Meeting a Blind Person, pt. 1 of 5

Did you know that one out of every hundred people in the U.S. are classified as totally blind? About twice to three times that many have partial vision, or are legally blind. Being legally blind means that folks need to get within 20 feet of something they’re looking at to see what most people catch when standing 200 feet away. Also, people with legal blindness have a visual acuity (a fancy-schmancy term for range of sight) that’s 15% of what most folks have. So, in that case, they do a whole lot more turning of their heads, scooching close up to a window or enlarging type on a computer screen than most.

Most likely, unless you live near a school for the blind or a center for independent living or a well-traveled bus line, you may not see someone following a cane, guide dog, or on someone’s arm very often. You may not be able to tell that someone is only partially sighted and unable to drive just by meeting them in the coffee shop. Especially if you’re in a small town or apartment complex surrounded by interstates and suburban sprawl (minus the sidewalks), you may not have experienced knowing the livelihood and capabilities of someone who’s blind. If you do, that’s great!

When we who are totally blind get turned around or disoriented, it’s easy to think we need you to lead us to the next destination or that we really don’t know where it is. That’s true sometimes. However, it’s often the case that we’ve taken a wrong turn onto a slightly veering sidewalk or tried stepping around an obstacle in the way and didn’t quite square up with our intended line of travel. Or if someone drops us off at a kerb, exit, or on a street that’s unfamiliar without explanation, we’ve only got the sound of birds, cars, perhaps construction, and occasional voices to clue us in to our whereabouts.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I learned the bus routes pretty much on my own. A driver once yelled, “I’m right here!” Well, that’s great, but where, exactly, is “here”?! After a fellow rider got off at my stop, she explained that the bus was across an expanse of blacktop from me. Before that, my guide dog, Lali, had stopped because a car was there, engine running. Who am I gonna trust? An unknown driver’s voice or the woman who helped orient me and my pooch who’d been matched with me. (And please note that guide dogs don’t have ESP. They guide when you command or intelligently disobey when they sense you…er, they *grin* are in danger.)

(Ed. note: Even after four years of marriage, I—Amy, David’s wife—still struggle with unthinkingly using such indeterminate terminology as “here” or “there” without directional cues. It’s not easy to get used to after a lifetime of use!)

The long and short of this is that you (we) can find ways of smoothing out those when-you-meet-a-blind-guy faux pas by slowing down the moments. After all, everyone gets triggered or anxious to some degree by something out of the ordinary or unfamiliar.

My long-time mentor and friend, Pastor Dave Andrus, is himself totally blind. He’s devised a four-part way for folks who can see to slow down the moments when meeting someone who’s blind or visually impaired.

We call it SALE, which stands for Stop, Ask, Listen, and Evaluate. Catch my next installment of this series tomorrow when we’ll discuss “Stop.”

Until then, happy navigating!

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