Once again it’s Blogging Against Disablism Day, a day that bloggers set aside to discuss issues related to ablism and how to combat ablist behaviors and attitudes. Since our mission here at the Living Blind Blog is to raise awareness and bridge the gap between the blind and the sighted, Blogging Against Disablism Day seems like a useful moment to open a conversation about how to interact with blind people. We’ve talked about this before, of course, but since I often find myself answering questions about the dos and don’ts of dealing with blindness, perhaps a little cheat sheet wouldn’t hurt. So: here are five things to remember when interacting with a blind person. Whether you’re meeting someone with a visual impairment for the first time, or you’re the friend, family member, colleague, or significant other of someone with a visual impairment, being mindful of these tips will improve your relationship and comfort level with the person. More importantly, such mindfulness will combat some of the disabling myths that the blind and visually impaired have to face on a daily basis.
1. We don’t like receiving unsolicited help
I don’t say this to sound rude or unappreciative, but the truth is that as blind people, we struggle every day to prove to the world that we aren’t helpless. On a much more serious note, jumping in to help a blind person who hasn’t asked for it can be disorienting and even harmful, particularly when the help involves physical mobility. Moving my wine glass so I won’t spill it is a nice gesture, but if you do it without telling me, and I search for it, I’m probably going to wind up spilling it anyway because I no longer know where it is. That’s a perfectly pointless waste of good alcohol, wouldn’t you say?
Also, reaching out to touch, grab, or maneuver a blind person without asking is extremely unnerving. Not only are we suddenly being touched, often by a stranger, but if we’re spun around or grabbed hold of suddenly, we lose our sense of orientation. How would you feel if you were stepping off the bus, and some well-meaning person, assuming you were going to fall, grabbed you by the wrist? This actually happened to me once when I was in graduate school, and I did fall, because of the woman who grabbed my wrist to keep me from falling. Thanks a lot, lady. Or, you know, not. Most blind people won’t object to help when they need it, but they’d much rather you ask first instead of assuming that they can’t climb down a flight of steps independently.
2. We sometimes have a hard time reading body language
If you’re fully or even partially sighted, you know that conversation isn’t just verbal. Speaking and listening to others involves a myriad of visual cues, including eye contact, hand signals, and nodding. Most people who’re used to spending time with a blind person know to speak directly to us, addressing us by name to get our attention if we’re in a room full of people because they can’t make eye contact to get our attention. However, sometimes the nuances of conversation fly right over our heads, particularly when facial expressions are involved.
Example: you’re at a party and someone spills his drink. He’s particularly accident-prone, so your friends are all rolling their eyes and giggling. You have no idea what’s going on because you didn’t see the accident, nor can you see your friends making faces at each other. When you ask why everyone’s laughing, someone responds, “It’s nothing,” or, the much more hurtful, “You wouldn’t get it unless you could see it.” At the risk of sounding childish, this makes us feel shut out. It can be hard enough to keep up with the conversation without visual cues, and sometimes we accidentally interrupt people because we can’t follow the visual cues that allow us to spot an opening to interject. Alternatively, we might wind up sitting in silence for most of the evening if we find our endeavors to join the chatter are being rebuffed, albeit unintentionally. So the next time a blind person asks you what just happened, tell them. Allow them to be an equal participant in the social environment.
3. We don’t get offended when people use words like “see,” “watch,” or “look.”
I wish I could tell you that nobody has ever been afraid to use these words around me, but I’ve actually encountered people who’ve mistakenly believed that I’d burst into tears if they asked me whether or not I’d seen the latest movie in theaters. (I do go to the movies, by the way. I even write film reviews. Because you were wondering). On the one hand, as an English teacher and a writer, I appreciate the sensitivity to the impact that language has on whomever it’s directed toward, and within disability discourse, we often call into question the political correctness of expressions like “being blind to the truth” because such expressions stigmatize disability, associating blindness with negative character traits like ignorance. However, we can only guard our language so far. Words that denotatively refer to vision also connotatively refer to comprehension and awareness. How often during a conversation have you endeavored to explain something to someone and concluded with the question “Do you see what I mean?” You aren’t literally asking them if they see; rather you’re asking them to confirm that they understand.
I once had a professor in college who stopped me in the middle of a conversation after class to observe (do you see what I just did there?) “I notice that you use visual words a lot. Like, you’ll say, I saw so-and-so yesterday.’ That’s really interesting.” The implication that blind people don’t, or that they shouldn’t use visual language is problematic because it implies that we haven’t accepted our blindness to the point that we can’t acknowledge that we live in a visual world. We’re more likely to take offense when we hear comments directed toward us along the lines of “you can’t see this incredible sunset, so you just wouldn’t get why I love photographing nature.” Maybe we can’t see it first-hand, but we can experience the world through our other senses, not to mention, as several of my friends will tell you, the running descriptive commentary of others. Think Mat Murdock and Foggy Nelson here.
4. We really hate guessing games
No, seriously. I don’t know whether or not I speak for all blind people, but I challenge you to tell me that you’ve never met at least one blind person who hasn’t told you a story about someone who always came up to them and talked in funny voices to try to fool them. News flash: this isn’t funny. It’s disorienting and disrespectful. I knew someone who used to think this was hysterically funny, and trust me, after I’d spent two hours in a classroom discerning all of my students’ voices during a heated class discussion, the last thing I wanted to do was play a game of “guess who” in the elevator. I just wanted to go home, grade papers, and shove my head into a bucket of vodka.
I can’t deny that my friends have occasionally had fun at my expense; I had a friend who used to take me to the Cheesecake Factory and give me fork-fulls of whatever cake everyone had ordered to make me guess the flavor. If you overlook the fact that this probably did my waistline and cholesterol no favors, it really wasn’t something I felt in a position to complain about. In a volatile economy, I appreciate the value of free food and free entertainment as much as anyone, but don’t take advantage of this. People with disabilities aren’t circus freaks with strange and mysterious powers. If my sense of smell or touch is keener than yours, it’s not because I enjoy party tricks. It’s a survival skill to compensate for what I can’t see.
5. We’re perfectly capable of living alone
While most blind people will tell you that they don’t mind answering questions about how they function, when you do have a question, it’s important to be attentive to the tone and the language in which you ask the question. The question that I find the most frustrating, and often the most offensive, is “who takes care of you?” contrary to popular misconception, blind people can, and do, live independently. We also have spouses, children, and pets (in addition to the guide dogs that some of us work with). So not only can we care for ourselves, we’re also fully capable of caring for others. I once dated a guy who probably wouldn’t ever have eaten a home-cooked meal if I didn’t feed him. He was fully sighted.
Thanks to adaptive equipment and devices ranging from braille label-makers to smartphone apps like TapTapSee and BeMyEyes, the blind and visually impaired have ways to cook, clean, and perform any number of tasks to run their households and care for their families. To ask someone, “How do you cook breakfast” expresses genuine understandable curiosity about how someone can function independently without sight. To ask “Who does your laundry” assumes helplessness, and whether intentional or not, such perceptions perpetuate disablism because they emphasize lack of ability rather than capability to survive and thrive.
I realize that I’ve probably only scratched the surface, but what I’ve covered here addresses some of the most common instances of disablism that I encounter daily. I share them here today in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day as a reminder that open dialogue about disability is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways to break down barriers of discrimination.
Are you blind, or do you know someone who is blind? Can you think of any other advice that might be useful? How do you address these issues in your own life or with the blind people in your life?