Australia 'You don't look blind' and other stereotypes people with blindness don't want to hear
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Ingrid Barnes is stereotyped on a regular basis — but she wants things to change.
Ms Barnes, 27, from Sydney, has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that has left her with about 3.5 per cent field of vision in well-lit environments. However, she says people often tell her she "doesn't look blind".
"They have an assumption that young people, or people who dress well, who go out on their own with a guide dog, can't just be 'normal' people with low vision or blindness," Ms Barnes said.
"They think people can't look a certain way and have a disability."
Ms Barnes said being forced to justify their blindness was another thing many young people with low vision or blindness struggled with.
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"People will say things like, 'she can't be blind, she's walking too fast' or 'you don't look blind'.
"It's in those moments I question how people see me. What does 'looking blind' even mean?"
And while she is open to answering respectful questions, Ms Barnes said there was a difference between wanting to be educated and being nosey.
"People ask, but some are just rude. They say 'so you can't see anything?' and I say 'well no, I have some central vision left, about 4 per cent', and they say 'so you're not blind'.
"But that's a very technical thing."
Fighting misconceptions, assumptions
Chris Edwards, Vision Australia's manager of government relations and advocacy, believes community attitude is a major barrier for people with low vision and blindness.
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"There is a really big misconception about what people can and can't do," he said.
"People genuinely just make assumptions and have this unconscious bias that prevents them from understanding the reality of someone else's life."
Mr Edwards said in the past four weeks alone, public ignorance had resulted in him being refused from multiple ride-share services.
"Some of the biggest barriers I come across as a seeing eye dog user is that too many times, I'm refused entry into transport, like a taxi or ride-share.
"In the last month, I've had four vehicles that have refused to take me. So, when we're talking about community attitudes, that's just one of the things that affects people like me."
Ms Barnes has experienced similar issues while trying to enter restaurants or travel on transport with her guide dog.
While it's illegal to refuse entry to someone with a seeing eye dog, Ms Barnes doesn't always feel like convincing a restaurant manager that she's vision impaired.
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"I don't really want a heated argument with a manager every time I go out," she said.
"It's all part of the association of 'blind people can't be young', or dress well, or like fashion or make-up.
"We're expected to be sad because people think it must be so depressing [to have low vision or blindness]."
Ms Barnes said people with disabilities often lived very fulfilling lives.
"I've had someone on TikTok say, 'you're too cheerful for a blind person.' Well, I didn't realise there was a limit to my happiness."
A lack of varied representation
Ms Barnes thinks representation in the media has contributed to how the world perceives low vision and blindness.
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"In every TV show or film that you can see, the blind character either has eyes that are outwardly damaged, they appear glazed over or are missing entirely, or they're wearing very dark glasses all the time," she said.
"They don't really look at anything, or always walk around with their heads tilted very far up.
"It's frustrating because some people do look like that, and do wear sunglasses, but others don't."
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Ms Barnes said the representation wasn't wrong; it just wasn't varied to include more than one experience of blindness.
"There are a much wider range of issues for low vision and blindness, and they each present differently."
Ms Barnes said some young people with low vision or blindness engaged with stereotypes in an effort to boost respect, and their safety.
"Sometimes they put their sunglasses on to be taken more seriously because [people] accuse them of 'pretending' to be blind or training their dog," she said.
"It's frustrating because we're trying to do our best just to get by and get through the world, and then people will assume that we don't need the respect, or support."
Vision Australia's Chris Edwards said representation and inclusion need to be a top priority for workplaces.
"Only 24 per cent of people who are blind and low vision in Australia are in full-time work, which is massively different than the general population," he said.
"With the appropriate skills, attitude and particular technologies that can be put in place, someone who is blind or low vision can contribute just as effectively as sighted people."
Carving an individual path on social media
Ms Barnes has taken representation into her own hands, talking about her experiences with blindness across social media platforms.
She acknowledges that life in the online realm can be a double-edged sword.
"It is very unfiltered. I have screenshots upon screenshots of — particularly very young people who might even be younger than 12 — they can be extremely rude and critical," she said.
"That being said, I do think that representation is so important. If I can make even just one other person feel more confident in themselves with their disability, or comforted by my experiences, that is more important to me than staying silent.
"It's hard to have disability on your own. Being able to go onto social media is a massive gift because it can show you that we're all in it together."
Ms Barnes said it was encouraging to see improvements in racial and LGBTQI+ representation and hopes this will be extended to other vulnerable communities.
"It's fantastic and needs to happen, but there needs to be more conversation about disability within all of this."
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