For Families and Therapists: Put the Blindfold Down

“The problem is that when a sighted therapist puts on a blindfold, the experience is very different from that of a blind 16-month-old. When we blindfolded college students in our lab, they felt very freaked out and frustrated because they were used to having sight. Someone who has never seen before does not feel these emotions when trying to do things. So it’s really hard if not impossible to simulate being blind from birth and never having sight as a reference point. On top of that, do any of you remember being 1? It’s equally hard if not harder for an adult to try and simulate what it’s like to be in that developmental stage. The blindfolded therapist would have trouble with some things that aren’t hard for [toddler], but at the same time will have pre-existing knowledge [toddler] doesn’t have. Instead of blindfolding, I would advise the therapist to observe [Toddler] very carefully, like a detective, learning how she plays, what motivates her and how she solves problems or attempts to get things she wants nonvisually. The therapist can then build on what [toddler] already knows. I might also advise them to learn about blindness by talking to blind adults or other families of blind kids.” (my comment on a Facebook post in November 2014).

I’ve written a lot about the downfalls of disability simulations, often using the “blindfolded experience” as an illustration. Consensus among disabled people, and some preliminary research, suggest that disability simulations can inadvertently teach negative messages about disability to the uninitiated. At best, a simulation might semi-accurately capture the challenges of suddenly acquiring a new disability. But simulations cannot capture the experience of living with a disability for a lifetime. And, they definitely cannot capture the experience of being a young child with a disability, as I will explain in this post. Yet many well-intended family members, friends, or professionals serving young disabled children embark on disability simulations to try to “understand the child’s world” or “walk in their shoes.” Here’s why that won’t work:

Let’s take blindfolding as an example. An adult puts on a blindfold. They engage in their regular adult tasks, and they try to compare their experience to that of a young child who has always been blind. The blindfolded adult will experience “darkness” and the associated fear, confusion, and frustration that can emerge when one is accustomed to doing things visually. In contrast, the person born without sight never sees “darkness” because they have never seen light. For them, the dark world is normal, not particularly scary or confusing without sight as a reference point. The blind child will also adapt to their world over time, first through their own problem-solving process, and then later by learning formal skills such as braille and cane travel. An adult wearing a blindfold will struggle without the benefit of time and experience doing things nonvisually, especially if they compare their blindfolded experience to their typically-sighted one. Thus, the blindfolded adult is apt to conclude that basic tasks will be challenging, scary, or frustrating for the young blind child.

But there is another issue, too. To really understand the experience of being born blind, one must forget everything they have ever seen. Further, to simulate what it is like to be a young child, one must forget all the knowledge and experience they have accrued over decades of development. It is truly impossible to simulate the mental state of being a young blind child, without any visual memories and with very little life experience in general.

When you combine these two things, a blindfolded adult will likely conclude that some things are more challenging for the blind child than they actually are. At the same time, they will likely underestimate other challenges for the child that are more developmental.

Let’s take a common situation. A blind child is having trouble learning to self-feed with a spoon. The parent or therapist puts on a blindfold and tries to eat some yogurt. They struggle and get yogurt all over the place, then conclude they really understand why the child is struggling.

The blindfolded adult might have trouble finding the yogurt, the spoon, or feeling when the spoon is loaded. Blind children will develop strategies to bypass these challenges. However, the young blind child may struggle to learn how to properly hold a spoon because they have never seen someone else modeling the skill. That is a developmental issue which the blindfolded adult, already knowing how to hold a spoon, might totally miss. The adult’s pre-existing knowledge gets in the way of empathizing with someone (like a child) who lacks that knowledge. And, blindfolds are unable to fill that gap, because they can’t take the pre-existing knowledge away.

Adults who don blindfolds do so because they want to connect with a blind child’s experience and provide better support for the child. If blindfolding is counterproductive, what else will work instead?

Well, if we can’t simulate being born blind, the best information we can get will come from others with firsthand experience-people of all ages who were born blind. These individuals can comment on their unique experiences, struggles, and successes. Further, when aiming to support a specific young child with a disability, we cannot “walk in their shoes” directly, but we can learn from them by observing them, getting to know them, and listening to them.

Going back to the food example, blindfolding might lead to the conclusion that a blind child cannot eat certain foods without a lot of mess, or that they need intensive assistance. In fact, all they may need is someone to physically show them how to hold a spoon. Instead of putting on a blindfold, an adult may want to talk with blind adults, older children, and parents of blind children to learn strategies for teaching a blind child how to use a spoon.

I applaud those who want to learn more about the experience of their disabled young family members or clients. I encourage you to peruse the wealth of information generously offered by disabled people. Read our blogs, join our advocacy groups, and learn how to truly partner with us.

Read more about my work on disability simulations here

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