Summer is a time of year filled with outdoor gatherings. Generally, they involve food, drinks, lots of sitting and chatting, and perhaps even some games on the lawn. Typically, the meal is potluck style where everyone brings their favorite dish to share, and drinks are served in those ever-present bright red plastic cups. It’s common for clusters of folding camp chairs to be scattered around the lawn in groups of three or four. There might also be an area set aside for games like frisbee or football. These events are great fun! But how can you enjoy yourself if you are blind or low vision and use a long white cane…?
Receiving an Invitation
If you are somewhat on the shy side, whether you’re new to using a long white cane or a veteran, an invitation to summer events can send you into a spiral of fear. You may have lots of questions about how to handle situations that are sure to arise. Fear not, there are some things you can do to take control of how you’ll manage situations. It starts with being proactive.
The person who invited you to the gathering may know you have low vision and use a long white cane. Regardless, it’s okay to ask for details about the event so you can create a strategy for enjoying yourself. Some questions you might want to ask are:
- What is the menu? What can I bring?
- How do you plan to serve the food?
- How are you planning to seat people? Should I bring my own chair?
- About how many people are you expecting?
- Can you tell me about some of the people I might meet?
Attending the Gathering
Answers to these questions can help you know what to expect upon arrival. There are many things you can do to prepare now that you’re armed with this knowledge. First and foremost, it’s completely acceptable to ask for help when you arrive at the event. The host or hostess may be super busy but don’t be afraid to ask for assistance finding help. It is respectable to be a confident person who just happens to be blind or have low vision. Your cane will help others understand that you don’t see well and can be an ice breaker of sorts. Most people want to help you have a good time; they just don’t know how. It’s your job to let people know how to best help you.
Some things you might consider asking for help with include:
- Describing the environment. What’s happening, who is there, where is the food table, where is the restroom?
- Finding a place to sit, or a place to set up the chair you brought
- Walking through the food line with you, telling you what’s on the table
- Placing items of your choice on your plate
- Finding cutlery, napkins, and a drink
Locating Items at the Event
This is a good time to discuss what you can do to help yourself as well. If bringing your own chair, consider one that is brightly colored so you can find it more easily. Or use something tactile, such a scarf, to help you distinguish the chair. If you’re a techy person, you could use a Bluetooth tile locator on your chair and a smartphone app to help you find it. Bring your own water bottle that you can describe or put a rubber band around your cup to make it different from the others. There are many little “hacks” you can think about to make this easier.
Now that you’re more comfortable with the logistics of the event, let’s talk about the social side of things. Navigating social settings can feel scary when you’re adjusting to blindness or low vision and using a cane. But with some extra planning, socializing is so much fun! Find out from your host who is attending so you plan whom you’d like to meet.
It may feel tempting to put your cane away, so you don’t stand out, but it serves you better if it’s visible. Your cane tells people you don’t see well, and this can work for you in two ways. First, if people see that you have a cane, they may be more likely to approach you first and start a conversation. Second, your cane can soften an uncomfortable situation if you accidentally bump into someone, sit in the wrong seat, or introduce yourself to someone you have already met!
Again, preparation can help you navigate the social side of things. Take some time before the event to think about questions to help start conversations. You could ask:
- What part of town do you live in?
- Do you have any vacation plans this summer?
- Have you seen any good movies or television shows lately?
- What restaurants in the area do you recommend?
It’s easier to speak with confidence when you have some questions in your pocket! Try to point your body and face toward the voice of your conversation partner. To show you’re listening and engaged, you might nod your head once or twice while the other person is speaking. Consider not engaging with your phone! Put the phone on silent and put it away. Nothing says “I’m not interested in what you are saying” more than checking a text or call. It can wait.
When the conversation has stalled, or you just want to meet other people, there are ways to politely exit a conversation without it becoming awkward. One way to do this is simply say, “It’s been lovely chatting with you; I think I’m going to see who else is here.” You can also say something like “It was great to meet you! I’d love to also meet (insert name); could you please help me find them?”
These ideas and suggestions can work well for you with a little planning, self-awareness, and humor. Don’t forget, at the end of the day we’re all human and trying to do the best we can. In many cases, people are just as nervous about these situations as you are. Take a deep breath and go for it! Chances are, you’ll be very glad you did!
- Dayle Kane, another peer, suggests reading Chapter 8 in Hannah Fairbairn’s book “When You Can’t Believe Your Eyes.” The chapter includes helpful information about attending gatherings when blind or low vision. Dayle says that she plays the guitar and is often asked by hosts to lead sing-alongs at events, which helps her to feel more a part of the event.
- Firing Up the Gas Grill When You Are Visually Impaired – VisionAware
- Workplace Holiday Parties: You’ll Need These Independent Living Skills as an Individual Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired – CareerConnect (aphcareerconnect.org)