Editor’s note: In this second part of our theme in recognition of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Mary Hiland and Sandra Burgess use real life experiences to illustrate more effective ways sighted people can interact with individuals who are blind or visually impaired. In the first part, Sandra talked about useful tips when you meet a person who is blind or visually impaired. In the third part of our series we will hear from Elizabeth Sammons on a glimpse of life in Siberia for men and women living with disabilities.
There are many stumbling blocks for a visually impaired person to overcome, but life as a blind person would be so much easier to handle if the people around him or her would just think to open their mouths and use words.
Right over Here
People who encounter a person who is blind are often uncomfortable with using words such as blind, watch, see, or look. We who are blind use these words just as sighted people do. It is more annoying to avoid them than to use them. The most annoying phrase of all is “right over here.” When you think about it, those words are useless. I can’t see where you are pointing or looking. Using directional words are much more effective. Often, when I am having dinner in a restaurant with friends, the server, or one of my companions will move my glass so it’s easier for the dish to be placed in front of me. Then when I reach for my glass, and it’s not where I left it, I’ll say, “What happened to my drink?” And invariably, I’ll be told, “it’s right over here.” Lately, I’ve solved the problem by making sure I grab that drink myself when the food arrives, so I can keep track of it, and that way I’ll know what “right over here means.”
Sitting on the Laps of Strangers
A doctor’s office is full of people who are afraid to speak. After I check in, and the receptionist tells me to have a seat, I wonder how I’m going to find an empty chair. My guide dog sometimes makes me very proud, because she takes me right to a chair, but being a people-lover, she is apt to take me to a chair filled with a friendly-looking person. How embarrassing it is to reach down to touch the seat of the chair, only to find that my hand lands on someone’s knee. The closest they come to uttering a word might be a cough or a clearing of the throat. It seems to me that the whole waiting room is watching to see what the dog will do, instead of being helpful like saying, “There’s a chair to your right.”
Here’s a scenario where an extra word to a person who is blind would alleviate an embarrassing moment. A friend introduces me to someone else who has just joined us as we stand in a noisy room, where I can’t hear footsteps approaching. “This is John,” he might say. Then John says nothing. I hold out my arm to shake hands, but I don’t know where John is. To my left? To my right? Straight in front of me? So there I am, trying to shake hands with the air. The whole awkward moment could be avoided if John would just speak first, giving me a clue as to which way I should turn to address him. Standing there and staring at me is about the rudest thing that a person can do. Help me out a little by reaching for my outstretched hand and say something.
Talk to Me, Not about Me
Every blind person I know has complained about servers in restaurants who ask “Does she want dressing on the side or on the salad,” or “What does she want to drink?” It is so tempting for anyone in a job dealing with the public to speak to the one who makes eye contact. Since I cannot do that, I sometimes have to take the lead. When I go out for lunch with my friend, we have worked out that I will be the one to place my order first. We do this because, too often, if my friend gives her order first, the server will not say anything like, “And what would you like.” Instead she/he just looks at me, expecting that I will know that she is ready for my order. Once again, a word to me would be oh so helpful. A very effective way to handle the eye contact problem is for my companion to look away or even walk away from a counter so that the clerk or server is forced to talk to me. If this technique is not possible, my sighted companion always says, “Ask her.” Another way I handle a person who seems afraid to talk to a blind person is I say, “Are you talking about me? If so, please talk to me. I am the one making the purchase.”
“What About a Lift?”
While I was standing by a curb waiting for my guide dog to relieve himself, I was suddenly lifted up from behind by what sounded like two elderly woman speaking to me. They thought I must be wanting to cross the street and wanted to help. It took some words from me to get them to understand I had no need to get to the other side of the road. Once again, some words from them prior to grabbing me, such as “Do you want to cross the street?” would have been a more appropriate way to handle the situation.
Do You Need a Hand?
One day during a frigid winter in the Berkshires, I arrived at my college class, found a desk and sat down. As I was settling my guide dog next to me, the feeling of someone tugging on the front of my jacket sprang in to my consciousness. Actually, someone suddenly touching me frightened me. I raised my voice and said, “What are you doing?” In a calm and quiet voice, the professor stated she was undoing my coat. Once again, a better way to interact with me would have been to ask me if I needed any assistance.