Reframing Success in the Blind Community: It’s More Than Just Blindness Skills

A Message From Penny Forward Founder and CEO Chris Peterson

This week I read several articles quoting Michael Gervais,, a psychologist and author of “The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You”, coming out in print, e-book and audiobook on December fifth. I’m excited to read and review this book because I think it could be particularly relevant to the blind community. Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the articles.

Gervais says that fear of other people’s opinions is something we all deal with, and his new book offers strategies to overcome it. In the blind community, however, fear is even more problematic because of how we teach blind kids and what we emphasize. You know, stuff like how we dress, our social skills, and our ability to get around. These things are important because they affect how people see us, whether they see us as capable blind individuals or just blind people who can’t do much.

We’ve put a ton of effort into making sure blind kids and adults get trained in these areas because we believe that not having these skills puts us at a disadvantage. But here’s the deal: nobody’s perfect, whether you can see or not. Some sighted people may be bad dressers or socially awkward, but they’re great at finding their way around. And guess what? They still get jobs and do just fine. In our recent podcast interview with Peggy Chong, The Blind History Lady, she suggested that history tells us that the same has been true for blind people.

“I wanted to know what the secret to being a successful blind person was. I knew the blind rug weavers, the blind piano tuners, the blind door to door salespeople, the blind janitors, when I was growing up in the sixties, and I was somewhat ashamed of them because they didn’t have, you know, the fanciest houses. In the eighties, I was becoming more acquainted with blind lawyers, and educators, and businesspeople, who had nice houses in the nicer neighborhoods, and I kind of put those blind rug weavers to the bottom of the successful list. What I didn’t realize at the time, and it wasn’t till I really got into my research, in about 2000, was that those blind rug weavers, those blind door to door salesmen, although they weren’t making a lot of money, they were self-supporting. They weren’t on the welfare rolls of the state. And I call them the welfare rolls because that’s what they were called at the time. They made enough money to buy their own home, even if it was just a trailer. They raised their children, they sent them to college, and that’s being successful. Even if it wasn’t a great deal of treasure, it was enough treasure for them to really enhance their lives, and the lives of their children. So, over the years, I collected a lot of this material, started to study, look for patterns, and what really surprised me was that there wasn’t a pattern. That the success depended on what was inside. What a blind person had for their own stamina, if you will, because students who went to the schools for the blind, some of them did very well when they graduated, some of them did not. People who went blind later in life, some of them did very well, some of them did not. People who went blind later in life, some had training, and of those, some did very well, some did not. Those who went blind later in life, and did not have training, some did very well, and some did not. So, the secret to being a successful blind person is not necessarily the best training, the best education, the best opportunities, the best checkbook, the best family connections, although, all of them can help, and they’re all a tool. It’s how you make the best use of your tools in your toolbox. And that means you’ve got to have that internal energy to say, “You know what, I’m not going to settle for this,” and take a chance. There are stories of blind people who faced going to the poor farm, and poor farms, in many cases, were probably worse than going to jail. Or they could take a chance and start something. And that’s usually the fear of going to the poor farm, or the poor house, was the energy they needed to try something that maybe scared the dickens out of them. But it brought them to places where they could really enhance their skills, build their own lives, eventually own their own homes, some of the people that I really admire in my research are those who faced hard times, and came out of that.”

So, could it be that we’re pushing too hard on these things and unnecessarily freaking ourselves out about what others think? Blindness skills are important tools, and it’s a lot easier to teach specific skills than to teach bravery.

It’s not just about fear, though, it’s also about who’s opinions we should care about because not all opinions are created equal. Gervais says we should care about the opinions of two groups: people who genuinely want to see us grow and those who’ve done some hardcore stuff.

However, as blind people, I think we need to be extra careful about who we let into our heads. Some of the people who care about us might have their own doubts and fears, holding us back from reaching our full potential. Like some families who won’t let their blind kids roam freely because they’re scared of what might happen.

As we grow up, our teachers and community try to help us get past these worries through special programs, but even then, we often don’t use our skills to the max because of that fear of other people’s opinions. It’s not just about the fear of accidents; it’s also fear about how we look to the world.

You can see this play out at blindness conventions, where we talk to each other about how we must have perfect blindness skills because each of us represents all blind people. I’d rather focus on the feeling of accomplishment I have because I successfully got there. And, if that isn’t enough, I love to focus on the sense of connection I feel when I’m around other blind people whether they’re more, or less, skilled than I am.

I’ve noticed that some of us go overboard, dressing super fancy on a regular Saturday, while others rebel against societal norms, making them stand out in their own way. I work hard to strike a balance between the two, and to carefully see and learn from the things people say. If someone tells me I look good, for example, I take that at face value rather than silently adding the, “for a blind person”, that might be implied. Even if people are thinking that, I’m not worrying about it unless it comes from someone in my trust group.

So, here’s the thing: Gervais says we should choose our trust groups wisely, and I agree. We need to surround ourselves with people who cheer us on and don’t set artificial limits. It’s a tough call, but sometimes we need to kick out the people who care but hold us back.

I, for one, try to look, smell, sound, and feel good when I’m with people because I want them to have a great time hanging out with me. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about self-respect.

But sometimes I catch myself worrying later about how I came across to others. We don’t want to end up so worried that we can’t enjoy other people’s company. We should find that sweet spot between caring and stressing, so we can push our limits and enjoy life.

We need to support each other, not be ashamed of each other, even with our imperfections. Our teachers and rehab counselors should help us find the right balance between being aware and chasing perfection. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about embracing our authentic, imperfect, wonderful, blind selves. How we value ourselves will be the real deal in how society sees us.

So, in a nutshell, the fear of what others think in the blind community is a tricky business, thanks to our education, the focus on certain skills, and our unique experiences. But I think we can work through it by choosing our crowd wisely, striking that balance between caring and stressing, and supporting each other through the ups and downs. I’m excited to see what other strategies Gervais proposes that could help us get over these fears and find that internal energy to succeed that Peggy talked about.

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