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Why #BirdBoxChallenge Is Worse Than You Thought

January 9, 2019

It was a strange feeling to wake up last week to the internet awash with the #BirdBoxChallenge meme.

Inspired by the new Netflix thriller, Bird Box, people film themselves completing everyday tasks blindfolded – sometimes for 24 hours – without much success. So much so that Netflix issued a warning.

But there’s a more serious side effect to this meme than basic injuries. Disability researcher Arielle Silverman and her colleagues have shown that conducting “simulations” like blindfolding among the abled can actually lead them to greater negative bias towards blindness itself. After being blindfolded for a short stint, people feel it as a more debilitating condition than it really is; they underestimate the adaptive capability of blind people and end the experiment more likely to agree with statements such as: “If I were blind, I would do anything to get my sight back.”

This is because those participants focus on the beginning stages of the disability, the shock of it, rather than the adaptation process that comes with lived experience.

For those who take the Bird Box Challenge, it’s the same story.

As someone who grew up almost totally blind, the meme offers a strange, almost laughable version of what my life is really like. Most blind people don’t make like Jake Paul and immediately walk blindly into a busy Los Angeles street; instead, we spend time acquiring skills and tools that enable us to live in a world without sight.

Take body protection, for starters. If you can’t see what’s in front of you, you do the next best thing: protect yourself from collision. This means shielding yourself with your arms or twisting your body away from the object you’re trying not to run into.

Every time I get into a local train, I raise my arm to a shoulder height. The reason is because I know there are poles in this area of the train. If I run into one, it hurts a lot less if I’m cushioned by my arm.

But gestures and postures won’t guarantee a collision-free life. You need to use your other senses to interact with your environment.

There’s a scene in Bird Box where two characters, Boy and Girl, are in the back garden. They’re blindfolded, and their mother Malory knocks two objects together and says, “Listen to the clicks. Listen to the sounds, if they’re softer or louder … If they’re louder, you’re in an open space. Do you hear that? But if they’re softer, something is very close.”

This is supposed to be a lesson in echolocation: a way to make sense of the world through sounds.

The technique was made famous by the American Daniel Kish, for his ability to navigate by clicking with his mouth and listening to the way the sound bounces off the surfaces around him. In the real world, it’s not as simplistic as the film made it seem: most hard materials such as walls amplify echoes, for instance, while soft ones like a hedge absorb them. The blindfold itself can interfere, too; the type you’re wearing can change the sound that gets into the ears.

Kish is one of very few people who can move about without additional mobility aids – viral videos even show him cycling on busy roads. Most people who are blind or have low vision are able to use echolocation to a lesser degree, to find corners or count driveways – but they would rarely walk the streets without some kind of mobility aid. We get specialised training with an orientation and mobility instructor to get around the environment safely, either with a long cane or a dog guide. They might help to map the safest route, point out landmarks and accompany clients to and from the destination until they gain enough confidence to do it alone.

Most people don’t need to break down preparing dinner into sizeable goals such as food preparation, operating the stove and checking whether the food is done. But for someone who has grown up blind – especially someone who hasn’t watched their parents do it – these tasks might not come naturally. Professionals such as occupational therapists can show how to complete basic tasks like cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry, which can make a huge difference to surviving independently and safely.

Living without vision is a lot more involved than it seems when you pop on a blindfold and hope for the best; it takes skills, creativity and appropriate aids and training. It’s not as hazardous as the meme makes it seem – but it’s not something that can be learned in 24 hours, either.

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