Our Blind Life is a series of peer support networks of people from the blindness community at different stages of their lives and vision loss that meets monthly to share tips, technology, apps, lived experiences, and thoughts about everything from cooking to media representation to ableism.
Sometimes blindness is not easy, especially if you are new to adopting disability as an identity. You are a part of a group of individuals all facing similar challenges and successes, and we want to have open and honest discussion around blindness and its role in our lives. We wanted to create a safe, inclusive space for you to discuss the successes and challenges of living with blindness. Lead by three blind professionals, Our Blind Life (OBL) is an affinity/support group for blind/low-vision students and young professionals, meant to foster friendships and a sense of community.
The meetings are not recorded, and you are free to keep your camera and audio off and listen if you don’t feel like joining in with the conversation, although we encourage you to do so. You never know what kinds of networking can happen! Swap tips and tricks on how to navigate life as a person who is a member of the blind/low-vision community. Trade recipes, assistive technology hacks, or discuss strategies for independence and self-advocacy. Feel free to open up and be yourself.
Past topics have included navigating friendship and combatting bullying as well as the misconceptions and attitudes of the sighted world. We are open to any topic of discussion, so if you have a question or area you’d like to run by your fellow blind folks, don’t hesitate to ask! You are not alone in your experiences. By bonding over friendship and common goals of living our best, most independent lives, we can conquer stereotypes and fears together. Though this is a virtual gathering, feel free to come ready to relax with your favorite snack/beverage, and find a welcoming atmosphere where you can share stories, laugh, vent, or just sit back and listen.
The advent of the residential schools for the blind brought the opportunity for an education, something that had been poor or nonexistent for most of the blind school aged children in the United States. A second outcome was that this brought together children and adolescents who shared a common feature, their blindness. Though small in numbers, the schools offered a society where vision loss was nearly universal. In many cases the teachers at the schools were also sight impaired. Though the culture of the schools still included norms similar to the larger society, many elements were significantly different.
With changes in legislation and laws, the social structure for blind students underwent marked modifications. The intent was to allow students with vision loss and other challenges to be educated integrated within their own communities and schools. The instructional differences placed a new demand on local schools, and they were to provide the special instructional content that these students required.
The component that was overlooked was the social development needs of blind students. Though large districts with larger enrollments might have several blind students, a small system may have only one or a few students, and these would likely be spread over all grades. The result is that many blind students had no or very little contact with others who also had serious vision losses. It was and is still argued that those with loss of sight would have to live in a sighted world anyway. The traditional public school would prepare blind students for that role.
How does a student, who is the only blind student in their school, develop a sense of who she or he is? Role models will be limited at best. Since those students are identified by their white cane, their braille, or their speech devices, they are marked as different and accepted or rejected based on their abilities and perceptions about those differences.
Realizing the need for blind students to interact with other blind students, the school or other organizations may offer weekend or summer programs. But these are short in duration and most often draw on attracting students from a large geographic area. For these blind students, retaining meaningful relationships over time and distance becomes a significant task. How can they establish meaningful relationships that last over time? The pandemic may have created a possible model.
Who is Our Blind Life for?
Wanting to provide holistic programming that deals with disability identity on a level absent from similar human service programs, the Polus Center created Our Blind Life. Initially developed for our Pre-Employment Transition program (ESP) students, we quickly realized the need for an extension of peer support around blindness for the population of students/professionals who do not fit typical Pre-ETS eligibility. A student in college (undergrad/grad school or equivalent educational training), as well as workers new to the process of navigating employment, need structured support to help them navigate often difficult transitions related to blindness.
Newly blind/visually impaired persons in their 20’s/30’s especially need peer support related to navigating life as blind young adults. Such peer support not only helps to decrease issues surrounding depression and isolation related to blindness adjustment, but can also provide a mentorship/leadership relationship as older experienced blind and visually impaired persons share their lived experience with younger members.
While we still offer OBL for our Pre-ETS age students, we now offer a couple of different OBL sessions for different age groups and life stages.
How does it work?
Our Blind Life is a virtual meeting space for high school/ college students, and young professionals to explore disability identity and engage in critical discussions around navigating blindness by connecting and networking with peers and mentors.
When meeting remotely we want everyone to feel comfortable sharing lived experiences/emotions around blindness, so cameras are optional, and no notes are taken. No recordings, this is a safe and private space, where people can share their personal experiences or ask the difficult questions. Topics like discrimination (Ablism), bullying, self-advocacy, advocacy for others, and trying to solve those everyday issues we face on a regular basis, are openly and honestly talked about.
An example of how a topic emerged during OBL last year. At the request of some members, we began a critical study of blindness representation in the media, and how such portrayals can have positive/negative effects on the perceptions of blind people from the point of view of a sighted world. We are doing this firstly by viewing movies with blind characters and discussing the portrayal of blindness, although we are open to exploring other types of media as well. Members have also expressed interest in starting a content distribution model such as YouTube or podcasts to allow for wider discussion of issues raised in meetings and to continue organic and honest conversations around blindness at a larger level meant to foster and grow community.
Such discussions are central to one of the core tenants of Pre-Employment Transition Services--self-advocacy. They help to provide core grounding in blindness as an identity as well as strategies for combatting systemic ableism and microaggressions faced by blind/visually impaired members of our society. By engaging in honest dialogue, we hope to shed a light on and break down stereotypes or other attitudinal/systemic barriers which prevent blind/VI individuals from full and equal participation in society.
What do you talk about?
Our Blind Life isn’t just about the tough issues, it’s also about providing a community where we can have fun, laugh together, talk about cooking and our favorite foods, help and support one another, or just enjoy each other’s friendship while watching an audio described movie on a Saturday night. OBL is really organic, letting the group take a discussion or topic where it naturally leads in a totally judgement- free zone.
OBL meets monthly, typically on the first Saturday of the month from 7:00-8:30 PM on Zoom, though we are now conducting a survey to determine when each group would prefer to meet. We are also exploring other means of community engagement such as social media channels or content created to help teach the wider world about blindness through the lived experiences of members. We are providing a cohesive and continuum of support past transition age and into areas of life where people could benefit from knowing they are not the only one experiencing blindness as an identity.
How do I get involved?
If you are interested in joining, please contact Josh Pearson at jpearson [at] poluscenter.org, or Rick Ely at rely [at] poluscenter.org. We are on hiatus until March 2022, but please consider taking our survey below to let us know the topics that you might like to explore. We hope to see you at one of our gatherings, and we can’t wait to meet you!
Take our survey!
Are you missing a sense of community? Ever wish you could talk with others who are also visually impaired? Do you wish there was a place to come together to form connections? Starting in March of 2022, come be part of the blindness community to learn new information, share tips and strategies, and network with peers.
Our Blind Life (OBL) is a virtual place to gather where you can join together with others who have a wide range of vision loss. OBL meets virtually monthly to talk about the everyday experiences that effect your life. We foster a sense of togetherness through learning, games and social activities in addition to sharing stories and experiences related to living with blindness/low vision. OBL is a safe place to express and explore your personal identity. Cameras on or off be part of the conversation or just listen in. Whatever is talked about in the group, stays within the group, judgement free. OBL is about support.
If you would take the time to complete this short survey, it would be very much appreciated. Gaining your ideas and insight will give us more information to make OBL a reflection of the interests of our visually impaired community.
Your input will help us in developing a full slate of programming around the blind experience when we launch our initial community zoom in March 2022.
We’re looking forward to having you join us!
For more information contact Josh Pearson, jpearson [at] poluscenter.org.