Teaching the Sighted about Blindness in a Way that Doesn't Suck (Leave your Blindfolds at Home!)

By: Emily Beitiks A blonde young woman has a colorful blindfold wrapped to cover her eyes. She wears a conference badge around her neck.For years, well-intentioned teachers have used simulation activities to teach sighted people about blindness. You put on a blindfold, stagger around a building for a few minutes, and typically rip the blindfold off at the end with a newfound gratitude that you aren't one of those poor, tragic blind people. Understandably, blind people have criticized this educational "tool" for causing more harm than good, when all it simulates is the first few moments of seeing nothing. Who wouldn't be completely traumatized by being thrown into the world without learning the many alternative ways of doing things?

After taking a tour of the state-of-the-art San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired that will open June 10, I am excited to report that new options are coming, (and you can leave the blindfold at home!).

Just teach your students about the design and access features in this new building, and maybe if you’re really lucky, like I was, you too can take a guided tour with project manager Elizabeth Freer (sighted) and consulting architect Chris Downey (blind). This lesson will leave sighted folks with a stronger grasp of how blind people navigate the world and how really smart design to minimize barriers might make doing it even easier in the future.

The building is located at 1155 Market street. LightHouse bought the entire building, but will occupy the top floors 9-11 and rent the other spaces.

Here's what happens when blind people have the clout and the resources to call the shots with an appreciation for beauty and a sense of playfulness. From floor to ceiling, the project team has worked eighteen-hour days to ensure that the building's design incorporates what can only be described as an aesthetic of blind and low vision users. Different textures on the floor distinguish between highly trafficked paths and workspaces. Lights and sounds direct people towards exits and determine what direction they are facing (as 95% of blind or low vision people see light). Acoustic designs throughout provide important cues, from how to operate the audio-visual equipment to what else is going on in the community space.  Chris Downey holds white can and wears hardhat next to Elizabeth Freer, also in hard hat, as they both talk to one of the building workers. A brief pause on the tour while Chris and Elizabeth test the sound of the newly installed fans in the training kitchen. Another obstacle: safety from fires vs. the need to minimize all background noise.

And it isn't all utilitarian. Wood on the handrails and the edges of tables are satisfying to touch, just as the floor texture was also chosen so that cane tips had a pleasant sound and feel for users getting from one of the plush small offices to one of the many open areas to share coffee and converse.

Together, every detail lets visitors know that they're in the center of a very happening place to be. As blind architect Chris Downey put it for San Francisco magazine, “We wanted to convey the idea that this is an exciting place and promote a sense of possibility as opposed to the idea of fear.”

I won't spoil all the building’s secrets before their big launch, but the whole experience blew me away (and luckily for me, I will get to visit this space often as the Longmore Institute partners with the LightHouse to run Superfest: International Disability Film Festival). After the tour, Longmore Institute Director Catherine Kudlick remarked, “I was near tears at a few points. It really feels like the dawn of a new era for blind folk!” But even better yet, the design team didn’t limit their focus to blindness and considered all forms of access, for example, for Deaf people, wheelchair riders, little people, the needs of families. At the Longmore Institute, we know how challenging this can be from our efforts to maximize access while designing the “Patient No More” exhibit. Competing accommodations can be difficult to negotiate, but the art of striking the right balance is so very worth it when it succeeds, bringing different disability communities together.

So, educators who feel that impulse to teach your sighted students about blindness, look to the SF LightHouse instead! When the building opens, sighted visitors will see people new to blindness training alongside old hands updating their tech and cooking skills. They'll see blind staff people working in nearly every aspect of operations, including Executive Director Bryan Bashin.

As Paul Longmore once said, "Prejudice is a far greater problem to overcome than any impairment; discrimination is a bigger obstacle than any disability." Here's to replacing those traditional simulations of blindness that leave participants feeling sad and dreary with a form of emersion that teaches something joyous and new.