Substance Abuse Resources & Disability Issues

Josephine F. Wilson, D.D.S., Ph.D., Director

Blindness, Visual Impairment and Substance Abuse: Facts for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Professionals

Sponsored By:
Substance Abuse Resources & Disability Issues (SARDI).
SARDI is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)

Image Text: Remember... Ask and listen. A person with a disability is the exprt about his, or her disability.

Blindness and Substance Use and Abuse

  • With visual impairments that are progressive (e.g. glaucoma, diabetes), even moderate drinking can exacerbate the condition.
  • Substance abuse treatment needs will be different for those whose substance abuse followed, instead of preceded, their visual impairment.
  • Informational and educational materials should be available in alternative formats (audio tapes, Braille, computer disk, large print.)


  • 132,000 people in the U.S. are totally blind.
  • 600,000 people are legally blind.
  • 360,000 people who are legally blind are age 65 or older.
  • 1,400,000 people are severely visually impaired (cannot read newsprint with glasses.)

SOURCE: American Foundation for the Blind (1990)

Professional Enabling

  • Physicians sometimes unwittingly continue to prescribe mood-altering drugs.
  • Family, friends, co-workers and even rehabilitation professionals tend to focus on the disability often missing the warning signs of substance abuse among their clients.
  • Professionals who are in a position to address or identify the abuse and make appropriate referrals do not intervene and silently condone the misuse.
  • Although indications are that people who are blind or visually impaired abuse alcohol at a higher rate than people without disabilities, this is a highly undeserved population when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse treatment.
  • Other professionals sometimes don't make necessary referrals because very few substance abuse treatment professionals have expertise in working with clients who are blind or visually impaired

image Text: Twenty-one percent of people who are blind or visually impaired self-reported heavy drinking while twelve percent of the general population self-reported heavy drinking. -Buss & Nelipovich, 1991.

Suggestions to Improve Positive Interactions

  • Develop a positive attitude about blindness.
  • To guide a person who is blind, let him/her take your arm. When encountering steps, curbs or other obstacles, identify them.
  • When giving directions, be as clear and specific as possible including distance and obvious obstacles.
  • Speak to the person in a normal tone and speed.
  • It's okay to touch a blind person on the arm or shoulder to convey communication.
  • Don't touch or play with working guide dog.
  • Ask the person how much vision he/she has and what communication modality he/she is most comfortable using.
  • When leaving room, say so.

Solutions to Access Problems

  • Keep pathways clear and raise low-hanging signs or lights.
  • Use large letter signs and add Braille labels to all signs.
  • Keep doors closed or wide open, half open doors are hazardous.
  • Have adaptive equipment available so blind person can be a full program participants. (i. e., talking computer, brailler, etc.)
  • Make oral announcements, don't depend on a bulletin board.
  • Add raised or Braille lettering to elevator control buttons, install entrance indicators at doorways.
  • Utilize radio waves and the newsletters of organizations serving the blind for announcements and advertising.
  • Make optical magnifiers and aids available for people with visual impairments.

Myths and Facts

Myth: People who are blind can hear and feel things no one else can; they have a "sixth sense".
Fact: Certain senses become more highly developed because people who are blind rely upon them more. There is nothing mystical about this phenomenon.

Myth: Blindness means living in a world of darkness.
Fact: What a person is able to see depends upon the age of onset, degree of visual memory, and degree of usable vision regarding light, shape, etc.

Myth: All people who are blind read Braille.
Fact: Only about 10 percent read Braille, but there are many other assistive devices that promote independence. These include reading aids, listening aids, and readers.

The Power of Language

It is important to monitor your use of written and spoken language regarding people with disabilities. Words are powerful tools, indicating the perception and attitudes of the person using them. The following general guidelines will be helpful:

  • Focus on issues and not on a disability. Above all, do not sensationalize a disability by using terms such as "afflicted with," "suffers from," "victim of," "informed," or "unfortunate." These expressions are very offensive, even defamatory, to people with disabilities.
  • Emphasize people, not generic labels. Say "people who are blind," not "the blind." Put people first, not their disability.
  • Avoid condescending euphemisms like "visually handicapped" or "visually challenged." These tend to trivialize the disability and suggest that it cannot be dealt with in an up-front manner.

Image Text: Treatment facilities wishing to serve blind and visually impaired persons should link with community resources so that a full range of services may be incorporated into a treatment plan. -burns and deMiranda, 1991.


  • American Council of the Blind
    1155 15th Street NW, Suite 720, Washington, DC 20005
  • American Foundation for the Blind
    15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011
  • National Federation of the Blind
    1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230
  • Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision
    P.O. Drawer 6189, Mississippi State, MS 39762
  • Substance Abuse Resources & Disability Issues
    Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, Dayton, OH 45435-0001

Special Thanks to:
Joe O'Connor
Kentucky Department for the Blind
Resource Center on Substance Abuse Prevention and Disability
Wisconsin Office for the Blind