BREAKING NEWS

Frequently Asked Questions - Disabilities

In the United States, the legal definition of blindness is visual acuity of not greater than 20/200 in the better eye with correction or a field not subtending an angle greater than 20 degrees.

So what does that mean?

Most people are aware that a person with normal, clear vision sees 20/20. What this means is that the person can see at 20 feet what a normally sighted person can see at 20 feet. Lots of people don't see this well, but their vision can usually be corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses (and some with laser surgery) to 20/20. That's what the "correction" clause in the definition of legal blindness means. Even if your vision is 20/200 without your glasses, if it is better with glasses, you are not legally blind.

So what does 20/200 mean? A person with 20/200 vision has to be 20 feet away or closer to something that a person with normal (20/20) vision can see from 200 feet away. This is the equivelent to not being able to see the big "E" on the top of a Snellen eye chart. So, while a person with 20/200 (or worse) vision can see some things, like big shapes, colors, movement, they can't see it in any great detail unless they are very close to it.

The second part of the definition is visual field. Remember, you only need to qualify under one of the parts, although some people qualify under both. A person with normal vision has clear vision in the center, with gradually fuzzier vision that is mostly only good for catching movements and bright colors that shift your eyes focus to whatever it is that got your attention. This fuzzy outer vision is called peripheral vision. Some people, especially people with retinal degeneration diseases like Retinitis Pigmentosa, gradually lose this outer vision as their retina dies. They can still have clear central vision, but because it is so narrow it is restricted to a very small area, like looking through a toilet paper tube. This is called "tunnel vision" and a person is considered legally blind if this tunnel is narrower than 20 degrees.

Another way to have a restricted visual field is through central vision loss, like in macular degeneration. In macular degeneration, vision is lost from the inside out. The person still has peripheral vision, but as stated before, peripheral vision is not very clear. I am not sure how much of central vision needs to be obstructed before a person is considered legally blind, but I would assume it would be very little.

Another way to have a restricted visual field is to have permanent (from retinal degeneration, as in diabetes) or floating (as in people affected by toxoplasmosis in utero) blind spots that obscure vision. These block out spots in both central and peripheral vision.

Most legally blind people are not totally blind, as is commonly thought. Most blind people do have some degree of useful vision.

The answer to this question may be more complicated than you expect. First, there are different definitions of disability in different federal laws. The definition for Social Security Disability Income is not the same as that in the Americans with Disabilities Act (which determines whether you qualify to use a service dog in public places where dogs are not generally permitted). It is possible for an individual to qualify for SSDI and not qualify for a service dog and vice versa. You must evaluate your situation separately for each context.

The definition of disability under the ADA is a legal, not medical, definition. Since a lawyer generally can't diagnose medical conditions and a doctor generally can't interpret the law, you may get stuck somewhere in the middle trying to figure it all out.

We've made a flow chart that incorporates the elements of the definition of disability contained within the ADA to try to help you sort through this question systematically.

You may want to review the legal definition as written by Congress for yourself, or review the entire Americans with Disabilities Act which includes some additional fine points you may notice in our flow chart in other sections.

Ultimately, what we recommend is that you take the flow chart or the written definition with you and discuss it with any doctor who is treating you or has treated you for your disability to get his opinion and to have his opinion entered into your permanent medical records.

AttachmentSize
Flowchart to help determine if you qualify for a service dog176.76 KB

There are several resources for interested sighted people who want to learn braille.

If you just want to see what the basic letters and numbers are, visit the American Foundation for the Blind's Braille Bug website. http://www.afb.org/braillebug/

If you want a more intensive series of lessons that will teach you all of the symbols, contractions and special rules, take a look at the Shodor Foundation's Braille Through Remote Learning website. http://brl.org

If you have a close family member who is blind, you can take a correspondence course from the Hadley School for the Blind. http://hadley.edu

If, after these introductions, you decided that you want to become a certified braille transcriber, you may go through the certification program offered by the Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/nls/bds/courses/index.html

Braille uses several contractions and special symbols to save space. For example, the word braille, when written in braille, is the three letters brl. This is a braille contraction. Some common words like "the" and "and" have a one-character symbol. Common letter combinations like "er" and "ie" also have special symbols. If you look at a sign for a public restroom, you will see that it has only seven letters. This is because "st" is one of the common letter combinations that has its own symbol.

Learning braille is a lot like learning print. Neurologists using FMRI scanners have discovered that skilled braille readers use the same parts of their brains (including the vision parts of the brain!) as sighted people do when they read print.

Young blind children are encouraged to explore different textures with their fingers, much as sighted children are taught to recognize different two-dimensional shapes as preparation for learning the shapes of letters. There are storybooks with tactile pictures and braille text. Even if the child is too young to read the book, following along as an adult reads the story can help the child make the connection between spoken language and the writing on the page. A blind child may spend part of the school day in a resource room with a braille teacher, and the rest of the day with sighted peers doing the same reading and writing activities as the other children, except in braille. Some of the blind child's learning materials will be different from those of his/her peers, to introduce the special symbols and contractions used in braille, but most of them will be the same.

Adults who originally learned to read print but lost their sight later in life have much less work to do. They already know how to read, they just need to use a different alphabet plus a few extra symbols. Some people get braille lessons at an adjustment-to-blindness training program, and some elect to use self-study or correspondence courses. The braille skills and reading speed of people who learn to read braille as adults is tied to how often and for how long they practice their skills.

A blind person's ears don't function any better than a sighted person's ears do, but blind people learn to use their hearing more effectively. It is a learned skill rather than a heightened sensitivity.

When served a meal, a blind person may ask where the different foods are located on the plate. The most common way to describe the location of a particular food on a plate is to think of the plate as the face of an analog clock. The part closest to the diner is 6 o'clock, the far edge is 12 o'clock, the left side is 9 o'clock, and so on. The blind person may also probe discreetly across the plate with a fork. It is fairly easy to distinguish different foods this way.

There are three main tools used by blind and low vision computer users.

The most common is screen reading software, which is a program that, as you might guess, reads out loud what is on the screen. Screen readers don't always work with every other program, or every website, but they are a powerful tool for accessing digital information without needing to ask for the assistance of a sighted person.

In addition to the robot-voice output, some screen readers can also send information to a refreshable braille display. A refreshable braille display is a row of braille cells. Each cell has movable pins that rise up or fall back down to make the shapes of braille characters. Some refreshable braille displays, intended for use with cell phones and pagers, have enough cells to display just one or two words at a time, and some of the larger ones can display up to 80 braille characters at a time.

If the person still has some usable vision, they may elect to use screen magnification software. Screen magnifiers don't just make everything bigger. They can smooth the edges of text, change colors, and add other effects to the display to make it easier for a person with limited vision to use. Some magnifying programs also have a built-in screen reader, or are designed to be compatible with another screen reading program.

Also on the market are braille notetakers. Braille notetakers are computers that are designed to be accessible to blind people. They can best be described as a halfway point between a PDA and a laptop. They usually do not have any kind of visual display, but have audio output and a built-in refreshable braille display. Popular software packages for braille notetakers allow web browsing, email, audiobook playback, word processing, and even GPS navigation.

Being completely blind, with no light perception whatsoever, is extremely rare. Most blind people still get some visual input ranging anywhere from only being able to perceive very bright lights, to quite a lot of vision (the 20/200 threshold of legal blindness).

Most people who have absolutely no light perception are that way because the connection between their eyes and their brain is completely cut off. This is usually because the eyes have been removed, because the optic nerve has been completely severed, or because of brain damage. These people will not see black. Seeing is what your brain does with signals that your eyes send to the brain. If there is no signal, nothing is seen. A good question to ask yourself is, "What can I see with my elbow?" You don't see black with your elbow. You don't see with it at all. There are some exceptions to this.

Sometimes people who are totally blind will "see" flashes of light or color that aren't there. It's just a biological glitch, kind of like the flashes or sparkles people with normal vision see temporarily if they get hit on the head.

Sometimes people who experience vision loss later in life (but not people who were born blind) have a type of non-psychotic hallucination called Charles Bonnet Syndrome. People who have CBS know that the odd things they see are not real, they are simply a brain glitch, and they do not affect any other senses. The hallucinations are usually of tiny versions of everyday objects or people. Because this usually happens to older people, people who have not been told by their doctors about the possibility of CBS may fear that they are developing dementia. Fortunately, CBS is not harmful or degenerative, and is simply a small annoyance that people adjust to over time.

A handicapped stall is not intended to be used solely by people with disabilities. However, since it is the only stall many with disabilities can use, it is important to make it as available for them as possible.

Simple courtesy and common sense suggest the following rules for use of the handicapped stalls in restrooms:

1. If you are pregnant or chaperoning very small children and have a real need for the extra space, AND if no one with a disability is presently in need of it, then use it.

2. If there are other stalls available and do not have a specific need that will prevent you from using a regular stall, then use the regular stall. Use the regular stall even if you would prefer more space and even if you are the only one in the restroom. A person in a wheel chair could come in right behind you and be left waiting even though other stalls are available, just because the only one in the whole restroom she can use is occupied by someone who doesn't even need it.

3. If there are no other stalls available and no person with a disability requiring the special stall is present, then you may use it.

4. If there is a line waiting and someone in the line is disabled and in need of the special stall, that person should be moved to the head of the line and allowed to use the special stall as soon as the current occupant leaves it.