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.


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.