SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States – or 26% – live with a disability. Of those individuals, 4.6% are vision impaired. So what’s it like navigating the world without the gift of proper sight?
Springfield local, 28-year-old Carolyn McGhee is partially sighted. She has some vision but cannot see the details of someone’s face sitting right across from her, for example, and the vision in each eye is different.
“My left eye is like looking through a pair of binoculars backwards and basically only covers what’s missing on the right eye,” said McGhee. “People don’t understand that it’s not all or nothing – perfect vision or nothing. It’s a spectrum.”
She also has no depth perception, which can pose dangers for McGhee. She uses a white cane most of the time to help her navigate.
“Curbs, steps, any kind of raised surface at all looks completely flat to me,” she said.
But McGhee accepts her fate and thinks that there might be a reason why herself and others can’t see.
“Some of us are born to be advocates and if we weren’t born this way, we wouldn’t be able to stand up for others who maybe don’t have a voice,” she said.
McGhee believes that the first step in advancing disability rights is to spread awareness. This would consist of teaching not only children about disabilities, but adults as well. McGhee thinks that this does not have to be through “boring lectures,” but could be achieved through engaging videos.
Those with disabilities would also benefit from a variety of inclusive activities. Disability accessible sports, like beep baseball, bring people of all abilities together.
“I think it would help lessen the stigma. I think it would help people understand each other better and get people to see that just because someone is blind doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world or that you should pity them and treat them like a child,” said McGhee.
And how people treat people who are different than them is another big part of the equation.
“People tend to treat people with disabilities and the elderly like helpless little kids, in the way that they talk to them or address them or not address them,” she said.
To combat this, directly address an individual with a disability upon greeting them or asking a question. Then, only when deemed necessary, address who they are with who may be their voice.
“People don’t even think about the fact that I or someone else who’s blind or somebody using a wheelchair… exist at all,” she said.
Making the world accessible
The first step is awareness, and the next step is making all aspects of life accessible to individuals of every ability.
McGhee supports the concept of universal design, which means that regardless of ability, anyone can access the area or the material around them.
To make the physical world more accessible, city officials can:
- add visual or tactile markings, like yellow paint or bumps, to indicate the edges of structures
- implement motion activated safety signs that play a recorded message for those that cannot see
- build wheelchair accessible ramps in all buildings and public spaces
- include proper signage that verbally describe alerts for those that cannot hear
This can be done when new facilities are being designed, built or renovated, for example.
For McGhee, her main issue is obstructions in the walkway that aren’t usually there. This could include blockages left by construction workers, obstacles on sidewalks, hanging limbs and more.
“I can see well enough to navigate but as far as hazards on the ground, that’s the main problem,” she said.
She says that to make the lives of the vision impaired easier and safer, others can refrain from leaving obstructions that a white cane wouldn’t register.
“These are dangerous situations that aren’t commonly thought about… People need to understand that if you leave an obstacle here and walk away, you’re creating a potential safety hazard for somebody,” she said.
Aside from the physical environment, building an accessible world also includes making all services, websites, applications, communication and more accessible.
And with more and more services, like grocery shopping, transitioning to being online – some being online only – website accessibility is more important than ever.
McGhee believes that all online pages should be screen-reader accessible. This means not solely using graphics, but including written words that a screen-reader can identify, labeling photos, making the background color changeable, and making the font magnifiable.
“It’s hard enough finding a job when you have a disability, but if you can’t even access the application, you don’t have a chance,” said McGhee.
Government benefits, employment & voter access
The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs provide assistance to people with disabilities, according to the SSA website.
But government benefits can actually hinder individuals with disabilities by implementing certain restricting regulations and limiting income, according to McGhee.
“It seems like an advantage on the surface, but there are so many things that keep a person with a disability basically in poverty,” said McGhee.
This includes the wages individuals with disabilities are paid by employers. Varying from area to area, it is legal to pay individuals with disabilities less than minimum wage.
Under a regulation called 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, businesses can apply for permits to pay disabled employees less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In some cases, these employees can be paid pocket change for a day’s work.
These laws and regulations can be changed by voting. But for individuals with disabilities, that is also a struggle.
“We are fighting across the state and across the nation for equal access to voting,” said McGhee.
The Help America Vote Act requires that there be an accessible voting method at all federal elections, but not state or local elections, where sometimes “the most important things happen,” according to McGhee.
In many elections, individuals with disabilities are required to disclose their choices to an official who marks the ballot for them, revoking their privacy.
McGhee is doing what she can to progress disability rights and is the President of the Springfield Chapter’s National Federation of the Blind.
To combat the stress of the world, she has also created online relaxation classes in order to help people of all abilities find peace. These classes include breathing, meditating, creativity, visualization, stretching practices and more.
“Everybody would benefit from this,” she said.
To learn more about the classes or support McGhee, visit her Facebook page, CaRelax.