Blind/Visually Impaired Characters

Whether you want to have a blind/visually impaired NPC or OC, here's some tips on playing one respectfully and with accessibility in mind.

First, I want to say this is written from my personal experience & thoughts on playing TTRPGs as a visually impaired/partially blind person. Though I also play the game with other VI/blind people and will be sharing bits we've talked about, ultimately everything here is written through my personal lens.

Language:

"Blind" is a blanket term many in the VI/blind community use to reference ourselves, our community, and our condition. It can mean partially blind or fully blind. It does not, however, mean "needs glasses".  "Blind" is specifically a condition where there is no way to further improve someone's eyesight beyond what it currently is. So even though I wear glasses, I'm still partially blind because my glasses don't suddenly allow my blind eye to see. They do, thankfully, improve my good eye enough that I have reasonably good sight in that eye, however limited.

"Visually impaired" means the person has what we call "low vision" or very poor vision regardless of glasses or surgery but doesn't necessarily experience an actual "lack of eyesight" in either eye. So someone who is VI has use of both eyes to some degree and that sight cannot be improved to above being legally blind (20/200 or less after glasses/surgery). 

So, someone like me, who is both visually impaired in one eye and almost completely blind (lack of visual data sent to the brain) in the other, refers to themselves as blind because I am, in fact, partially blind. However, I will use the term "visually impaired" with the general public because the assumption that "blind" only means fully lacking sight is so prevalent in our society that it causes more heartache to use blind than VI (visually impaired).

Note: The numbers we refer to with eyesight (i.e. 20/20, 20/200, etc.) are determined by the clarity we see things at the same distance. So 20/20 means a person sees things clearly at 20ft away from an object as everyone else. 20/200 means the person sees something at 20ft away from an object that the average person can see at 200ft away (meaning the person must be much closer to see it clearly).

Directions: We often use directions on a clock to give us a better concept of where things are in relation to us. We are always facing 12 or noon on a clock. So if something is on my right and slightly in front of me, it's at my 2 o'clock. If it's directly in front of me but slightly to the left, it's at my 11 o'clock. Use left or right of the person you're talking to/about, not your own. 

We also tend to use the words "paces" or "steps" instead of feet/centimeters when giving directions because that's how many of us determine short distances. This is different than feet/centimeters because strides are different than an actual measurement. In TTRPGs where you need to be a certain distance from something to cast a spell or reach melee range, we still tend to use paces/steps for familiarity reasons, it means the same to spell casters but makes more sense to us for walking distances.

How do I let blind/VI players know I welcome them to my table?

INCLUDE BLIND/VI PEOPLE IN YOUR WORLD DESCRIPTIONS! Full stop. If you want to let us know you're ok with blind/VI characters in your world, include us in it. Add us as people in a crowd, as NPCs who are living full, normal lives, as trainers, warriors, teachers, farmers, merchants, etc. Include us in the worlds you create just as much as you have normal-sighted people.  Make us non-quest related! Just people in your world. Living. Existing. 

NPC in the background

If you plan on adding a blind/VI NPC to the background of a scene and want to be respectful to our community, here's some tips on describing them without being offensive:

1. Don't refer to the character as specifically "blind". You can say someone walks by tapping a cane on the ground, or someone is walking past with dog guiding them across the street, or someone sweeps a cane in front of them from side to side, making sure not to miss a step or bump into someone. "Blind" itself isn't offensive but assuming someone is blind is. Because the word "blind" to the average person means "lack of full eyesight" it ignores those of us on the VI spectrum. Unless it's absolutely necessary to state, try not to use someone's lack of sight as a descriptor. 

2. Do not portray them as beggars or poor. Blindness doesn't care about your financial state or social class. A rich person can go blind just as quickly as a poor person. That we're pretty much only mentioned as beggars in streets is incredibly offensive and implies that our lack of sight renders us completely dependent on others. I can assure you, this is hardly the case.

3. Do not describe our eyes as being "blank" or with unusual colors. Sadly, the assumption is that being blind/VI means our eyes are somehow different in appearance than the average person. This is not the case for the most part. The characters with "pupil-less" or "colorless" eyes is so drawn out and over done. It's also perpetuates the "but you don't look blind" statement many of us hear. NOTE: This does not include characters whose eyes are pupil-less due to race, being any level of dead or undead, or magical reasons. 

Playing a Blind/VI Character

Canes:

Canes aren't always tapped on the ground in front of people. I have a ball at the end of mine and sweep it back and forth in front of me to help me determine change in elevation, steps, or obstructions in my path. Tapping is NOT for "echo location" as people presume (although it can help determine if one is in an enclosed space or the type of surface we're walking on), it's just a different form of cane use. Some people never touch their cane to the ground at all and just move it from side to side in front of them. Canes are as versatile as the users. Also, canes can vary in look and our canes are generally color coded to indicate the user's condition. White canes are for fully blind individuals while red/white or red/silver canes means the person is visually impaired.

We also have different canes for different things. I have an "indoor" cane that is very short and allows me to move within a building without tripping people. I have a "running" cane that I use when taking hikes or anything where I'm moving faster than walking. It's a much longer cane and has a "marshmallow" tip on it. Longer canes are much easier for faster movement but not so much in tighter spaces.

Accessibility Animals:

A blind ranger with an accessibility companion is a perfect example of how this can work in TTRPGs. Accessibility animals can be any animal that aids the character in navigating the world, however, they do NOT act as the character's eyes. It's a common trope to have a blind character "see" through the eyes of their familiar and to an extent, this is ok if it's done in the same manner as a sighted character (wizard spies on the big baddy through the eyes of their hawk familiar). Where it starts to become not ok, is when the familiar is being used to replace eyesight in everyday actions. 

Accessibility animals are trained to listen to one person and/or their immediate family. They need to be trained to learn what is considered unsafe for their people, and how to interact with them to let them know the level of concern. A great video on this is from The Seeing Eye, a dog training facility

Some flavor to add to a character and their animal is special hand signals only the animal understands, armor for the animal, spells geared towards keeping the animal safe for the character. Never, EVER use that animal as a plot device and/or to cause suffering for the character. The bond a blind/VI person has with that animal is unbelievable strong and nothing will upset the community quicker than one of them being injured or killed.

Speaking of plot devices...

Seeking a "Cure"

Not all blind/VI people would have their vision "corrected" if given the option. I'm one of those individuals. I was born partially blind and have spent my entire life like this. I don't regard it as a disability. It's just a part of who I am like my height, my skin, my hair, etc. There's nothing "wrong" with my vision except that it's different than the average person's and I need assistance with coming into contact with the normal-sighted world (more on that below). So having a familiar that is our "eyes" may not be something every character would want. You need to make that choice with your character from the beginning.

Reasons why your character might not care about changing their sight or lack thereof:

Born this way: When you're born with a visual impairment or blind, you can't miss what you don't know. I ask people, "do you miss seeing out of your elbow?" You might think it's a funny question because people don't see out of their elbows, but I don't see out of one of my eyes and therefore don't see the difference. 

Experience the world differently: No, you don't get supersonic hearing or the ability to feel the individual microfibers on a bit of cloth, but you do get the chance to focus on a different way to navigate the world. My hearing is very important to me as I am always listening for environmental cues to help me determine where things are in my immediate vicinity, such as cars, people, animals, etc. But I also pay more attention to audio cues in conversation due to not always being able to see facial expressions. I can distinguish the nuances in the tone of my friends' voices quite easily, even when they try to hide it. The better I know someone, the easier this is for me.

Plus there is the tactile world! Nearly every blind/VI friend of mine has a favorite "touch sensation", something we love the feel of (mine is blown glass). It's just something that truly appeals to our tactile sense and though normal sighted people might also have this, I have found it more predominant among my blind/VI friends.  There's a whole amazing experience of tactile sensation when you no longer rely on your eyes to tell you what something should feel like. 

Self Acceptance: It is traumatizing to lose one's eyesight, there's no doubt about it. It's not an easy adjustment and the mental anguish people who lose their sight go through is excruciating. However, it is not uncommon for people who go blind to learn a new way of living their lives and becoming quite comfortable in it. There's a certain amount of self-acceptance that comes along with it according to several people I know in the blind community that had to deal with debilitating sight loss.  As one describes it, "There was this moment for me one morning, when I had already gotten through making tea and toast, when I realized that...I just did it completely without thought. That it just happened as normally as it had when I was sighted. And it was as if this moment of clarity happened where I realized it wasn't has devastating as I thought it would always be."

TTRPG & Sight-Related Rules

In the group I play in that is made up of blind players, we completely disregard "dark vision" because it's something that doesn't apply to us. We're all a little too well versed in how to discern information about the world around us without having to actually see it, that the concept of "lack of vision" or "enough light" is almost comical. 

Does this tunnel smell damp? Do I hear splashing while walking? Do I feel bits of spongy moss on the walls if I touch them?  Tunnels echo, what do I hear?  If I stand still, does the water keep rippling (hear it lap against the walls)? 

Does this dungeon smell like someone with torches have been through recently? Do I smell stale air or fresh? Or is that the metallic scent of blood on their air?

Is that dust I feel on the surfaces? Soot on the walls where people came too close with torches? Slick with blood? Slimy? Sticky? Moist? Dry?

Do our steps echo like we're in an enclosed space? Does it sound like we're walking on gravel? Wood? Stone? Dirt? If I touch the ground, does the dirt feel packed down like it's been walked on a lot, loose like it's been freshly dug up, sandy like someone tried to hide their footprints?

I smell fire, does it smell like wood or is it bitter smelling like a chemical burning? Or is it food smelling? Do I hear it sizzle like there's a spit or just crackling like an open fire for warmth?  Or is it roaring like a large fire? Perhaps the baddies set fire to the town!

There's a great deal of ways to ask a DM about what's happening in your environment without ever asking a question pertaining to sight.

However, this does *not* override disadvantage for sudden sight loss. There's a great deal of adjustment needed when losing sight and unless you're already familiar with navigating a battlefield with non-sight related means, disadvantage is still applied when plummeted into complete darkness, or when hit by a blinding spell.

Disability & The Sighted World

When I'm at home, I don't feel different or disabled in any way. My home is set up to be exactly what I need for my sight limitations. I don't use my cane. I don't feel for the walls. I know where everything is. My wife will tell you she's had to make only minimal adjustments to her life in order to live with me (getting use to having dimmed lights, me never turning lights on in rooms I'm in, not moving furniture without letting me know, keeping things out of our walking spaces).

However, the moment I leave my house, it's a whole other story. The world is not set up for blind/VI people and there's a lot we have to contend with. From silent cars to people staring at their phones while they walk, to very few accessibility friendly street corners, it's definitely set up for people with far better eye sight than I have! Canes allow us to discern where changes in a walking surface are, where curbs or obstacles are, changes in elevation (slopes up or down), as well as signally those around us that we may not see them.

Service animals are often misunderstood by the general public who think of them as a "regular pet but for blind people" and don't understand how harmful it is to distract a service animal from doing their job. At home, these things are entirely different and the animal is usually a loving family member able to lounge about as needed. 

Sadly, the biggest obstacles for blind/VI people is normal sighted people who think they are being "helpful" or are trying to "prove" we're "faking" it. I've had complete strangers gasp and painfully grab me, practically throwing me to the ground or against a building because they were "afraid [I was] going to walk into traffic". I'm not sure how they think I made it that far without them but I did. I've had people come uncomfortably close to my face or wave their hand in front of it as if to "prove" how blind I am. These are all things I've had normal-sighted players do with my blind characters as well. From the way-too-helpful cleric who spent the first few sessions of a new game trying to convince me that greater restoration would cure my blindness, to the one-shot where our barbarian took it upon themselves to be overly protective of my blind character for no other reason than they were blind.  It proved to me very early on that I couldn't have characters that I could identify with in a group with other sighted people. 

All this to say, if you play a blind/VI character, they will always set their living space to best serve their accessibility needs and to point out some things you might want to help your players avoid when interacting with a blind/VI character.

Myths & Misunderstandings:

  • Braille: Despite what the movies try to convince people of, not all blind people read braille. Usually only people with very low vision and/or mostly to completely blind end up learning braille. - Side note: there is a real crisis in America regarding braille readers as this is something taught only to children who are able to attend a school for the blind. It is not available to all blind/VI people and is something many organizations & nonprofits are seeking help to make it more accessible for lower income households.
  • Feeling Faces: This is actually something that might be done by a fully blind person but usually only when they are extremely familiar with someone and even then, it's wrong to assume they know instantly what someone "looks" like. There's more to it than that, and when you're blind, you tend to rely more on how someone sounds to recognize them. How someone "looks" doesn't necessarily matter much to someone who cannot see.
  • Other Senses Heightened: This one is so prevalent in society and it's just not true in the slightest. We might pay attention to sound and touch more but it's not any better/stronger than anyone else's regardless of their seeing ability. 

In conclusion...

I personally am not offended by someone playing a blind/VI character as long as it's done respectfully and by listening (and acting accordingly) to an actual blind/VI person.  

I would love to see/read more stories where we're included as regular townsfolk going about our lives instead of being some form of "inspirational porn" or someone who needs "saving". I would love to see us as the diverse and extremely independent people that we are.

Lastly, I would love to see people breaking the stigmas, making compelling characters who *aren't* out there trying to "cure" their blindness, and taking on the role in a heartfelt way. You might find yourself experiencing the game in an unexpected way and learning that your sight is *far* from being the only way to navigate a world.