Most of us know what it was like to be on the playground when the playground monitor blew her whistle. This usually meant one of two things: either someone’s actions were in need of correcting, or recess was over. Sometimes I wish I could “blow the whistle” on the actions of others with respect to blindness, or just bring an end to some of society’s misconceptions and poor attitudes. So, here is my attempt at “blowing the whistle” on a recent observation in an effort to help change perceptions of blindness.
My husband and I are in the process of trying to buy a home. A couple of weeks ago we put an offer on a house which we really liked. One of the major pluses to this particular house for us is its convenient location to public transportation options while still being in a nice suburban area. When the other realtor for the seller of this house learned that both my husband and I are blind, she immediately became concerned about how we would navigate the stairs in the house. (Insert whistle blow here) I should mention that this house is a split level with four different levels. It was a little condescending that our own opinion in feeling comfortable enough with the house to put an offer on it wasn’t acceptable to her and that she felt the need to point this fact out to us about the stairs as if we hadn’t noticed them. When we learned of this, we were a little surprised, slightly offended, and concerned that this might dissuade the seller from accepting our offer. I mean, she wouldn’t want to have our several broken bones and frequent trips to the emergency room on her conscience right? Fortunately our realtor has worked with blind colleagues of ours so is no stranger to the capabilities of blind people, and helped to diffuse the situation some. Unfortunately, this is not a new think to us. So often people ask us if we want to take the elevator, or show us to ramp entrances at buildings to avoid us going up stairs when really they aren’t that big of a deal. We’ve even had bus drivers insist on lowering the ramp to avoid us taking the two steps to get on or off of a bus. The reality is that the world isn’t flat, asColumbusproved, and our environment isn’t always going to conform to our needs. I’m not a medical professional, but I’m pretty sure blindness generally doesn’t automatically mean our legs don’t work either. We have to learn to get around our environment, even those areas which may present challenges. navigating stairs is just par for the course. Learning how to do it effectively is the key. Having said that, I do not mean to be insensitive to individuals who are in wheel chairs or have legitimate mobility issues and who are blind. Rather, I just want to point out the silly misconception that the sighted public often has that blindness is equated to an inability to navigate any raised elevation safely.
Really, stairs aren’t that big of a deal, especially when you use a cane. Think about how often you look at stairs when you go up and down them. Once you see the first one, the rest are pretty easy to figure out right? Of course we won’t use a cane around our own home, but the fact that it is our own home alone means that we will be familiar with it and know where the stairs are so that we can avoid falling down them. Additionally, I think the fact that we can cross streets and locate bus stops (normal things a blind person should be able to do anyway) should be a pretty good indicator that we can manage a few stairs successfully.
Well, fortunately for us, our offer was accepted and we have now started down the path to home ownership. YAE!!! But another misconception of blindness would rear its ugly head again a week later. On the day of our inspection, we met the seller’s realtor in person and were peppered with questions by her as to how we would manage living in this house and the area with “our disability”. Her first question was whether or not someone comes and helps us out, especially with our one-year-old daughter. She also inquired how we would get to the grocery store or to other areas in the neighborhood. I have to admit that I felt a little bit like our purchase of the house was contingent on how well we answered these questions and could defend our abilities. How often do sighted people get asked how they will manage these kinds of tasks when they are buying a home? Why couldn’t we have the same respect? Curiosity is one thing, but this was just concern and doubt on her part. She also was curious as to whether or not our daughter is blind (a question we get quite often when people learn that both of us are blind), and then she gave the typical response we hear from people when they find out that she is not, “Oh, that is such a blessing; I’m sure she will be a great help to you both since she can see.”
It is sometimes really hard not to be offended by these kinds of questions and to not want to just shake the person silly for being so closed-minded or clueless, but I realize that people really do mean well, they just don’t get it sometimes. Like for example, yes, it is great that our daughter can see as we wouldn’t want to wish blindness on her or anyone else for that matter, but this doesn’t mean that our blindness is a terrible tragedy. Incidentally, she’s not the greatest at crossing streets independently yet, and it will be at least three to five years before she is able to come in handy as a proficient reader and another fifteen before she is able to drive, so in the meantime, we will have to find other ways of managing without her help, just like we have done for years before she was born. Truth be told, we just want her to be a normal kid and not have to worry about taking care of her blind parents—at least until we are old and senile. In defense of this realtor, and the hundreds of others who ask such questions, we really do understand that people mean well, or are genuinely curious, but just don’t know about blindness or the capabilities of blind people who have skills, good attitudes, and high expectations for themselves. Aside from our slightly offended feelings, we did welcome some of her curiosity as it gave us the opportunity to educate her on the capabilities of blind people and hopefully we were able to change her perspectives, even if just a little. . WE told her how we travel around the country to see our family, take the bus or a cab to the grocery store, label things in Braille, organize our closets and cupboards, put bells on our daughter’s shoes so we can hear where she is, and so on. WE also told her a little bit about our orientation and mobility training and how we will get around in a house with four levels and around the neighborhood. I think by the time we wrapped up our conversation, she was thinking we were pretty amazing, which isn’t quite the impression we wanted to give her either, but hopefully she has some new perspectives about blindness from this experience. The bottom line is that blind people just want the same respect and expectations which you would offer to any other person on the playground.