In the book The Work Ahead office workers save the world with their knowledge of optimization and 80’s trivia. The protagonist happens to be blind. His blindness is only mentioned once in the book. To sighted readers like me, he seems just like you and me. It’s written by my friend Sameer Doshi. Sameer is an executive at Microsoft. During his interview, he forgot to tell anyone that he was blind and no one picked up on that fact. This made me think, “If he could tell a story where the protagonist was secretly blind, and he could interview for a job and no one noticed that he was blind, where else are there ‘secret blind guys’?” Amy Schumer has a joke about this in her Netflix special Emergency Contact:
We go to the party, and it was at this really rich guy’s house. We never met him before. Right before we go in, our friend who invited us says, “Oh, just so you know, he’s blind, but it’s a secret.”
I’m like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” “From who?” She’s like, “Well, um, he doesn’t acknowledge it, and everyone around him acts like it’s not happening.” I’m like, “You can be that rich that you’re just not blind?” …
He’s in the kitchen, because he’s cooking. And you could tell… He’s looking up. He says, “Hey, great to meet you. No shaking hands. Covid.” And we’re like, “That’s why.”Amy Schumer: Emergency Contact (2023)
The audience thought it was really funny. I thought it was funny. But the story shows how little we really understand blind people. Blind people are seen as an “other.” We find comfort and connection in thinking that others have the same experience. The world to me appears the same as it does to you. But what if you experience the world in a fundamentally different way? What if you can’t see?
I tried to understand what it was like to be a blind person in Israel when I visited an exhibit called Dialog in the Dark. The purpose of the exhibit was to understand what it’s like to be blind. It was scary for most of us, unsure of how to navigate around tables and over bridges. (1)Except for 10-year-old Ari who had a preternatural ability to navigate in the dark. We walked around in total darkness, having to feel our way through the world. Even as we became slightly more comfortable we learned how difficult it was to go to the grocery store to pick fruit or even to walk down the street.
At the end of the session, there’s a basic question-and-answer session with our blind guide. You get to ask them all of the questions to want to ask a blind person like, “How do you choose what to wear?” and “How do you cross the street?” I wasn’t as interested in the question-and-answer session. I didn’t need this “rent-a-friend” because I could ask Sameer.
Sameer is my writing buddy. We edit each other’s work. He’s an executive at Microsoft. So when I tell people this, people ask, “But is he REALLY blind?” I figured I’d go to Sameer for the answer.
Sameer told me, “People ask me this all the time. People don’t realize that only 15% of blind people can’t see light. Blindness is generally a degenerative disease, like hearing loss, where you lose more and more vision. For some reason, people understand that people can lose their hearing until they become functionally deaf, but think that blindness is all or nothing. (2)Sameer also pointed me to the book, the Country of the Blind by Andrew Leland to help me understand what it felt like to go blind.
“When I describe blind people, like in my book The Work Ahead, it’s hard to convey using a single word. When I use the word blind, people think of the complete absence of vision and have too many preconceptions. I’ve considered using the term “low vision” which is also correct but people think it’s just someone wearing glasses.
“When I started going blind, I needed glasses to see everything. Without my glasses the world was just a giant blur. If you tried my glasses on, you’d say ‘Wow, you’re really blind,”—because I was—without my glasses. As my vision got worse, I needed stronger and stronger glasses. Eventually, it got so bad that I couldn’t see anything more than an inch in front of me, so I started using a cane.”
So let’s go back to Amy Schumer’s secret blind guy. The secret blind guy probably had an eye disease like retinitis pigmentosa, which made the cells in his retina break down slowly over time, gradually causing vision loss. First it was seeing at night and then a narrowing of his peripheral vision.
As he lost his vision he didn’t notice. How can a person not see that they’re going blind? It’s because we don’t actually see with our eyes, we see with our brains. The eye only sees a portion of what we’re seeing, with the brain filling in the rest based on memory and expectation.
Everyone has a blind spot in the back of their eye where there are no light-sensitive cells, or photoreceptors, in that part of the retina where the optic nerve attaches to the eye. In fact, you can see your own blind spot by doing this experiment.
As he lost his vision, his blind spot became bigger and bigger. As he lost more vision, he didn’t want to admit he was going blind. He could have used supports to make his (and everyone around him) life better, but because he was so rich, he didn’t have to. It’s like a deaf person who won’t use hearing aids or someone who has severe trouble walking and wouldn’t use crutches. It can be done but it’s very difficult.
Amy Schumer, and all of us laughing, had a blind spot about blind people. We make assumptions about blind people without really understanding what they can and can’t do. She didn’t think that it was possible to cover being blind.
Covering is a big thing. Sameer told me about an all-hands call he had at work where the entire leadership team came together to talk about covering and “Bringing Your Authentic Self to Work.” Leaders talked about the small things that they didn’t feel comfortable talking about at work. Having to “fake it” at work took an emotional toll and made them less productive. As everyone was sharing Sameer said, “You know guys, I’ve been covering my blindness for the last hour and in every video call I’m on. I stare at the screen with my video on and I can’t see any of you.”