A beginner’s Guide to Interacting with the Blind.
Hello, my friends. Welcome back to my dark pages.
I’ve recently decided to dive headfirst into the dicey practice of cultural appropriation. No, no…calm down. I have not taken up Tibetan throat singing, given myself ridiculous white girl dreadlocks* or dyed my entire smurf blue. What I’ve been doing is immersing myself in the world of the blind. How have I been doing that? I’m so glad you asked. I’ve become a creeper on the interwebs. Yes, people. I have become a creepy internet lurker…
I belong to several groups of Facebook (most notably one called Nerds with Vaginas) but also a few other groups that are blind specific. I have two favorites. One is called BlindPenPals, which is a wonderful, well organized group where blind people all over the world can meet and the other is Parents of Blind and VI Children – where parents, like myself, support each other. They are both wonderful groups and I’m grateful for both their existence and to be a part of them. My inclusion in the blind community is relatively recent and I’ve found it to be an experience that’s moved me to words.
What specifically motivated me to write for you today is a theme I see spread far and wide across all my blind based social media: There are a lot of times that blind people feel left out and lonely. Obviously, blindness is a disorder that keeps people in the dark. Unfortunately that statement cannot be taken only literally and the figurative darkness that blind people experience is often not their fault. It’s on you. Back before my heart was stolen by a tiny, blind guy, it was on me too.
I used to be kind of a jerk to disabled people. Not with deliberate actions of course, but with uneducated indifference which can be just as bad (if not worse).
I have a very clear memory from childhood. I was about 6 or 7 and my mother and I were in a grocery store. A woman walked past us wearing leg braces and those metal crutches that fit around the upper arm. I was staring at her and my mother nudged me and hissed, ‘Don’t be rude’ out of the corner of her mouth. Once the woman was passed, she explained that that woman was born with birth defects that didn’t allow her legs to grow properly. She mused about how hard it must for that ‘poor thing’ and reminded me to count my blessings. I attribute much of my compassionate nature to my mother’s influence but after my own son was born with birth defects, I realized in this particular case her teachings were wrong.
She called that woman a ‘poor thing’ when she could have called her strong. Instead of simply telling me to count my lucky stars she could have asked me to imagine my life if I was the one with faulty legs. Instead of telling me to look away she had a chance to encourage me to smile at that woman with a smile of her own.
Years went by and my intimate life was devoid of people with physical disabilities. It was ripe with people with mental disorders… but those are stories for a different blog. In social situations, when I saw a disabled person, I’d stick to the script I was taught as a child: look away, thank God it isn’t me. I’d feel very uncomfortable and nervous around the disabled. I never knew how to act or what to say - terrified of unwittingly saying something offensive…so I’d just avoid interaction as much as possible.
Obviously, that has changed for me by now, but I remember how I used to feel and I’m not about to pretend that I’ve always been the advocate for inclusion and acceptance that I am today. I’m going to use my intimate knowledge of being on both sides of the disability divide and I’m going to try and build a bridge of understanding. I’m going to focus on the bridge between the blind and seeing people; who will hereafter be referred to as ‘the Sightocentric’.
The first thing to remember is that every blind person is well…a person. At first you’ll get lost in blindness. This is to be expected, and it’s ok. Blind people are a little different, I get that. They get that, too. The most important thing to remember is that blindness is one aspect of who they are, it does not define them. Behind every pair of dark glasses, white cane or guide dog there is an actual human being with feelings as real as your own. And, just like all of the other people in your life, blind people come in various colors, religions, ethnicities, degrees of education and levels of douchebaggery. Some are funny, some are sad. They can be mad, or glad or bad.
As a sightocentric person it might be awkward to you at first - having interactions with someone who tends look above your head, over your shoulder or at your left breast as you speak to them. Humans have come to value eye contact as a way of connecting with one another. We’ve come read each other by looking at each other, judge people’s honesty by their ability to hold a steady gaze and realize when people are joking by a certain twinkle in their eye. Good luck doing any of that with my son. He eyes are made of plastic and I didn’t spring for the swanky embedded Swarovski crystal lenses that throw off rainbow prisms in the light.**
However, under those plastic lenses is the smartest little boy I know. He’s sweet and stubborn and funny as hell. He speaks four languages remembers any video game cheat code he’s ever learned out of his head and plays the piano by ear. You can’t tell he’s joking by the glint in his eye, but you can hear it in his voice if you know him well. But if you ever want to get to know him well, you’ll have to get past the fact that he’s blind.
I’m going to help you do that in 4 easy steps. Just send 20 dollars (US) to my paypal account and I’ll send you my revolutionary new e-book:
A Beginners Guide to Interacting with the Blind.
I kid, I kid…here we go.
Step 1 –Respect the stick/ Don’t spoil the dog
If you see a blind person with a service dog there is just one thing you need to remember: That is not your dog. Say it again, not your dog!
One of my friends gets irate because a man in her building sneaks treats to her service dog, Trixie. When my friend confronted him about it, he denied giving the dog a treat but my friend could smell Milkbone dog biscuits on Trixie’s breath. Here you have a man sneaking treats to a service dog and then lying about it when he should have simply remembered: That is not my dog. Guide dogs have trained extensively to be Thomas the Train level useful but that training can be easily undone. You don't need to stress yourself with the training process just remember these simple words: not your dog.
Also, there is a difference between a guide dog and a companion dog. A dear friend of mine was brutally attacked by a man once a while ago. She's fine now, thanks for asking, but emotional scars can run deep. She has a little pocketbook poodle who had the attitude of a Pitt Bull when it comes to defending her mistress. She has permission to take her dog into all sorts of places dogs don't usually go, like a guide dog, but that where the similarities end. Magnolia (the Pitt Poodle) has received no special training, and does not behave with the decorum of a guide dog so my friend knows better than to ever expose an actual guide dog to her hyperactive ankle biter. Make a note of that, should it ever apply.
White sticks have been the primary mode of ambulatory independence blind people have enjoyed since it came into vogue in France in 1931. If you ever see a person crossing the street with a white stick held horizontally in front of them while you’re driving your car, you must stop. That is a universal law, that no one ever seems to know – but I’m telling you now. Make a note of it. Many blind people come to think of their sticks as extensions of themselves. They depend on them. Don’t move them without permission and definitely don’t pick them up and have a pretend sword fight. If you happen to be lucky enough to befriend a blind person you may get the opportunity to fold a white stick up if you ask nicely. It’s surprisingly fun. Put it on your bucket list.
White sticks are very useful but imperfect. They miss tree branches, low hanging street signs and excitable Poodles. If you ever see a blind person walking with a cane headed for one of the aforementioned hazards; give them a little heads up. Just yell, “Hey! Mr. Blind Guy! There is a low hanging branch with a street sign on it that says ‘Beware of Pitt Poodles’ in front of you. You should move to your left! Have a nice day!’
I’m being flippant, of course but if you’re ever in a situation where you see a blind person headed for trouble definitely try to warn them. That being said, we’ve arrived at…
Step 2 – Don’t ever assume a blind person needs your help.
Imagine yourself in your house, late at night. There’s only the faintest ambient light in the background, you can’t really see but you know the way to the kitchen by heart. Suddenly, with no warning, someone grabs you by the arm and asks you if you need help. How do you react?
Blind people are a lot more independent than most people give them credit for being. If you see a blind person rolling solo, out for a stroll in the park or on the street; the absolute worst thing you can ever do is go up to them and grab them. Can you imagine that? You’re walking along, enjoying the breeze and then suddenly someone you don’t know - that you never saw coming, has their hands of you. As you’re reading these words it may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many blind people are being randomly accosted and frightened by Good Samaritan wannabes every day.
It comes from a good place, I know it does but it’s not necessary. If you see a blind person on the street chances are good that they know exactly what they are doing, where they’re going and don’t need help. Chances are equally good that if a blind person does get confused, they will stop and ask for help. The following is an example of how that situation might go down:
Blind Person on the street to no one in particular: Excuse me? I seem to be lost. Can anyone help me get my bearings?
You (without making physical contact): Hi! Can I help you?
Blind person: Yes, please. I’m trying to get to 5th Avenue. Which way do I go?
You (without pointing): You need to continue walking down this street for two blocks and then make a left. That’s 5th Ave.
Blind Person: Thank you!
You: Do you need help getting there?
Blind Person: I’m ok now, but if you’re walking that way we can walk together.
You: I’d love that. Hey, will you be my new blind BFF and let me fold up your stick one day?
Blind Person: Ummm….no. You just kinda creeped me out and I have to go now. Thanks for the help. Have a nice day.
You: Wow. I never knew blind people could run so fast. Oh, good. He turned left onto 5th.
It is very difficult to be blind. I can say that with more authority than most sightocentrics can muster because I watch my son struggle to do things that come so easily to other people. The struggle is real, but don’t think for one second that ‘disabled’ means the same thing as ‘unable’. Helping people is a wonderful thing, when it’s needed.
I’ll be leaving off here for now, but please stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to this post which I will finish writing as soon as you all send your 20 dollars or when I wrap up another project I’m working on, whichever comes first.
Keep it classy, People.
*Ok, there was one time in the mid 90’s that I had ridiculous white girl dreadlocks, but in my defense: Alanis Morrisette
** As far as I know Swarovski crystal prosthetic lenses do not exist but if they did I would totally spring for them in a heartbeat.