EVALUATE (Meeting a Blind Person, pt. 5 of 5)

Today we’re going to step back onto that curb next to the person who’s blind or visually impaired. Consider the following scenarios:

Scene 1: You’ve heard him say he’s got the curb all figured out and will cross the street at the next traffic cycle, but you also see him angling out toward the oncoming traffic. What do you do?

Scene 2: She’s told you she’s waiting for the next bus to come, knowing it’s for the route she wants. Bus fare in hand, she climbs the steps on board and hands the cash to the driver before taking a front row seat. How do you react? By talking her up as amazing because she completed this mundane task, or letting her go on her way like any other rider would do?

When we evaluate a problem at work, in our family, or with friends, we make decisions based on the information that STOP, ASK, and LISTEN have given us, so when you hear a blind passer-by say he’s OK and needs no help, you can see him engage the world around him and respond. The woman dressed in sandals and a sundress sitting back in a bus shelter may not be lost at all but aware that her connection is in twenty minutes, so why stand curbside perched with cane tip out for all to see?

Scene 3: How about the man with his guide dog at his side sliding along the salad bar in the restaurant where you’re eating? He says that, hunched over, he can read the labels on the dressings. But, as his hands probe near each one and his nose tilts slightly forward, you can sense he might be identifying by smell. What do you do?

Of course, these examples are random and not the only times you may encounter someone who’s partially or totally blind. What they do show is that you need to take each person you encounter on his or her own. Evaluate the elderly woman, cane extended at a curb, differently than you would the college student, laptop in hand in the library. Both desire to be treated with dignity as individuals. Their backstories and their purposes for being out and about will not be the same.

Evaluating is tough, as these scenarios show. In later posts, we’ll cover things like
dealing with multiple disabilities, mental illness, inner-city travel, and the preferences of blind or partially-sighted individuals to associate with other vision-impaired individuals or with sighted individuals in a primarily sighted world.

In the meantime, we have a few myths to bust:

First, there’s no one solution for someone who’s having difficulty navigating the streets. It’s common for us to say that someone struggling with using a mobility cane needs a guide dog. That may be true. Guide dogs help someone cross streets straight, find some common objects or locations once patterned to them, and are great companions for singles and families, yet the dog is not a guard or attack dog. There’s no “go to” command. Some dogs get very comfortable anticipating commonly traveled routes, yet they depend on their user’s familiarity with surroundings and/or confidence in unfamiliar areas.

In the first example above, when you notice the vision-impaired individual heading towards traffic despite telling you he knows where he’s going, it would be perfectly appropriate to stop him (without touching him, if possible) and let him know that his trajectory might be off a few degrees. Offer to guide him in the right direction before moving on your way.

Second, just because someone is blind doesn’t mean they have other or overlapping disabilities. Because physical difficulties are usually easy to notice, our thoughts often rush to a whole panoply of things they cannot do rather than letting them convey their capabilities to us. None of us, sighted or blind, can go from 0-60 in two seconds when getting familiar with a new neighborhood, office, church, or school. For we who cannot see in whole or in part, mobility instructors are trained to navigate these settings to help a student, intern, or worker learn them better than a supervisor, professor, pastor or even spouse or friend. Mobility instructors can help overcome their clients’ veering tendencies or unfamiliarities.

Third, not everyone who is blind is totally blind. Most people diagnosed as legally blind—seeing at 20 feet what most see from 200 feet, et al (see this series’ first post)—walk around and appear at first glance as if they can see. Many feel uneasy revealing to friends, family, and coworkers that they do have difficulty seeing. Of course, driving a car or reading small-print books can give their condition away. Yet, how they navigate these contours involves many specific adaptations (to be covered in future posts) which are different than those used by folks who are totally blind.

Fourth, not everyone who is blind has gone to a school for the blind and visually impaired. Most of us, in fact, have attended public school with fellow elementary, middle, and high schoolers. We’ve dated, partied, gotten our hearts broken by the one who got away, wrestled with geometry proofs, and competed in sports. Since mainstreaming became more common in the 1980s and 1990s, many who have various levels of vision loss have never stepped foot in a school for the blind.

Even with that advancement, social interaction is still a hurdle that many of us either must jump over or avoid. We as a society still have much growing to do with regard to appreciating the capabilities and dignity of people who are blind or visually impaired. We who face the contours of vision loss are still, as a group, coming into our own with regard to presenting ourselves in public, especially asserting ourselves in the workplace even with the technological advancements available to us. I hope and pray that this first series of posts has contributed in our mutual understanding. So, let’s complete this SALE.

STOP, ASK, LISTEN and then EVALUATE.

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