Why many disabled persons reject the Use of assistive devices

Visible disabilities are largely stigmatised. That is certainly no secret. Sociologist Erving Goffman's book "Stigma" is a documentation of the topic, required reading for anyone who wants to do a little research on disability. Psychologist Oliver Sacks described it from a different perspective.

Sitting together with disabled persons, one can trigger night-long discussions with the question whether it is better to have a visible or an invisible disability. I don't want to open that discussion here, but it is clear that in many cases you cannot hide a visible disability, whereas the invisibly disabled can choose whether to come out or not. For the visibly disabled, there is no incognito.

Article Content

The reluctance to use assistive devices

Many "newly" disabled persons initially refuse to use assistive devices that are typical of their disability. I myself refused the blind cane for a long time until I realised that persons didn't give a damn whether I had a cane or not. Sabriye Tenberken put it more literarily than I did in her book "Seven Years in Tibet". Sabriye set up a school for the blind in Tibet and a training centre in India and went blind in her teenager yearss. Eric Weihenmeyer, an American blind climber, offers a similar example. He too refused to accept the blind aids for a long time. A few years ago, there was a report in the Süddeutsche magazine about a person who was almost blind and yet managed to hide his visual impairment from his colleagues. We find a similar phenomenon with the hearing impaired. Younger persons in particular refuse to wear clearly visible hearing aids.

I recognise two different psychological motives in this:

  • On the one hand, persons do not want to out themselves and be seen as blind, hard of hearing or whatever. This has to do with society's attitude towards disabled persons. Let's put it bluntly, disability is seen as a deficit. Either one arouses pity or dislike or both. This is often more unpleasant than the disability itself and I can well understand if one avoids it if possible.
  • On the other hand, by using these aids, one also seems to admit to oneself that nothing can actually be saved. As long as you don't use a cane, it seems possible that one day you won't need one anyway. If you use it, you accept blindness and give up any chance of ever seeing usually again. This is nonsense, of course, but persons are not always logical. This somewhat twisted form of vanity is found, for example, in the case of the severely visually impaired, who strain their eyes with monstrous degrees of magnification on the screen instead of using a screen reader that would make their lives much easier. There is no rational reason for this.

The next question, of course, would be whether such behaviour can be wise. Not really, because in case of doubt one does more damage - psychologically as well as physically - than one would have by admitting the disability. Of course, one not only harms oneself, but also others. Pretty much every German court will find the blind or hard of hearing person partly to blame for an accident, even if he or she is the actual victim. You can't go out to eat with your colleagues because you can't help yourself or are afraid of spilling your food without realising it. You can't ask the shop assistants in the supermarket for a certain product because their descriptions are of course only helpful to sighted persons. A typical behaviour is therefore to avoid difficult situations.

The role of assistive devices

The problem would be very easy to solve, we just have to abolish the stigmatisation of disabled persons.

But joking aside: this will not happen in the foreseeable future, so we have to work on other causes. One of these is the design of aids. Of course, this is only one aspect and probably not even the most important one, but I know more about that than about persons's psyche or society's collective consciousness.

The typical assistive devices usually look like medical equipment. Of course they are, but no one has ever said that they have to look like that. Blind persons's canes don't have to look like discarded broomsticks, talking watches don't have to make horrible noises and the typical blind person doesn't have to wear sunglasses and yellow bandages with black dots.

We need to push the whole complex of assistive devices towards Universal Design or Design for All. It is neither contemporary to produce mobile phones for senior citizens nor to buy the aids in special shops. Apple has shown us how it can be done. If the classic manufacturers of assistive devices were to build a smartphone, it would probably look like a toaster, weigh two kilos and cost 2,000 euros.

The acceptance of the iPhone is also much higher among newly blind persons than with other aids. It looks nice and most colleagues have one, and no one has to notice that it talks all the time. It's not so easy to make the same with the cane. But they can definitely become more stylish.

A change in culture

My motto is that it is easier to change oneself than to change others. As I wrote elsewhere, I don't think the blind have a particularly distinctive culture. We don't necessarily need it, but it wouldn't do any harm either. What we really need, however, is a culture of IBBNU: I'm blind, so what? The German blind are conspicuous mainly because they arouse pity - whether they want it or not. Self-confident blind persons like Joana Zimmer or Verena Bentele, on the other hand, are rarely seen. But they show impressively that one can go far despite - or because of - blindness. The American blind seem to embody this attitude more. I also think that younger blind persons deal with the situation in a cooler way than previous generations, but let's wait and see. I'm not a friend of the Pride movements because you can't help being blind and therefore you can't be proud of it. But you can only win if you deal with blindness in a self-confident way and this is facilitated by the creation of a blind culture.

Further reading