writing | writing tips

Writing Blind Characters: What You Need to Know

July 7, 2017

So, you’ve decided to write a blind character. Good for you! The world is always in need of more characters with disabilities, especially when those disabilities are represented correctly.

Want to make sure you’re ticking all the good representation boxes? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m a partially sighted person, and I’m here with this handy guide to help you write blind characters that work.

1: How ‘blind’ is ‘blind’?

What? That’s obvious. All blind people are totally incapable of seeing, right? Right? Wrong.

According to WHO, an estimated 285 Million people in the world have a visual impairment. Of that number, only 39 Million are  considered blind – that is, completely unable to see. The rest are considered ‘sight impaired’, which just means they can’t see as well as the average person. They might have a moderate visual impairment which only affects their life a little bit – or they might have a severe visual impairment which makes life a lot more difficult. That impairment might be in their central vision, or in their periphery, or they might have blind spots. They might not even be ‘missing’ vision at all, but still be unable to see fine detail even with corrective lenses.

For example – I have reduced peripheral vision. I’m still partially sighted, but (lucky me!) I can still see a great deal. I have no problems reading or writing or recognising faces. But crossing roads and navigating crowds is pretty difficult!

When you’re writing a blind character, think about what kind of visual impairment they have. It’s easy to throw down the blanket statement ‘they’re blind, they can’t see’, but that’s not representative of most sight impaired people’s experiences. Plus, making a character totally blind can lead you down that slippery slope of making your disabled character entirely helpless – or worse, finding some excuse to negate their disability completely.

2: Blind People aren’t Magic

Think of the blind characters you know. Toph Beifong. Terezi Pyrope. Daredevil. The OA. What do they all have in common?

Yup. They all have special powers that just happen to cancel out their visual impairment.

In case it wasn’t clear, that’s not how disability works in real life. If you really want to go the route of having a character be blind without actually having to figure out how they’re going to navigate the ins and outs of your plot, why not give them one of the many conditions that are easily cured or prevented – or better yet, just write a sighted character from the start. At least that way you won’t be pulling a bait-and-switch on all the readers who just one time wanted to see a character sharing their struggles, instead of handily negating them.

Here’s a thought: if your characters have magic powers and disabilities, why not give them powers that have nothing to do with that disability? Let’s have wheelchair users that shoot fire from their eyes and partially sighted people that fly. Isn’t that much more interesting than never having a character be disabled in name only?

Oh, and in case it isn’t clear: there’s only one man in the world who can echolocate, and it took him years of practice. As cool as it sounds, you don’t gain super hearing to compensate for your visual impairment.

3. Canes and Braille

There are a number of tools that partially sighted and blind people can use to make their lives easier. I’m going to look at a few of them here.

First of all, not all blind people read braille. In fact, only 1 in 5 blind schoolchildren use braille to work. Have you ever tried reading braille? It’s crazy hard!

Well, I’m being a bit facetious there. The truth is, braille is an old technology. Nowadays we have plenty of gadgets that can read for us – from the tried and true audiobook to the high-tech scanner. You can read about some of the tools available to help blind people read and write here.

For some characters though, braille (or your fantasy universe equivalent) is going to be their only option. The best way for you to find out what reading braille is like is to try it yourself! Plenty of household items have instructions in braille – medicine definitely does. Learn what it is you’re supposed to be reading, and see how easy it is to pick up.

As for canes, there are two types: Symbol Canes, and Mobility Canes.

Symbol canes are for people with moderate visual impairments. It’s mainly for the benefit of sighted people who might not realise that the person has a disability. I have one of these. They’re about 3 feet long, they fold up for easy transportation, and yes, they do that awesome daredevil thing when you unfold them again. The key thing to remember is that these canes never touch the ground – they’re supposed to be held across the body, so that sighted people spot them and go ‘Oh, a partially sighted person. Better be careful not to run them over/walk into them/tell them to watch where they’re going.’

Mobility canes are the kind of cane most people picture a blind person using. They’re adjusted to the height of the user, and they have a little rollerball on the end that is moved across the ground to detect bumps in the road or the edges of pavements. In the U.K. we have bumps before every crossing to indicate that this is a safe place to cross the road.

Now, obviously canes are not intended for use as weapons. But I’ll tell you what – when I’m out walking late at night and I hear a stranger’s footfall a little way behind me, I feel a lot better knowing that what I’m holding in my hand isn’t an indicator that I’ll be an easy target – it’s a three foot long stick made of carbon fiber and metal, and getting whacked with it will hurt. Now that’s something to bear in mind for your action sequences.

4. Blind people aren’t helpless

In case it wasn’t obvious from the rest of this post, blind people are not helpless. Let’s hear that one more time: blind people are not helpless. I’m being particularly stubborn about this because it’s a trope people love to abuse: ‘aah, my glasses! I can’t see without my glasses!’, etc.

Close your eyes right now. Aah! You can’t see! But you can hear. You can touch and even smell. Sure, none of those things are good enough to replace your sight, but you’ll find (especially if you’re in a familiar environment) that you’re able to move around fairly well. Go on, try walking to the next room and back with your eyes closed. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t so hard, right?

Now remember that that’s a worst case scenario. Most blind people can use scanning techniques to anticipate obstacles out of their immediate vision. Even totally blind people can get around unfamiliar places with a lot of planning and an auditory GPS system… or a guide dog. And everyone can get around their home environment as long as there are no pesky tripping hazards in the way.

Tl;dr? Blind people aren’t helpless. That’s all you need to remember. We’re as resourceful as any other human being.

5. Blind people aren’t Amish

What I mean by this is that blind people can totally use the internet. Screen readers are the usual method of doing this, but remember that partially sighted people with central vision exist, too. The OA actually showcases this quite well – Prairie has a (really outdated) PC with screenreader software that, well… reads the screen.

Most smartphones also have this capability, and you can buy special covers for smartphones without buttons that make them easier for blind people to use.

I’m going to hop onto my soapbox for a second. There’s a catch to this whole blind-people-on-the-net thing, and it’s that most webpages are not even remotely optimised for screenreaders. To interpret images, this technology relies upon accurate alt-text descriptions (you know, those things that make XKCD comics extra funny). Lots of screenreaders are also a bit unreliable, prone to trying to read HTML tags and being totally unable to pronounce punctuation. So that’s something your character could struggle with – apart from that though, they’re likely to be as technologically adept as anyone else. Unless they’re also like, really old.

(Psst. There’s free accessibility software available that will help you get an idea of what this kind of stuff does.)

6. ‘Watch your language!’ ‘…’ ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry!’

The above is an exchange which literally never happens. Blind people speak the same language that everyone does. They’re just as likely to let slip a ‘see you later!’ as you are, and it’s really not a huge deal. We don’t suddenly become incredibly precious about the words we use when we lose our sight.

So unless your character has a good reason to be oversensitive, ‘sighted’ phrases aren’t something they’ll object to. Now, we’re all prone to giving our friends a good ribbing now and then. Whenever somebody describes something as being ‘in the corner of their eye’ I feel compelled to go ‘Oh that must be nice!’ and pout in what I really hope is a comical manner.

Equally, blind characters are likely to make snarky comments about people making light of their disability, or forgetting about it entirely. There’s that great moment in Avatar: The Last Airbender when Toph gets handed a piece of paper and is asked ‘what’s this?’

'Well it sounds like a sheet of paper, but I guess you are referring to what's on the sheet of paper.'


Now, I have one last point to make:

7. Blind people can, and do, blink.

I kid you not, this is something I have had to explain before. No further questions, please.