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.

ASK (Meeting a Blind Person, pt. 3 of 5)

Along with STOP, ASK helps us slow down the moment of meeting someone who’s blind or visually impaired. We ask because we don’t know what we see, not merely to confirm our presuppositions. Hence, when we see someone refrain from going with the flow of folks crossing the road, we can ask if they need any help getting to the other side. It could very well be that he or she is getting a feel for the traffic flow.

Now that right-turn-on-red has been the law of the land these past thirty years, hearing whether a car is idling in the turn lane is as important as knowing that traffic is zooming by in front of us.

Maybe one of us is at a curb and unknowingly a few feet down from the bus bench. We may not be wanting to cross the street at all, but we aren’t sure where to wait for the bus, especially if we’re new in town. Perhaps, then, a better inquiry than, “How can I help you?” might be “Can I help you find something or get somewhere?” Of course, being casual with small talk beforehand is a good ice breaker, too.

With that intro, you recognize the obvious: we’ve already traveled to that curb, sidewalk, or office door on our own. It’s a matter of getting re-oriented, re-set or better informed. Yes, it’s an extra step, yet don’t we all do this when engaging one another on  a campus or in a small town with a courteous “Good morning,” or “Hi.”? For us to hear your assurance in asking will help us gain a sense of confidence rather than inadequacy when approached by people in general.

Asking the “help” or “if” questions allows us to be more honest. We don’t always know where the bus stop is, how to get to a nearby doctor’s office, how to get past that diamond intersection, or why the adaptive traffic signal didn’t trigger the hand to lower at the crosswalk.

Of course, we all may want to take these considerations to heart. We all — blind or sighted—get caught up in our iPhones, earbuds, music, and private worlds so much that noticing the differences between passers-by gets to be hard to do. I’m guilty as charged. I will board the bus, slide into a cab or a friend’s car and immediately drift into introvert mode—listening to the music, typing on my laptop or other gizmo, texting or calling whoever. Yes, we certainly live in a culture that, in transit, has grown more and more impersonal.

Expanding the Ask Beyond That First  Meeting

Perhaps, in hindsight, personability is one reason that led me to choose Concordia University-Seward, Nebraska as where I’d go after high school. In 1991, when I enrolled, it was still Concordia College, but today it has the same comfortable feel. You are a name and a face before you’re a number or a grade to be entered in the system. After I gained my footing and started traveling around town, there was nowhere I’d want to be more. Yes, everyone recognized my blindness on sight. After all, it’s hard to miss the white cane I carry. Yet, as people feel free to converse in the open or greet one another in passing, so it became true for me, too.

So often, we who are blind or visually impaired are taught to think that you who have sight have more or better answers because of your ability to see. For us it follows that when we’re told you don’t know something or don’t understand our question, we hear, “I don’t care,” or “I’m too busy.” We’re trained to be deferential instead of being proactive and bold in asking questions ourselves.

One  of the biggest benefits of asking/conversing is also one of the biggest challenges. It helps remove the fear factor. By nature, we are afraid to walk in another’s cowboy boots or flip-flops. If we aren’t blind or deaf or quadriplegic, we struggle to imagine ourselves living under those kind of conditions. So, we imagine that our whole way of life will be unquestionably altered by said disabilities. When we ask we might find out:

  • Things aren’t so different for someone with a physical disability from your own experience.
  • Our capabilities may be as well-tuned in areas of study or survival as yours.
  • There’s no shame in  someone with a disability outperforming someone who is supposedly “normal.” The Lord apportions His gifts as He sees fit, regardless of disability or health.
  • How someone who’s blind, visually impaired, or otherwise physically disabled may alter performance of work, leadership, or parenting. It does not necessarily lessen its quality or effectiveness.
  • Physical disability does not equate to lacking mental cognition or perception.

And because someone has one disability, such as blindness, it doesn’t mean they are hard of hearing. Vice-versa, it doesn’t mean that we gain a sharper hearing or sixth sense that makes us mysteriously more able to do something not requiring sight.

In a later post, I will address the hero mystique about those who “overcome” their blindness or other disability. We don’t perform challenging tasks, win wrestling matches or chess games, become lead I.T. specialists despite our blindness. Rather, being blind, we do these things being blind, accommodating ourselves in whatever way to support and befriend our neighbors in need, clients, students, and families.

Asking and conversing allows us to maintain our sense of dignity with backstories that go far beyond your meeting us on the street corner.

STOP (Meeting a Blind Person, pt. 2 of 5)

Yesterday, I introduced you to the acronym SALE, which stands for Stop, Ask, Listen, Evaluate.

Let’s start with STOP. Why STOP? Because it’s easy for any of us to push the panic button.

“Oh, no! That guy’s walking toward the fountain that’s turned off—he’s gonna fall!”

“He’s approaching a curb and the walk sign’s letting traffic beside him go. But he’s stopping. He’s lost.”

“Oh, boy. He’s overshot the lectern when needing to read from it. Time to get up and race to his side lest he falls.”

Truth is we all make those assumptions about each other, blind or sighted. So, STOP allows us to pause and observe. Is that guy slowing down when five feet from a four-foot drop-off or is he cruising fast? Is his cane tapping in front of him, or is his dog alert when approaching a curb? Is he typing away in a cubicle at work (using a quick-navigation cursor) or is he pausing to think on his next task?

A friend of mine who’s a chess master speaks of knowing what your opponent is doing to you before you calculate an attacking combination. When a pastor sees an unfamiliar face coming to the communion rail, he must stop to see if that person is alone or with faithfully communing members before asking any precautionary questions regarding that person’s worthiness to receive the body and blood of Christ.

In other words, STOP cools that boiling shot of adrenaline that clouds our internal vision with assumptions that can turn out to be unintentionally disrespectful. And we who are totally blind or visually impaired won’t feel smothered or diminished; we won’t need to put up impulsive defenses, or be left with a sense of inadequacy. It allows us to maintain our personal dignity and self-confidence, something that sighted individuals often take for granted.

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!