Walk The Line

Walk The Line

By Chris Kuell

It happens to every blind person, more often if you spend a significant amount of time out in the world interacting with society.  A sighted person full of misconceptions says something ignorant to you, or grabs your arm to drag you across the street, or speaks to the person you are with,  or is simply amazed at your courage to walk down the street unaided or by your ability to sign your own name.  These ‘ignorisms’, as I think of them, come in a multitude of forms.  In the last six months, I’ve heard — Who picks out your clothes for you?  Who helps you shave?  How do you know which shoes you are wearing?  Can I cut up your food for you?  Who takes care of you at home?  Isn’t it sweet you help Daddy cross the street, and so on.  

We walk a fine line when encountering ignorisms.  The way I figure it, there are three ways to react.  The first is to do nothing, which is to under-react.  This is easiest, and probably the path most taken by blind folks.  Ignore the question, accept the offer to be pulled across the street, and agree to let someone drop you off at the door to the restaurant so you don’t have to cross the vast and treacherous parking lot.  While this option is non-confrontational and easy, it’s also not quite a zero-sum gain.  You help propagate whatever misconceptions the sighted person has, and you lose just a touch of dignity in the transaction.  

The second option is to over-react by belittling the wanna-be helper, or by acting angry.  “Yes, I’d appreciate you cutting up my food — and would you mind chewing it for me, too?”  “Since I handed you the credit card, and since my name is on it, is it okay if I sign for it?”  “Who helps me shave?  Your mother!”   “Grab me again like that and you’ll be eating your next few meals through a straw.”  While responses like these can bring a momentary feeling of triumph, it leaves the sighted person, and likely several other sighted witnesses, feeling as though you, and probably all blind people, are bitter and ungrateful, if not downright crazy.  Some blind friends, sick of the constant barrage of ignorisms, tend to over-react like this.  It may stop the immediate situation, but will leave the waitress, pedestrian, fellow bus passenger or nurse with a negative impression of blindness, which could be worse than the original misconception.

The third option is to be patient, tolerant, and attempt to correct the misconception.  For the most part, these ignorisms don’t arise out of malice or a conspiracy to demean the visually impaired citizens of the world, but are a result of fears and misinformation the sighted world takes in or dreams up about blindness.  Blindness is fairly rare, many blind people stay shut in their homes and apartments, so the sighted world doesn’t have much chance to witness a capable, competent blind person in action.  The only blind people they know are their 90-year-old granny or their friend’s crazy Uncle Louie who took one in the head back in Vietnam and hasn’t been quite right since.   

A good approach is to respond with humor, but good-naturedly.  “You never know what name this clown will use, so you better let me sign that.”  “Oh, I shave myself.  You know, the razor works a lot better when you take that plastic protective cover off first.”  “My cat helps pick out my clothes.  She’s a tabby, a big fan of Project Runway and rarely steers me wrong.”  A friend told me recently that she had a waiter ask if she needed her food cut up.  She just laughed and said “No, but if he could please take all the carbs for himself, she'd be very grateful.”

The important thing is to show that you are in control of the situation, even if you need their help.  “How about you let go of my jacket and we’ll wait at the corner.  When you give the okay to cross, I’ll walk beside you.”  

If time permits, it’s always good to educate the sighted public.  They are curious and often have no idea about our adaptive techniques.  “I have braille labels in most of my clothes.”  “I have my home very organized, everything in its place, which makes finding what I need much easier.”  “I have a mental map in my head, and since I’ve walked this route numerous times, I’m familiar with most of the landmarks.”  “Don’t pull me like that.  Here, let me take your elbow.  This is called sighted guide, and you can walk faster if you like.”  “No, I’m not amazing.  In fact, I’m a bit below average from most of my blind friends.”

I don’t anticipate that ignorisms will ever cease in my lifetime — they are just too pervasive.  However, if we work together to change the attitudes of our sighted friends, co-workers and uninvited gawkers, maybe we can make it a little bit easier for the next blind person who walks behind us.