I remember the first time I was asked this question: I was giving a presentation after which a woman approached me and asked,
“What should I do when I meet a blind person?”
I was totally taken aback and had no idea how to answer her question.
“Shake their hand?”, I said in a faltering voice.
“Oh”, she said as she returned to the audience.
“I think she was looking for something more profound.”, said the gentleman next to me with a chuckle.
I really wasn’t trying to be insensitive to the woman’s question, but this seemed like such a silly thing at the time. I mean meeting a blind person is no different than meeting a tall person, or a person with brown hair, or anyone else. I think the question she was perhaps trying to ask without actually asking it was,
“What should I do or avoid doing when interacting with a blind person?”
The golden rule
When meeting or interacting with anyone, I think the most important thing is to treat the other person in the same way we would like to be treated ourselves. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect and if we focus on those things in every interaction, the experience is more likely to be a mutually positive one. So, in every interaction with a blind person, or anyone else for that matter, think of how you would feel if roles were reversed.
Avoid making assumptions
Again, this isn’t unique to meeting or interacting with a blind person, but whenever we make assumptions, we are apt to make the wrong one. What follows are just some assumptions about me and my blindness that I’ve encountered; this list grows almost daily and so these are just some off the top of my head.
He’s blind, surely he needs my help.
This is a super common assumption and to be fair, there are some times when I really could use a person’s help. But here’s the thing, I can speak up and ask for help if I need it. Not only that, but if people *offer* me help, I can accept it or not. Offering help is not difficult, simply asking, “Can I offer you any assistance? would do just fine. Again, don’t over-think this, just offer assistance in a way that would feel good to you if you were offered assistance in that same way.
He’s lost, I have to rescue him.
I remember one time I was attending the annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego when this random person came up to me, grabbed my arm, and said,
“You seem lost, let me take you to the front desk.”
There were a few things wrong with this interaction. First, the assumption that I must be lost. To be fair, I probably did look a bit lost as I was walking around a large central area of the hotel in which the conference was taking place. The thing is, I wasn’t lost at all. What I was actually doing was familiarizing myself a bit more with the hotel. While I may have looked like a Roomba as I walked slowly around this large open area, what I was actually doing was creating a mental map for myself so that I could better conceptualize my surroundings. Ironically, what I was doing was something to help ensure I wouldn’t actually get lost.
The second aspect of this interaction which resulted from a wrong assumption is that I needed to be brought to the front desk. Why? What would the front desk do that this person who was trying to be helpful couldn’t do? If I truly was lost, I could have asked the person for directions to get to wherever I needed to go and, if the person couldn’t help, then the front desk might have been the next logical option. Another inherent assumption here is that the person at the front desk would have had time to help me: Those folks are generally pretty busy, especially in large hotels.
The third, and most disturbing assumption to me was that the person obviously felt that it was totally fine to just grab my arm. Far as I know, people don’t just go up to other people and grab ahold of them, that’s kind of creepy. I mean a subtle shoulder tap might arguably have been more acceptable, but this person held on to me as if they feared I would float off into space if they dared let go. I’ve had people grab my arm, my hand, my elbow, my cane, even the handle on my backpack, none of these are OK. Being blind doesn’t mean I forfeit my desire for personal space. In other situations, I might have walked with this person simply by following their voice, no awkward and creepy grabbing required.
OK, it’s confession time. I hope this won’t come as a shock, but I really don’t have super enhanced hearing abilities, I really don’t. In fact, my hearing has gotten worse over the years to the point that I sometimes use hearing aids to help me better hear in public, especially in loud situations. I think that maybe I pay attention a bit more to what I’m hearing and this might come off to some as having some sort of superpower, but reality is, I’m probably just more focused in on what I’m hearing and so I notice things that others might not.
Here’s another fun fact, I’m nut inherently a great musician. I know there have been some incredibly fantastic blind musicians, but I’m definitely not one of them. The only way I might become even moderately able to play an instrument is by practicing, not by just being blind. I’ve actually had people come up to me and ask what instrument I play, I feel like I’m crushing their dreams when I tell them that I don’t play any.
It’s a visual world
We all live in a visual world and the language we use every day reflects this. I’m sure many of you ‘watch’ TV or ‘look’ where you’re going, or if you’re in the corporate world, you might have to ‘see’ the big picture. It’s a sight-oriented world and that’s OK. What’s not so OK is when people try to change their language to try and strip away any visual reference.
“Hey Steve, did you see, um, uh, um I mean hear the game on TV?”
“Steve, did you see that movie that just came out? Well, I guess you probably heard it, huh.”
These sorts of things just sound silly when said out loud, not to mention it’s really awkward and embarrassing for the person saying them. Visual references are OK, they’re part of the language we use every day and there’s no need to try and change that. I actually do ‘watch’ TV. I also might go to ‘see’ a baseball game if the weather is nice. I try to ‘look where I’m going’ when I’m walking outside and have a ‘vision’ of what I hope my future will be. I understand that many people are attempting to be sensitive when using language, but there is a line between sensitivity and trying to reframe common phrases on the fly. I have a friend who is in a wheelchair and she ‘runs’ errands all the time. There should be no guilt or shame in natural phrases, it’s OK to use them.
Some final thoughts.
What should you do when you meet a blind person? First and most important, think of how you would want to be treated if someone was meeting you for the first time and proceed accordingly. If you’re unsure if the person needs help, or how to be of help, the best course of action is to just ask and don’t assume. Over the years I’ve come across many articles discussing disability etiquette and while they may provide practical suggestions, I feel that these articles often serve to create a divide where one shouldn’t exist.
If this is a topic of particular interest to you, or if you have questions, please leave me a comment or contact me as I’d love to continue the conversation. Thank you for reading and hey, it’s great to meet you. 🙂