LISTEN (Meeting a Blind Person, pt. 4 of 5)

OK, so you’ve

  • Asked if that man at the crosswalk needs help to the road’s other side.
  • Inquired whether that woman standing a few feet in from the street corner knows where the bus bench is.
  • Asked the fellow student in the library how he can read the page or book in front of him.
  • Stood by that woman with her guide dog and inquired whether someone’s coming to give her a ride.
  • Heard others say they’re thankful for your concern and they are fine. You’ve seen their facial expressions range from smiling, relaxed confidence, to wide-eyed, breathless disorientation.

Now what? Here come the answers. That man at the crosswalk says he knows of no audio traffic signal here but knows curbside tactile domes are beneath his feet. He’s listening to the traffic cycle. The woman not quite in front of the bus bench says she’s not so familiar with the neighborhood and keeps overshooting the bus stop. Your fellow student says he’s using a closed-circuit TV to study for midterms. And that woman with her dog says she had to call a second cab because the driver of the first claimed he’s scared of big pooches.

All these responses are normal and happen in everyday life for folks who are blind or visually impaired. It’s one thing to just hear our responses, fascinated with the fact we’re out and about in the first place. It’s another to listen. Blindness plays a big part in the above-mentioned scenarios, but just a part. Many folks getting used to a new area of town stop at intersections when the traffic patterns get confusing. Bus benches aren’t always marked. Some students are so used to the adaptations they make in reading they go about it with the same ho-hum leisure that you might when buried in a book on a couch or flipping through pics on Facebook. And, yes, there are cab drivers who, for whatever reason, get up-tight about transporting someone with a guide dog just as some buses aren’t equipped to carry bikes on board.

LISTEN helps you and us remove the mystique of talking to someone who’s blind or visually impaired in public. You get to hear real people traveling, working, and studying just like you. We have unique and diverse capabilities, likes, dislikes, and preferences. LISTEN to the words we speak in answering “how” “can” or “what if” questions may help you be more at ease and take our concerns as seriously as you would those of any other person.

At the same time, we tend to think in buzz words. Could those very buzz words trigger stereotypes of others or feelings of inadequacy on our part? Help, for instance, often triggers different things for blind and sighted folks. Most of us who are blind or visually impaired desire to travel, work, or live with some amount of independence. For us, help means giving us that extra nudge in the right direction. It may mean a tidbit of info such as when the next bus is due to arrive. Sometimes, help means finding the drink counter at McDonald’s so we ourselves can refill our glass. Sure, it can be an urgent call for guidance out of disorientation, but often it’s much simpler than that.

When asked for assistance, it’s tempting for teachers, co-workers, fellow students, or relatives to magnify the difficulty at hand. That can lead to either feeling too small for the task or, conversely, as if you’re being asked to play hero or rescuer.

We who cannot see may be out and about on a walk or errand amid the day, otherwise unemployed. Remember the statistic? 70 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed. That’s true for the high school drop-out or the recipient of a doctorate. In any case, isolation and loneliness are real emotions felt by many of us. That in itself sometimes makes us feel ashamed to admit what help we need. LISTEN to our side of momentary small talk; it can go a long way toward building bridges.

Speaking as someone who’s blind and active in the mainstream world, it pains me to hear many blind folks’ hostility toward the sighted public. Such mistrust in itself builds a fortress around a broken, hurt heart. It pains me because most people, blind or sighted, do want to navigate life’s contours with grace. We want to help and befriend each other but often aren’t sure how.

Sometimes, it does take that extra step for you to let someone who can’t see know when you’re leaving a conversation with them. It may mean our having some give and take when it comes to being guided by the arm or voice through an obstacle course of tables, chairs and people. Not everyone who can see knows proper guiding technique or verbalizes their left from their right in crunch time.

LISTEN covers more than just hearing our words. It’s meeting us where we are, sharing the same moment with us, and appreciating our backstory. Since we’ve made it to an intersection, gotten accepted into that school, or even been hired on your team at work, we’ve obviously got capabilities and experiences that brought us there.

On the adventure of navigating life’s contours, we who are blind or visually impaired would like you to remember that we are your friends, neighbors, and family engaging with you in all that lies ahead.

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