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Blind people and the problems they face in Georgia

By Esma Gumberidze
Monday, March 24

First of all, I would like to warn you, that almost any activity either related to studying or to social life, requires more time and effort from a blind person, than it does from those who can see. For instance, in order to analyze simple data, the latter only needs to have a look at the chart, while the blind person has to attentively read or hear everything included in the chart, memorize it, and then mentally compare and contrast.

To be active during the seminar (to ask questions and to give answers) the students who can see donít have to study all the materials previously assigned by the instructor. They can simply look- up the necessary information in the book or notes made during the seminar, while a blind person has to learn the discussed topic in order to successfully participate in the seminar. It's impossible to quickly search the information on the computer. To do so, a blind student should put on earphones, look for the necessary documents using the keyboard, and select the pages and lines by listening to the different sentences (which is a slower process, than running oneís eyes around the text).

Even if a blind student has access to Braille books, these books are huge; they are heavy and need a lot of space. It's very inconvenient to store or carry them around compared to the printed books for regular students. Braille symbols have to be perceivable for oneís fingers. This is why they have a larger size, than the average print symbols.

So, when someone with normal sight has to search a page, the blind individual has to search across 4-5 pages to explore the same amount of text, which makes using a Braille book a slower process than using a standard print book. Besides, vision can perceive the whole page at a glance, while the finger perceives only one item at a particular moment. In addition, the ear can only hear small piece of information played by the device, which is another reason why vision-based studying on average might take less time, than any other method.

Computers have working and studying conditions for blind people similar to those who can see. Still, a blind person cannot just direct the mouse to a target on the computer screen. Instead, they have to spend plenty of time memorizing the hotkeys that perform a particular action. Blind people tend to be more focused and concentrated on whatever they do. That's because we don't receive visual information about the environment surrounding us, like the people who can see and who can easily become distracted by other factors during their job or studying.

When taking exam, or listening to a lecturer, a blind student can't look around and notice how others are dressed, what they are doing, peopleís facial expressions, and the kinds of laptops and jewelry people have. So, as a rule, blind students focus all their attention on studying. Since we can't see what's going on outside our window in the street and therefore can't be making mental comments about the people and things moving outside, we, unlike the one who can see, can sit by the window at home or workplace and read, listen, type, work or study undisturbed.

Blind people usually know the subject or topic they are working on better, and the blind personís work is often of better quality than the work done by those who can see. Blind people face similar problems in their social lives as well. While everybody else becomes familiar with a new place by taking several minutes to look around, for a blind person it might take hours to explore a new place, become familiar with a new space and environment and to be able to get around independently. Even for the one who can see, it's sometimes hard to recognize by appearance someone they've met once before and even harder for a blind person who doesn't see peopleís faces. They must recognize people by their voices, especially when they've met them previously only once.

Typically, in order to memorize someone's voice and become able to recognize a person by it (unless one has a really specific voice) we need to have extensive or multiple communications with that person. This inconvenience makes the friend-making process harder and slower for us, because people like to be recognized.

People don't realize that if they have a hard time recognizing someone by their appearance they've talked to only once, it's even harder for a blind person to recognize someone by voice for which they have talked to only once or a long time ago. This goes against the myth that blind people have extraordinary hearing.

There are a lot of contrasting stereotypes about blind people. Blind people are thought either to be able to do everything, or nothing. Society is afraid of blind people. Often they don't know how to talk or act around us. Some consider us to be mentally ill, or think that we must be sensitive to certain topics, like our lack of vision or diagnosis. Some people who have no problems with their sight and can see well, feel uncomfortable around blind individuals, because while talking we can't be looking at them. Some of my family friends' and relatives' children and even some other students that have been around me earlier in the academic year don't even say "hi" at university when they see me.

A couple of times I heard one of them talking in the hallway. I recognized her by voice and said "hiĒ. Most people are afraid to be friends with blind people and prefer to just offer help and walk away. Because on average, for a blind person, it takes more time to become successful in work or studying, than for anyone else. In fact, studious and work-motivated blind people are often forced to sacrifice their social life and friend-making process. At the same time, as I said above, friend-making and other aspects to our social life requires more effort on average compared to those who can see.

If you pursue an active life at your education's expense, you might lose an opportunity to get to know and become friends with some interesting people, and it might also prevent you from pursuing a successful career. This might lead you to feel and even indeed become useless for your friends and other people that surround you.

Feeling or being useless might cause you to lose friends that you've made earlier, and in turn, sacrificing your education. While if you chose to pursue education and career goals partly and temporarily sacrificing your social life, you'll deserve respect from both older and people your own age, who will be surprised, that blind people can achieve something and change for the better their own, as well as other people's lives. Your success will be an inspiration for others and eventually you most likely will make some friends too.

I had to make such choice not only in Georgia, but also in the United States, when I was FLEX exchange student there. On the other hand, because it's so hard for a blind person to make a real friend or secure a good job and itís so easy to lose friends and jobs, we tend to be faithful and forgiving friends and focused and concentrated on our jobs in order to do our best there.

Esma Gumberidze is a first year student at the Law School at Free University in Tbilisi (To be continued in next Monday's issue)