too much help or be too, I’m going to say PC, when they find out you’ve got a vision impairment, so that can create a multitude of problems as well.”
As a result, every person with blindness or low vision has a different way of navigating social situations, including choosing environments that are more accessible.
“A few of my colleagues were talking about what would be the ideal office party and we thought maybe we could like meet in groups of six, haha,” jokes Abby. “I know I do this to limit myself to smaller groups of friends, just because it can get overwhelming when you’re in a crowded room with lots of people, like in a night club and it’s just hard to know who’s talking to you and the context of what they’re saying changes depending on who they are.”
Having blindness or low vision doesn’t mean you parent or get out and about with your kids any differently – although some activities might require the help of a family member or support worker.
“People are often a bit surprised when they see me out and about parenting,” Sarah says. “Like, wow, she’s got a Guide Dog and the kids. And then most people are probably quite curious, like, wow, how does she manage X, Y and Z? And think, how does she keep those kids safe? They don’t know that I employ a support worker for harder things, like watching them with me in a large park, and that I have heaps of strategies for everything else! Those barriers around people just not knowing is because it’s not normalised enough that people who are blind can be parents. Sometimes I really challenge those norms just by being out with my kids.”
No – especially if it has its harness on. A Guide Dog with its harness on is on the clock and shouldn’t be distracted or interrupted from doing its important job! Oh, and please remember that making eye contact is distracting!
“The main challenge out in public is that my Guide Dog is just so incredibly gorgeous,” Sarah says. “Like she’s just so cute. People want to come over and say hello and say what a great job she’s doing and give her a pat. But obviously that’s really distracting for her. So if she does have a harness on, I just ask that members of the public don’t come over and say hello to her. You can say hello to me, but not to my dog.”
It’s really personal preference. Canes are practical and often the first mobility aid you learn how to use. But there’s a bit of mental energy required in finding obstacles and making your way around them – you’re not just feeling what’s in front of you, but also processing: “Have I contacted something I need to avoid? Have I found something that I want to interact with?”
When you’re working with a Guide Dog, that mental load is being shared. The dog is doing a lot of the thinking and it can be a really smooth and liberating way of getting around. But there is a care side too. With a cane, you can fold it up and pop it away at the end of the day, but a dog requires responsibility.
“You have to look after it,” says Jamal, a stand-up comic with blindness. “I mean, obviously, it’s a dog. You’ve got to feed it, brush it, play with it and walk it every day.”
Even if you do end up having a Guide Dog, most people have to be confident in cane usage because there may be times when you have to leave your dog at home and revert to using your cane.
Everyone experiences blindness (and any disability) differently and there are a lot of barriers in the world that don’t always make it fun or positive for everyone. But there can be funny moments, and there is absolutely room for joy.
“Just recently, my family and I went to a Japanese restaurant and, when we showed up, it was really, really dark,” Sarah says. “We walked in and they explained to us that all the lights had gone out. There’d been an electricity fail and they were bringing out candles. So everyone else in the group wasn’t quite sure what to do or how they’d be able to eat. I obviously just had it completely covered. I felt great. I smashed it, it was brilliant and I was actually a bit disappointed when all the lights came back on.”
Jamal says “the main positive is if you ever find yourself out in public and you’re in the same place as an ex it’s only uncomfortable for them because they could see that you’re there and you are completely none the wiser unless one of your friends blow it and they told you that she’s around”.
There are more than 575,000 people with low vision or blindness in Australia, and this number is set to increase significantly due to an ageing population and the rise of diabetes. But blindness is not an ‘old people’ problem – there are many young people in the community too, each with their own experience of blindness or low vision and varying levels of sight.
Guide Dogs offers a range of services, such as orientation and mobility training, assistive technology, occupational therapy and a connection service. People with blindness or low vision can get in touch with our team at Guide Dogs to access mobility aids and training (from canes, to a Guide Dog or assistive technologies).
The sighted community can also contact Guide Dogs to access accessibility training, and help advocate for disability inclusion.
Despite some big improvements over the past few years, the world is not designed for people with blindness or low vision. There are many areas that still need work in terms of accessibility – from digital spaces to physical products and environments.
“Accessibility has really improved in terms of technology,” Sarah says. “For example I use a screen reader and it means that I can access social media and I can do my job at work, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Guide Dogs is committed to helping create a boundless world – one that is accessible for all people with blindness and low vision. With services, campaigns and education, we hope to see more improvements as people and brands embrace accessibility and disability inclusion as an imperative.
“In some cases it is,” Sarah says. “So it’s always good to have your eyes checked and be on top of good eye health care. That being said, a lot of people are just born blind or with low vision. I was born with low vision. Mine isn’t correctable and it wasn’t preventable. And I’m totally fine with that.”
“There is a bizarre relationship to you as an individual in the public when you have a disability,” Ingrid says. “I have found you become kind of public property. People feel entitled to you in lots of different ways, whether that be coming up and talking to you without even saying hello, which is usually the case, asking you questions that could be quite personal and invasive or traumatic for some individuals, which happens all the time.”
People with blindness or low vision are just like anyone else and deserve to be treated as such. Consider how you could be improving inclusion or access for people in the community through your own work or interactions.
If you are wanted to approach someone with blindness or low vision in public, there are ways to do so respectfully – for example, Ingrid suggests always introducing yourself first, and being polite.
What is a boundless world?
A world where people with low vision or blindness have equal opportunities to pursue their passions, take risks, and be valued for who they are, rather than their disability.
A world where all people can access the things they need and desire, move through the world safely and trust that the community and conversations they’re entering will treat them the way they want to be treated – which is usually about the same as anyone else.