Blindfolding Doesn't Help People Understand What It's Like to be Blind

Exercises that call for people to blindfold themselves in order to experience what it's like to be blind may hurt perceptions of those who are disabled rather that help those with sight understand.

“You never truly know someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.” It's an old adage that speaks for humanity to experience or imagine another person's situation in order to understand. Put on a blindfold, for instance, and you'll instantly know what it's like to be blind. Perhaps not, according to one study.


Ben Richmond from Motherboard writes on a recent study that shows people who experience simulated blindness perceive blind people as less capable. The lead study's author Arielle Silverman, who is a PhD candidate at CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience (and blind), spoke to Richmond in an interview, saying:

“Disability activists have long argued that simulations give a falsely negative view of disability.”

This view may give some the impression that blind folks are less capable than those with sight. In order to prove this hypothesis, Silverman and her team gathered 100 student participants. Some of the participants were blindfolded and asked to perform simple tasks from walking down a hallway to sorting coins. At the study's conclusion, 53 percent of participants who were blindfolded came away with the impression that blind people are less capable. Where only 34 percent of people who were not blindfolded thought the same. 

“Participants' attitudes were harmed because the blindfolded experience led them to believe that blind people cannot perform activities as well as people with normal vision. While all participants tended to have this belief, it was more intense among the participants who had just simulated blindness.”

Of course, Silverman disagrees with this notion. Technology has come a long way, she says, allowing the disabled to perform some duties without the need of an  assistant.

The issue that concerns her most is that blindness simulations are often used as educational tools for students and teachers--without first consulting a blind person. If participants are coming away with the notion that the blind are less able than people with sight, then these “blind simulations” don't adequately represent their true abilities. Her fear is that this perception could create a misunderstanding that could hinder someone from gaining access to certain jobs where managers may think the applicant wouldn't be able to carry out their duties adequately. 

“In my view, any educational exercise about disability should be guided first and foremost by people with disabilities, and these individuals should be front and center in delivering the exercise to students. If simulations are used at all, they should be crafted so as to present participants with a balanced perspective on the positive, negative and neutral aspects of having a lifelong disability.”

Read more at Motherboard

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.