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Changing sighted people’s views of the visually impaired

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Campbell Grousbeck with his mother, Corinne Grousbeck, at the Perkins School for the Blind.
Campbell Grousbeck with his mother, Corinne Grousbeck, at the Perkins School for the Blind.(Dina Rudick)

Corinne Grousbeck remembers the first time people treated her son Campbell as someone to be feared.

Campbell, now 23, was about 18 months old. He'd been born with serious visual impairment, and he wore glasses on the chance that his vision might improve, although it never did. "Big goofy glasses," Grousbeck recalls.

One day, Grousbeck took him to the market. She had Campbell in a shopping cart when a little girl approached. The girl was curious about his eyewear, and started to engage with the tot.

"He was not talking yet, but he got all animated," Grousbeck says. "Then her mother came and scooped the little girl up. She said 'Honey, leave that little boy alone. There's something wrong with him.' "

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Now Grousbeck is out to wake up the public about society's misperceptions about the blind. Grousbeck, who chairs the board of trustees of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, has spearheaded BlindNewWorld, a social change campaign aimed at breaking down the social and emotional barriers between the blind and the sighted. Grousbeck rattles off the list: "Fear, stigma, discomfort, pity."

BlindNewWorld includes a social media effort and an inviting website that features stories, tips, and a quiz to educate sighted people about stereotypes and how to behave around the blind. Grousbeck also oversaw the production of two engaging public service announcements by Hollywood film and commercial director Tom DeCerchio.

In one of them, a single woman spots an attractive man across the room. When her friend tells her the man is blind, she has a moment's pause. Then she says, "That's good. I just came from yoga, and I'm not wearing any makeup." In the other, an Uber driver discovers his blind passenger is a corporate vice president, and he learns just how capable the blind can be.

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"In the time since Campbell was little, the Internet has exploded, and with that came adaptive technology, and that has really balanced the skill set," says Grousbeck who was recently divorced from Wycliffe "Wyc" Grousbeck, co-owner of the Celtics. She and Campbell are sitting in the living room of the Chestnut Hill home they moved into at the beginning of the year. It's still in transition — painting just finished, carpet still rolled up. Campbell navigates with his cane.

It's been a busy year for the Grousbecks. Corinne launched BlindNewWorld as she handled her duties at Perkins and as an overseer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She also serves on the leadership council for the chief of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and is on the boards of several other organizations.

This month, her daughter Kelsey, Campbell's older sister, earned her MBA from Boston University, and Campbell graduated from Lesley University's two-year Threshold Program for young adults with special needs. He works as an assistant teacher at a preschool.

"I read them books, play my ukulele, and sing with them," Campbell says.

“In the time since Campbell was little,” says Corinne Grousbeck (above with her son on the Perkins School campus), “the Internet has exploded, and with that came adaptive technology, and that has really balanced the skill set.”
“In the time since Campbell was little,” says Corinne Grousbeck (above with her son on the Perkins School campus), “the Internet has exploded, and with that came adaptive technology, and that has really balanced the skill set.”(Dina Rudick)

The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates a job coach, who alerts Campbell if children run astray, but Campbell does the teaching.

Campbell, an upbeat young man, has his own ways of smoothing the social waters. "When a waitress has a nice voice, I ask her name," he says "She may say, 'Jane.' I'll say, oh, I know that name, it's a nice name." A connection is made.

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The BlindNewWorld campaign is sponsored by Perkins, where Campbell is an alumnus. It follows on the heels of a Perkins study about how sighted people view the blind. Large percentages of those surveyed are wary of them.

"The unemployment rate for the blind is two times the national average for the sighted," says Dave Power, Perkins's president and CEO. "Corinne put her finger on a broader issue. Even if hired, there's a whole issue of comfort level with the blind. All the stats in this study bear out that barriers to success have to do with other people's perceptions."

In 2014, Perkins started the Perkins-Business Partnership, bringing local businesses together to brainstorm about hiring. There, Grousbeck found forward-thinking companies such as State Street Bank, which she says values the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

"If you have a blizzard, half the employees don't show up," Grousbeck says. "The blind do. They work hard. They take public transportation. They take pride in their work. They're tenacious."

The BlindNewWorld website spotlights several successful visually impaired people, such as Karen Nagle and her husband, Chris. They live in Salem with their sons Eli and Henry, both younger than 3. Karen and Chris are legally blind. Chris is a software engineer, and Karen is a teacher who works with blind students in Salem public schools.

"A lot of people are afraid of blindness in general. Society is so visual," Karen said in an interview. "People can't comprehend how the heck blind people do stuff, and they hold on to the stereotype of helplessness."

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Karen gets around with a seeing-eye dog. Once, as she was headed down the stairs at an MBTA Red Line station, "a woman comes behind me and pulls my backpack to tell me there's an elevator," she says. "She got an earful from me. I could have fallen, and so could she."

Then there was the time standing in line with her kids at the local market. "The guy in front of me tosses dollars at me," Karen says. "He didn't say hi to me, he didn't talk to me. I gave it to the cashier to keep in case anyone was short a dollar or two."

When Grousbeck first invited a copywriter to develop scripts for the PSAs, "The words came from pity," she says. Then she tapped DeCerchio, who asked her to fly to Los Angeles so he could read his scripts to her face-to-face. What she saw was the antidote to pity.

"I got goosebumps," she says. " It's the dignity."

Americans’ attitudes toward the blind: by the numbers

Roughly 7 million Americans are blind. A recent Perkins School for the Blind study surveyed 1,000 people of all ages around the country. Among the findings:

80 percent feel sorry for the blind.

53 percent say they are uncomfortable around blind people.

82 percent think the blind can’t play sports.

81 percent think the blind can’t babysit.

70 percent believe people who can’t see can’t shop for clothes.

46 percent say they cannot think of a worse condition than blindness — including terminal illness and Alzheimer’s disease.

Only 28 percent think a person who is blind could do the respondent’s job.

How to be more inclusive, welcoming of the visually impaired

It's not hard to make the world more hospitable to those who can't see. Here are some of BlindNewWorld's tips on how to be more inclusive:

 Introduce yourself in a normal tone of voice. (No need to speak louder than usual.)

 Discourage young children and others from staring or making disparaging comments.

 Offer to help blind people across construction zones and dangerous intersections.

 In a social situation, offer assistance: describe the layout of the room and who is there.

 Begin work meetings by asking people to identify themselves. Provide materials electronically instead of or in addition to hard copies.

 Don’t fret about using vision-oriented phrases such as “did you see that?”

 Don’t pet the guide dog.


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.