To See or Not to See: A Blind Writer’s Struggles with Sight Words in the English Language

This article will be published in the DVIQ newsletter, a publication for the Council of Exceptional Children, in January.

I’m not the first human being who is blind to rail against the frustrations of sight language. As a verbal thinker, I’m continually astounded at the ways in which vision pervades language-based thinking, because sight words both potentially alienate sighted people from blindness and dominate language to the extent that describing my non-visual world can sometimes prove to be challenging.
There are instances of language during which I can’t help feeling as if the words people use promote sight over blindness. Clichés such as “blind optimism” and “blind faith,” which connote ignorance rather than lack of sight, pop up everywhere in my daily reading. When I come across educated people who don’t know how to interact with me as a person who is blind, I can’t help wondering whether these words affect them subliminally. There are also organizations whose work I truly admire, but their names use sight words. For instance, Ski for Light, which I’ve attended and loved because it provided me valuable exposure to cross-country skiing, implies through its name that its mission will help me gain light, or will equate me somehow with being sighted. Taken literally, I will not gain light perception through skiing, but more importantly light does not equal understanding or knowledge or freedom for me. In other words, why is darkness bad? Another organization about which I know considerably less but whose cause—curing preventable blindness—I also support, is named Foundation Fighting Blindness. I found out about their name as a high school student and felt as though my identity as a blind person was somehow being threatened. I joked to my little brother, who is sighted, that I should retaliate by starting a group called Foundation Fighting Sight. He was not amused.
As an aspiring writer, I sometimes wonder whether sight language exacerbates my own limitations as a writer and the ability of speakers of the English language to think about non-visual senses. While I can only hear or listen, feel or touch, smell or sniff or taste, sighted people can see, look, stare, gaze, watch, view, glance, peek, etc. I don’t begrudge the eyes their complexity and power, but when I struggle to describe my own non-visual experiences, I begin to wonder whether our language, along with my own language ability, need further development. On October 15, we gave in and turned on the heat. Radiators heat our apartment, and the first time we turn them on after a long dormant period, they always give off a certain smell of not having been used in months. The smell is not new to me, but this year I wondered how I would describe it. My first thought was that it smelled like gas, but smelling like gas can mean anything from farting to something truly harmful. How could I use words to capture the clear difference I discerned between the smell of the radiators and the smell of car exhaust? And even if I could eventually come up with something, why was this such a struggle?
There are two ways to handle this dilemma: to give up and accept that our language will always be visually dominated or to try, even if it takes me longer than it should, to illuminate the very real, non-visual aspects of experience: the complexities of dialogue, the sounds of crowds and silence, the smell of a radiator stirring from hibernation, which I’ve decided, at least for the moment, is a chalky smell. Describing it as chalky makes me smell dust flying from the erasers, hear its scrape across a blackboard, even taste the dust. (Do kids even experience this anymore)? And isn’t one hallmark of good description that it can awaken all of the senses, not just one? When I skied for the first time, I felt the ache of muscles I didn’t even know I had, heard skis and snowshoes taking bites from the snow, smelled wool and wood smoke, tasted a sharp, clean taste of a piece of the world which is still relatively unpolluted. I did not see light.

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