There are many words one could use to describe Ashley Nemeth.
“Busy” would be a good one to start with. The Canadian mother of three is an avid volunteer and recently ran for political office in her hometown of Indian Head, Saskatchewan. Then there are her hobbies, when she has time for them: snowboarding, camping, playing golf and reading.
But when most people meet Nemeth for the first time, only one word comes to mind: “Blind.”
“People treat me differently,” she said. “Some people will yell at me, thinking I can’t hear them. Some people will speak slower or ask where my assistant is. They think I’m incapable.”
Nemeth is one of more than 7 million individuals in North America who live with a visual impairment, and yet oftentimes it seems like society has no idea what to do with her. Over the years, she’s become begrudgingly accustomed to people questioning her ability to parent, perform a job or find satisfaction in daily life.
“The list of misperceptions is long,” she said. “Mostly, people just can’t fathom how we can be successful and happy in our lives as blind people.”
Creating a BlindNewWorld
On May 5, Perkins Board Chair Corinne Basler Grousbeck took the stage at the annual Perkins Gala with a major announcement: Perkins School for the Blind was launching BlindNewWorld, the first-ever social change campaign aimed at permanently altering how society views and treats people who are blind.
Inspired by Grousbeck’s son Campbell, who is blind, the campaign introduced an interactive website, robust social media presence and two provocative videos that encourage people to re-examine their attitudes about blindness.
“The goal is to start a conversation about blindness, to demystify it,” Grousbeck told the energized crowd. “We will enlighten sighted people about what the blind can do in the 21st century, and we’re going to start right now.”
The response was immediate. Within a week, more than 150,000 people had visited BlindNewWorld.org and the campaign hashtag, #BlindNewWorld, had racked up an impressive 13 million impressions.
The media took notice, with stories appearing in The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post and more.
As the campaign’s founder, Grousbeck was thrilled by the outpouring of support. But she was alarmed by the number of people questioning the need to change public attitudes about blindness.
“The part that shocked me was the people who didn’t think this was a legitimate problem,” she said. “Trust me, it’s a problem.”
To prove her point, Grousbeck cited a public opinion survey commissioned by Perkins. More than half of those surveyed acknowledged feeling uncomfortable around people with visual impairment and 80 percent said they felt sorry for people who are blind.
“The pity to me was the most significant,” said Grousbeck. “It’s the most disempowering emotion. If I’m a hiring director and I feel sorry for a prospective employee, am I going to hire them out of pity? No way.”
Jay Worthington has been told to give up on his dreams so many times he’s lost count.
During an acting class led by a well-known casting director in Chicago, Worthington recalls being told to “sit down” after the director became aware of his visual impairment. Worthington is legally blind and has ocular albinism, which can cause his eyes to move erratically without his control.
“I’ve been told a bit more than most actors, ‘This isn’t going to happen,’ ‘You’re not going to have the career you want,’ and ‘You should stop,’” Worthington said. “They said, ‘Nobody’s going to put you on film with that type of disability, it’s too distracting.’”
Today, Worthington is a professional actor and a member of Chicago’s Gift Theatre ensemble. He’s acted in productions ranging from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Othello,” and requires no accommodations to do his job, memorizing his lines and stage directions weeks ahead of his sighted coworkers.
In “The Get Together,” one of two BlindNewWorld videos, Worthington plays a handsome astrophysics professor at a cocktail party. A young woman hesitates before approaching him after she finds out he’s blind. Eventually she musters the courage, and the scene ends with the two of them laughing and flirting on a balcony.
Grousbeck hopes the young woman’s moment of indecision will prompt viewers to examine their own biases. If placed in a similar situation, how would they act?
“To me this is one of those ‘aha’ moments,” she said. “It holds a mirror up to people and makes them think – would I go over and talk to that person?”
Worthington was thrilled to play a character who was both blind and brainy, in part because he’s encountered plenty of misconceptions about his own abilities as someone with a visual impairment.
“People have the assumption that, ‘Well, if it takes an able-bodied person X amount of time to learn this, it’s going to take you twice that,’” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Realities of blindness
The BlindNewWorld website devotes considerable space to educating people who are sighted about the realities of blindness.
There are tips on how to include people who are blind in social events, how to make a work meeting accessible, and how to welcome a guest who is blind into your home. Visitors can take a quiz to uncover their own biases and misconceptions about blindness and learn about certain behaviors that are best avoided (hint: don’t pet a guide dog, no matter how cute it is).
They can also read stories about people who are blind whose lives are strikingly similar to their own: the young professional heading to happy hour with coworkers, the attorney juggling a career with parenthood, the woman enjoying dinner out with her husband. There’s a “teachable moment” in each one about the casual cruelty people with blindness can face.
William Budding, an ambassador for the BlindNewWorld campaign, hopes these stories will encourage people to be more welcoming when encountering someone with visual impairment.
“If it’s culturally understood that (blindness) is a normal thing and these people are alright, then real grassroots change can be made,” he said. “There’s often all this anxiety from people when they see me or another blind person – all the flags go up. I want people to just chill out.”
A lofty goal
When she first had the idea for BlindNewWorld, Grousbeck had 23 years of experience to draw from. Not surprisingly, many of the tips and scenarios on the campaign’s website are inspired by Campbell, who graduated from Perkins School for the Blind in 2014.
As the mother of a child who is blind, Grousbeck witnessed firsthand the behavior her campaign seeks to reverse. At parties, people often stared rudely when her son entered the room. In the grocery store, a woman uttered a sympathetic “Bless you” to Grousbeck after seeing Campbell’s white cane. Everywhere, people underestimated what her son was capable of.
“His biggest obstacle is people not giving him a chance,” she said. “People looking at him sideways going, ‘I don’t know what to make of you, so I’m going to step around you.’ It’s really disheartening as a mom to watch that.”
Long term, Grousbeck hopes that BlindNewWorld will spark a shift in the way people think about and behave around people with visual impairment. Like any parent, she’d like her son to live in a world where he is accepted as a valuable and contributing member of society.
“I’m not naïve, and I’m not a dreamer, but I am a mom,” she said, “and I am filled with hope that when my son and all of our Perkins students move forward in this world that it will be a lot kinder and more inclusive than it is now.”
It won’t happen overnight, but if enough people visit BlindNewWorld, watch the videos and share its message on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, change will begin to happen, she said.
“The goal is lofty and huge, but we can begin by starting a conversation around it,” she said. “Maybe you don’t know someone who is blind in your daily life, but the next time you run into someone who is blind on the subway or at a ballgame, I want you to be comfortable enough to start a conversation like you would with someone who is sighted.”
If that happens, perhaps the word “blind” will move lower on the list of words used to describe people like Ashley Nemeth. There’s nothing she’d like more.
“That’s the biggest change I’d like to see – that people will stop looking at me for my disability,” she said. “That they will literally just forget that I’m blind and look at me for me.”
Learn more at BlindNewWorld.org.