Over the years I have heard now and again that I need to be the best blind person I can be, if for no other reason than I may be the first (if not only) blind person your average Joe or Jane might encounter. Some might say that it is my job to educate others about blindness, humanity, and living life by answering questions or providing demonstrations of my skills or assistive technology on the fly, no matter what kind of day I’ve had or what my plans are. While I do agree that politeness and courtesy go a long way, I personally think I should have the right to enjoy a cup of coffee without being approached and asked a thousand questions about how blind people cope with life, for two very important reasons:
1) I am NOT all blind people. My marital status, education, employment, life circumstances, hopes, dreams, and fears are entirely my own. Just because I have an overwhelming fear of ladders doesn’t mean the next blind chick shares that fear; just because my blind friend that I am hoping to meet for coffee attends university doesn’t mean that further schooling is my goal.
2) You wouldn’t routinely approach an able-bodied stranger at a Tim Hortons and start asking questions, would you? If so, then we’ll talk…
Last year, I contributed to my friend Meagan’s blog post on this very topic, waxing partially eloquent about how that ambassadorship role is just too unrealistic and heavy. Expecting me to be an ambassador for the blind is like expecting one woman to represent them all, or one police officer, doctor, or parent. We all know where that gets us: nowhere!
Sure, I’ve asked REALLY stupid questions of friends who use wheelchairs, are deaf, or live with chronic debilitating medical conditions. These are people I have met either online or in person, and we’ve struck up a conversation, generally about normal everyday things (politics, sports, work), and not random strangers who cross my path. I DO find the random approaches at bus stops or in coffee shops quite disconcerting, because it seems that all person X is interested in is the fact that my eyes don’t work. After whatever conversation we have, right or wrong, that person will take away what blind people are “really” like.
Perhaps the perception of me as a blind woman being an ambassador comes because I, with my cute black lab guide dog, am much more visible than a woman of similar age fitting my general physical discription. A “normal” Millennial having a rough day in a shopping mall doesn’t generally get six offers of assistance in as many paces, but I do, simply because the perception is that because I am blind, I require assistance. I can politely decline said offers of assistance and still be viewed as stubborn and ungrateful; I can be forceful about declining such offers and still be considered stubborn and ungrateful; or I can accept the assistance (whether I need it or not) and feed into a perception that blind people are helpless and always need sighted help. What is the common denominator? Someone else’s perception. People will view me however they choose to. No matter what I do, someone somewhere will form an opinion of me, right or wrong. A comparable sighted millennial will be perceived by the public for having tangled messy hair or ill-fitting jeans, but no one bats an eye at those perceptions either. Why should we as blind people be immune from perception? It’s just human nature; we aren’t so special to avoid it. All I can do is live my life the best way I know how, accept or decline a myriad of offers of assistance as needed and smile and nod about people who only view me as non-working eyeballs with a cute dog.
Chris Swank (@CrummyVision) said:
Here’s an interesting thought. Do blind people get approached by randoms to quiz us if we are with other people, blind or sighted? I ask because most of the time when I go out to eat, I’m with my wife, also blind, and randoms don’t approach us. Even when I was going to some classes and might take the occasional lunch at McDonalds I was happily left alone to eat my junk food. Could be I don’t have a dog. Could be either blind people are a common sight in this city or people are self-involved so they don’t bug me or maybe, just maybe, people around here might well have some manners. Also, the blind ambassador thing, I’ve heard this from blind people and professionals that work with the blind, they really love to push that one, I guess out of fear we’d just haul off and be jerks in public. The thing nobody ever seems to address in that whole view of things is, why is it wrong to tell people that blind people are not clones of one another? It amazes and amuses me that even very intelligent people, I mean, they have degrees and everything, would believe we’re all alike, even down to having the same tastes, interests, beliefs, etc.
Chris, interesting question! I find I am more often approached when I am alone. Very VERY rarely will I be approached if I am sitting at McDonalds or Tim Horton’s with someone else (sighted or blind), though it does happen occasionally. Same with the offering of assistance, but I found that happened MUCH more often when I used a cane than it does now with my dog.
If I am with another guide dog user, sometimes we will get approached or asked questions about the dogs, but that’s par for the course, and only happens now and again.
I wonder if it’s a gender thing. Would a stranger be more inclined to approach a blind WOMAN sitting alone at that McDonald’s table, while leaving her blind male friend alone in a similar situation?
Chris Swank (@CrummyVision) said:
No idea if it’s a gender thing. I’m just a guy who uses a cane. With the guide dog, though, consider some folks are primarily dog enthusiasts.
Jocelyn Rogers said:
I am a female white cane user, and I get asked a myriad of questions from “randoms” all the time. There does seem to be a “trend”, however. The “randoms” tend to be much older women who don’t “come across” as highly educated. The best ones are the ones who are sure they have a “cure” for my eye disease. (I had Juvenile Arthritis as a youth and young adult, and this was so absurdly common.) When I repeat – many times over – “no treatment; no cure” – they finally get the message. But then on one occasion I got, “Well, how can you leave the house?! How can you do anything?!” I’m like, “What do mean, ‘How?’ I just do.” And then I would indicate that, believe it or not, I have completely blind friends who have full-time jobs, play sports – so all kinds of things. “I don’t understand! How?!” At that point, it’s, “Uh, I really need to catch a bus. Bye.” (In other words, I give up.) Some people are incredibly misinformed. I have done my bit for “ambassadorship” in Girl Guides, however. Apparently, I am the only blind Guide leader in the country. I’ve been a leader for 27 years, but only going blind for the last 10. Canadian Guider magazine – the National magazine for adult members – did an article on me and my unit of 26 girls from last year. Here’s the link, if you are interested: https://www.girlguides.ca/WEB/Documents/GGC/media/publications/Cdn_Guider_Spring_2015.pdf I’m just not too sure how well it will read using screen readers – lots of pictures. But the point is I do educate my Guides and their families every year in hopes of creating a more “knowledgeable future.” And National is getting the picture that they need to change they way they produce materials so that screen readers and such can read them. But my abilities have never been questioned, and “assistance” has never been “pushed” on me. In fact, I am expected to ask for assistance if I need it. Otherwise, it is assumed I am fine (the article mentions that too). I have been described as “fiercely independent,” and I’m actually finding it hard to even ask for help when I DO need it, and occasionally (very occasionally), I wish other leaders would offer. But, really, they are right. It is up to me to ask for what I need, not up to them to read my mind. But, yes, you should be able to “drink your coffee” in peace – cute dog notwithstanding. 🙂
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