Slice of Life:Universal Design

By Danny Wirtheim, Staff Writer

Published in print Feb. 25, 2015

    I was considering what it would be like to be blind while I was watching a performance of the Vagina Monologues. I decided that I would keep my eyes shut during a few of the monologues, just to see if my other senses would be able to enjoy the play as much as my eyes.

    I reasoned that if there are people who have to live their entire lives without sight, than I could make it for twenty minutes. In those twenty minutes, nothing really happened, other than I became extremely curious as to what was happening on stage. I knew I looked ridiculous, and probably rude, sitting there on the front row with my eyes closed, but I didn’t let that affect me because it was in the spirit of understanding blindness.

    I’m filming a documentary on blind factory workers at Industries of the Blind (IOB) on Lee Street. That means I spend mornings following blind workers through the factory, filming them as they sew cloth items and put pens together. While I film, I ask questions about life, about what they do in their free time, and sometimes about their lives before they became blind. 

   Although the stories can be sad, IOB is a positive environment. There’s a sense of camaraderie in the factory. Most feel more connected to society when they’re working on a project at IOB. They’re sewing parachute bags, and pens that will be used by the U.S. Government.

An employee named Abe, who inspects the bags, is extremely supportive of American soldiers. He finds solace knowing that his items are being used for a cause that he supports; he’s passionate about his work. He wonders what a young person like me is doing filming and not enjoying my youth, like he did.

Sometimes it feels like I shouldn’t be in the factory. It’s awkward to carry a camera, to take an introspective look at someone who I’ve met only moments before.

    I have to admit that being around the blind was something that I had to get used to; I had never known a blind person before. I wondered if there was some type of etiquette I needed to learn when talking to the blind. Do I say sight-impaired, visually handicap or any other politically corrected term? I realized that I was over-thinking things.

    There’s a poster made by Easter Seals, a non-profit organization for people with disabilities that reads, “Sometimes the worst thing about having a disability is that people meet it before they meet you.” It’s a simple concept, but it’s always relevant when working with the blind.

    As I spend more time in the factory, the idea that the blind have a handicap is wearing off. How can a person who goes to work everyday, pays their own rent and raises their own family be called handicap? I wonder if it’s only a social construct, if we have created the idea of blindness as a handicap.

   I’ve realized I have to be cautious about that question. There are certain things that the blind just can’t do. At least in IOB there is no such thing as handicap. They have a universal design that allows the blind to work without limitations.

  At first, I thought the factory was depressing, a place where the blind put mops together in a damp dungeon-looking room. It’s not like that at all. If no one told me they were blind, I wouldn’t consider the factory to employee almost exclusively blind people.

   ‘Universal Design’ is a term that’s thrown around a lot when talking about accessibility for all people. It’s about having more auditory road signals and ramps for wheelchair access. On a community level, it would translate to giving equal opportunities to all people, regardless of a visible handicap. It’s also about understanding that a good play can be appreciated with or without sight.

Categories: daniel wirtheim, Features

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