Sighted Confessions of a Visual-aholic

By Shruti Pushkarna

I’ve been writing this column for a little over nine months now. I have attempted to state facts, voice certain pertinent issues, identify gaps, highlight the absence of empathy and compassion towards anyone who is labeled as the ‘other’. I’ve even criticised the media for ignoring matters pertaining to persons with disabilities. So I thought it’s a good time to pause and ruminate on my own self. Point the finger inwards for a change.

Let’s rewind to 2016.

I’m a sighted person. Okay, I wear glasses but they enable me to interact fairly well with the visual environment. So technically I’m not blind. Back then, I knew almost nothing about living life with blindness. It’s safe to say I was ‘blind’ to visually impaired people’s needs, challenges, abilities, their coping mechanisms, their whole persona so to say. I simply viewed them as people with no ‘vision’.

In my previous media jobs, I was obsessed with the ‘visual’. As a multimedia journalist, I often conceived stories and ideas in pictures before I could get down to scripting. I took great pride in my ‘design’ sense, in illustrating stories in a graphical form. Basically, I loved playing with pictures, video and fonts.

And then I decided to switch sectors and apply my communication abilities to empower persons with blindness. This involved working with visually impaired people, helping them relook at options, also working with the sighted environment, making it more inclusive. Little did I realise that to alter anyone’s life or mindset, foremost I needed to change mine.

Before I could start working on outreach and external communication, I had to learn ways of effectively interacting with the internal team which was by and large visually impaired. Stories, ideas, campaigns were all driven by the common belief in the cause but each one of us interpreted (or visualised) it differently. And my personal challenge was not so much in understanding theirs but in articulating mine, sans visuals.

I recall one incident from my early days in this job. Our team was involved in the launch of India’s first online accessible library (Sugamya Pustakalaya). It was a huge event in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and other NGOs working in the domain. I was overseeing the event invites, adverts and an introductory animation film to start the programme.

The written script was easy to explain to my seniors (also visually impaired) but I struggled to explain non-textual elements that dominated the screen/ canvas. That was the beginning of my learning process and my first lesson in empathy perhaps. I had to place myself in another’s shoes and talk their language. Of course during the event, I met with an accomplished set of individuals who went about business as usual.

Suddenly, after all these years of exposure, I felt limited in my scope of thinking and imagination. I knew there was a lot to learn and more importantly, unlearn. Fully involved with my colleagues and other members of the blind community, I can say, the past four years have taught me quite a bit.

Continuing with the optical terminology, my vision has become less ‘foggy’ as I’ve gathered knowledge about the possibilities of a life despite blindness (or any other disability for that matter).

I crossed a few stages to reach where I am today. First was disbelief, second was a mix of curiosity and awe, and, finally, it was a state of ‘normalisation’. That’s what we need to arrive at, as a society, as a country known for its diverse population. There is a need to grow out of the habit of ‘othering’, based on what an individual can or cannot do, based on what they look like, based on how they operate in their daily lives, based on how different they are from what fits our definition of ‘normal’.

Day before yesterday, I participated in a webinar where one of the speakers spelt out the problem in such succinct terms: “Sighted people are blind too. They cannot see the potential of visually impaired people and so we have to make them see it”.

I still have a long way to go. But all I can say is the journey has been absolutely enriching so far. Today, I can somewhat comprehend not only what separates these two worlds but also what can bring them together.