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what sustainability can learn from people with disabilities

On the similarities between the struggle of people with disabilities and the struggle of living sustainably

This title probably seems mysterious to you. What do being blind and living sustainably have in common? What does the perception of being blind have in common with the perception of living sustainably? I am going to discuss issues faced by people who are blind and then use them to make a wider point, so bare with me. Note that much of what I say about being blind, although the specifics are different, also applies to people with other types of disabilities, and, indeed, to all people living substantially differently from those around them.

I'll first discuss the reality of being blind, one with which I am very familiar. What does blindness mean to you? If you are sighted, what does the thought of being blind mean to you? Perhaps you think that you would lose your job and be forced to retire early. After all, Wordnet used to define blindness as the inability to see well enough to find employment. (Eventually, some people who were blind learned of this definition, noted that it reinforced inaccurate conceptions and prejudices, and the definition was apparently revised.) Perhaps you think that it means losing out on being able to experience your children or not being able to play a sport you enjoy. Perhaps you think that it means not being able to go where you want and when you want. In actuality, blindness means none of the things I just mentioned. It simply means not being able to see. If you think that it means anything else, such as some of the other things that I just listed, then you are making it mean those things. You probably are not doing this consciously. Rather, you have certain things that you do and certain ways of doing them. You assume that, because the way you know of doing something, the way you learned from those around you, involves being able to see and it is the only way you know of to do it, that the task cannot be done by a person who is blind; at least not without great difficulty. As humans, we have separate consciousness, meaning that we only see reality based on our experiences and not the whole picture. If you had universal consciousness, then, if you turned your thoughts to blindness, then you could read the minds of any number of people who are blind and know that they are not without that which you would otherwise fear losing, and so you would not fear blindness.

Many people feel amazed or inspired when they see people who are blind doing things which would be perfectly ordinary when done by people who are sighted. I suspect that this, in part, comes from imagining the blind person doing things exactly, or nearly exactly, the way a typical sighted person would do them. I was once commended for going to work rather than choosing to sit at home and not work. However, my choosing to go to work is no more extraordinary than it would be for a sighted person. If choosing not to is not an attractive decision for a person who is sighted, then why would it be an attractive decision for people who are blind? It is true that many people who are blind are unemployed, and I believe that this is for a complex set of reasons. Some lose sight later in life and do not know what they can do since they imagine that things cannot be done except through what they learned while sighted. We are often told that we cannot do things by people who cannot imagine a way of our doing them, and we may not be able to imagine a way of doing them, either. When we do not know how to do something, we may ask those around us, but this is more difficult to do for someone who is blind since often the ways of the people around us are not available to us. Thus, it is helpful to network with others who are blind to exchange ideas. Some are rejected for positions out of prejudice, and, if rejected dozens of times, as happens to some, then a person can become discouraged. To get back to the main point, if people are to be inspired when seeing people with disabilities, then the inspiration should be toward the understanding that there can be ways of accomplishing things other than the path that is immediately obvious.

As I have suggested, a person who is blind must have ways of doing things that don't involve sight, but a sighted person may see little reason to know how to do things without seeing or have the technology that is often used. Technology has done much to enable us to do many more things independently. We can read Braille on paper, read an electronic file with a refreshable Braille display hooked up to a computer, or listen to the electronic file using speech depending on what one finds most convenient, although refreshable Braille displays are expensive, and that can also be a factor making them less common. Typed material can be scanned into a computer through a scanner, converted to text, and then read through speech or a refreshable Braille display, although it is generally simpler to have the the text in electronic form to begin with (I prefer to look at a bill on the web, for instance, rather than scan a copy printed on paper). Paying bills and writing checks can often be done online. Services such as Peapod, designed to save people the trouble of going out and dealing with the lines at supermarkets, can be especially useful for a person who is blind, since they provide an interface that we can use that allows us to know exactly what we can buy without having to filter it through another person. Devices that have dials can be made somewhat accessible by placing raised dots at the positions most commonly used. Many more examples could be given; a task can be performed many different ways, yet we often are limited by our consciousness and become afraid because we cannot see all of the possible paths.

I am not suggesting that there are not many challenges inherent in living with blindness. Most of these, however, are caused not by the inability to see in itself but are a result of living in a society designed by and for people who are sighted. Transportation is one area that poses real difficulty since we cannot see what is in front of us. However, getting about becomes easier the better the public transportation. If a business is located in an area without it (and many are because they perceive it to be less expensive), then we must rely on paratransit services (if available) or other people to get in and out, whether to buy something or to go to work. Having public transportation available can also benefit people who are sighted. (We are also acting under the assumption that fuel for cars will continue to be widely available well into the future, but this is not a certainty because of peak oil, which could have serious repercussions, especially if we do not start to wean ourselves from our oil dependency before we are forced to. Having separate consciousness, it is often not obvious to us that what we now have in abundance will not always be available in the quantities to which we have become accustomed.) All other things being equal, an employer may be more comfortable hiring a person who is sighted than someone who is blind, even if the person who is blind could perform the job when the situation is looked at objectively. Although the internet has done much that is beneficial, many web sites are not as easy to use as they could be because they use images to represent buttons without including alt tags which a screen reader can use to tell what a picture represents. Inserting alt tags, and following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in general, can result in web pages that are easier to use for anyone. As with any group that does not fit the societal norm, by choice or by necessity, people who are blind face challenges from a society which was, for the most part, not built with them in mind.

The situation faced by people who are blind has many similarities to the situation of people making non-mainstream life choices. Many people say that they could never be a vegetarian just as people say that they would not be able to function if they went blind. What does it mean to be vegetarian? It means not eating meat, but people who avoid it may make it mean that they could only eat a small variety of foods ("Am I only ever going to eat salads?"). However, people who are vegetarian (or vegan even, meaning not consuming eggs or dairy products) make all sorts of meals, from ethnic foods to things designed to taste like meat. If you don't believe me, then take a look at VegWeb, which has thousands of vegan recipes of all types. As meat and dairy products are not chosen, people find other choices that they may not think of if they were following the dominant culture and still eating meat. This is similar to the way people with disabilities have alternate ways of doing many things that do not rely on being able to do the things they cannot do (see, for instance). And, like people who are blind who network with other people who are blind to learn, vegans find other vegans with whom to exchange recipes. However, as there are difficulties for people who are blind that are caused by living in a society designed for sighted people, a vegan has to deal with the reality that most people are not, and, if choosing to strictly adhere to the diet, may not have good choices when visiting someone for dinner or eating at a typical restaurant just because most others do not see a need to make the dietary choice. (There are, of course, restaurants that specialize in serving vegetarian or vegan food and so provide all sorts of choices.) [concluding sentence?]

The principle also applies, as with many other things, to the choice to live sustainably in general. It will likely become not a choice but a necessity as peak oil passes. What does living sustainably mean to you? I know that, to me, it means a lot of things: not being able to eat the foods that I like to eat, not knowing how I would do a lot of things since I do so much with a computer that isn't biodegradable, not knowing where best to live or how to have clothes or water. So it is so much easier to just pretend that there isn't a necessity to return to living in harmony with the planet. However, I must keep in mind that anything that it means to me, aside from "living sustainably," is meaning that I have created out of a combination of selfishness, ignorance, and fear created by ignorance. I simply don't know how to live sustainably. I haven't ever done it nor felt the need to in much the same way as a sighted person would not feel the need to learn to do things without sight or know what to do after going blind. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that peak oil will occur soon if it has not yet occurred. Some will point out that there are vast sources of non-conventional sources of hydrocarbons, such as oil sands, that can be tapped as petroleum output dwindles. However, these require energy and natural gas to be made into energy, can do further environmental damage, may not be produced quickly enough to meet demand, and, at most, can only delay the eventual need to live in a way that is sustainable and does not engender crises caused by resource shortages.

So what do we do about our society, not having the appropriate consciousness to see the need, not making it easy for one to make this choice? We must start, as individuals, by changing ourselves, by making it a priority in our lives. As we do this, we will become beacons that will be helpful to others who also wish to make the choice, thereby having a ripple effect that will raise global consciousness and make a difference far greater than our individual actions in and of themselves.




This is a really interesting take on earth-living. I like the comparisons between blind living - or adjusting to living without sight (in a culture so driven and designed by sighted living) to adjusting to and living without oil, etc. in a culture drive by and designed by oil.

Really interesting.

And yeah, I would love to hang out with you sometime if you're in/around Boston.

that is a really inersting out look on life

hey Great way. of discriveing the way of liveing. being blind.
hello, very pleasant to read, keep posting

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waking up

Many of us are blind and poor and are suffering some are free from the constraints of the society of oil to offset the balance of poverty and when it comes to lifestyle and the actual resources available there is very little social justice.Quality of life I agree in making choices and connecting to knowledgeable skilled individuals in these areas assist the blind and metaphorically we are waking up and the truth on many subjects are presenting in different ways.
We are not there yet as a people and it will take a few years before the blindness is a better vision.


Technology has developed so much today since you have written this article. Today a blind person can search and read your article pretty much like everybody else. So I guess the line is blurring every passing day.

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July 2014

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