On 28th February the Productivity Commission released their draft report into Disability Support and Care. It’s not been a surprise that they’re recommending the creation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Others will go on about this, and I may even present my opinion sometime soon, but what I wanted to explore now is one of the elements of the report, and how this is making me think about my blindness.

In short the proposal includes four categories of people who would be eligible for coverage by the scheme. The people who would be served by the proposed scheme would:

  • have significant limitations in communication, mobility or self-care (3a)
  • have an intellectual disability (3b)
  • be in an early intervention group (3c)
  • have large identifiable benefits from support that would otherwise not be realised (3d)

At first I couldn’t see where I was supposed to fit into the scheme as a blind person. The more I look; I am forced to conclude that they’re including the blind group in 3a because our communication is limited.

Which lead me to wonder why someone would think that my, or any other blind person’s, ability to communicate is limited.

From my University days I can tell you that Communication is the activity of conveying information. Communication requires a sender, a message and a recipient.

So, let’s look at some forms of communication. Verbal communication is clearly usable by anyone who does not have a hearing problem in the ranges of human speech.

Writing is the representation of language in a textual form, while text is a string of coherent symbols that transmits some form of informative message. While the common form of writing is simply done by marking these coherent symbols on a surface with a substance such as paint, ink, pencil or chalk; letters have been represented tactually in a number of ways.

Text can be embossed on surfaces, and be identified by touch, however the size needed to make these letters usable is comparatively large, and is inefficient for more than a few words. For this reason a number of tactile alphabets have been developed, including Night Writing for the French military, Moon type, New York Point and the most famous: Braille. (See Wikipedia)

Braille is a proven system, and while its falling into some disuse in some areas, it is still important for people to learn. There is a debate around teaching children Braille, while much is available in audio form, or in text form that can be read via computer, learning the alphabet in this way is something many people are passionate about.

The issue with Braille is its use in everyday society. While new buildings are required to include Braille signage, these are so few and far between, you’re unlikely to be running your hands over walls on the off chance you’ll find something readable.

On the topic of body language, Wikipedia cites John Borg in his book Body Language: 7 Easy Lessons to Master the Silent Language, asserting that human communication consists of 93% body language and paralinguistic cues. This leaves only 7% of communication as verbal. So what does this mean for someone who can’t see?

If we hold Borg’s assertion to be true, then it means the blind are missing out on 93% of communication.

Wikipedia contains an entry about eye contact, and while it lacks citation, most of what it contains would appear to be correct. It states:

“Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information. People, perhaps without consciously doing so, probe each other’s eyes and faces for positive or negative mood signs. In some contexts, the meeting of eyes arouses strong emotions.” (Wikipedia)

So what happens when you can’t make eye contact? In western society, where eye contact is generally encouraged, not making eye contact can lead to the impression that you’re not paying attention, or that your attention is elsewhere.

Millions of people around the world large amounts of time communicating via the telephone, the internet and via the written word without major problems, so while 93% of communication might be non-verbal, it would seem its not strictly necessary for us to communicate as human beings.

So, as a blind person, is my communication limited. On considering the above points, is this actually a big problem, or just one facet of being blind?

With Braille, the written word was opened up to the blind, however the production of Braille books is comparatively more expensive, and the volumes are considerably larger. With the development of screenreaders, the computer has opened up written works much further, but still within a limited range.

Proprietary formats, the presentation of text as images and poor formatting are still major barriers to a blind person accessing printed materials, even when they’re available in electronic formats. However it’s been claimed that only a small percentage of printed material is available to someone who is blind or has another print disability.

Even with the explosion in ebooks, there have still been major access issues. Amazon Kindle has only recently been updated so that a screen reader user can access kindle books. None of the handheld ebook readers yet include a screen reader for people with a print disability. Issues such as copyright and the desire of some to protect property continue to limit innovation and universal access.

So, that’s me as a receiver. As sender, how is my communication limited? While I can write, I have no reference to do so in an ordered fashion on a straight line. Certainly I can type, and I’ve no problem speaking. As a sender, I’d suggest that my limitations are very small.

So, yes, Productivity Commission, my Communication is limited, but I’ll submit to you that this is not the main problem for the Visually Impaired.

I’m happy to admit that It could be that I only hold this opinion because I became blind at 20, and so the way I think about the world is coloured by the fact I used to be able to see. It might well be that other blind people might wholeheartedly disagree with this point of view.

The thing I find most difficult about being blind is actually my location, my location relative to everything else, and my own ability to navigate and avoid obstacles. This can be on a large scale in the world outside, or it could be in small spaces such as the kitchen at work. Just to re-emphasise the point of my previous post, I don’t feel incompetent or unsafe, but the environment and the people in it are what worries me. It limits my desire to go new places and try new things, this is my challenge, and one I’m working on.

So, at the end of the day, does any of this matter? I think that the way the population thinks about us as people with disabilities is important. Someone mentioned recently that their top five fears included paralysis and going blind, while Nic Steenhout recently blogged about these kinds of perceptions compared to how the disabled viewed themselves (the context is around physician assisted suicide). We all know we’re quite capable in most respects, beyond the confines of our individual impairments, but we’re still educating everybody else.

Can we regard the Productivity Commission as reasonable representatives of those in politics, on the Business Council of Australia or of society more generally? While I can appreciate the need for them to define the scope of who they intend to serve with their proposed scheme, the way in which they chose to identify the groups, seems to me, to be re-enforcing the negatives and perpetuating stereotypes.