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. If nothing else, at least being able to “blow the whistle” could get someone to stop and think about what he or she is doing.
Yesterday, I was walking with my daughter in her stroller down a busy street near our home. We were headed to catch the light rail via a quick stop at the bank located on the way. This is about a fifteen minute walk from our home or a little under a mile and a walk I make often. When I got to the first intersection, this man walked up to me and asked if he could help give me and my daughter a ride any where we’d needed to go. ON the surface, this was a very nice gesture, and I’m sure the man had good intentions—he wanted to help this blind woman with her young child to safely get to our destination, and before the impending rain came. But this little alarm went off in my head. Maybe it’s because I’m a product of the 80’s when we were bombarded repeatedly on the importance of “Stranger Danger” from school assemblies, Safety Kids publications, and Saturday morning cartoon PSA’s, but my instincts kicked in and reminded me that “we don’t take rides from strangers.” I’ve been offered rides countless times by strangers as I’ve been walking down the street. I sincerely appreciate people’s kindness and will admit, there have been a couple of occasions where I and my husband have taken people up on their offer because of the circumstances of the time. But generally, we don’t make a practice of taking rides with random strangers. I politely thanked the man and said that we were fine and actually only going across the street to the bank on the other side of the block (why did I feel like I had to justify my actions by telling him we weren’t going far? My saying “No thanks” should have been sufficient.) . He then offered to help me cross the street, even though I said I was fine and could cross the street myself. I figured after I crossed the street, he’d go back to wherever he’d come from and we’d be on our way, But instead, he continued to walk with me down to the bank. At this point, my guard went up even more as I really didn’t need or want this complete stranger following me. Again, I understand he was just trying to be helpful, but I wish sometimes I could blow a whistle and call a timeout on the social playground. Here is what I’d point out to him if I could talk frankly to him about the circumstances. First, we have a lone male, a complete stranger no less, offering a ride to a woman and her young child. As a woman, of course I’d be guarded about putting myself in a vulnerable situation, especially with my child present. I’m not going to put myself in a risky situation even if his intentions truly are harmless. Secondly, he could be putting himself at risk. Offering to give me a ride “anywhere I needed to go” (he really did say “Anywhere at all”) could set him up for an awkward situation. What if I’d taken advantage of him and asked him to drive me all the way downtown to where I was actually heading after the bank? It’s a 40 min. drive and would burn up a lot of his gas and time. WAS he really thinking through what he was offering? Then there is the second piece of this story—the fact that he followed me. In most situations, if someone was following you, one would be justified in feeling uncomfortable, threatened, or even calling the police. But, because he was just trying to help me because I’m blind, his following me was now supposedly acceptable.
Luckily this individual was not waiting for me when I left the bank. Had he been, I would have again politely, but assertively explained that his help was not necessary and probably have then told him that his actions were making me feel extremely uncomfortable.
So what is the take away from this story? Here is my advice to the sighted public:
- It is ALWAYS okay to offer help to blind individuals. Sometimes we really do need help. Keep in mind though to ask if we need help rather than just assume we do. If we say “NO”, accept this and go on your way.
- Remember that just because you as a sighted person may not know how to do something if you were blind, or think something cannot be done without sight doesn’t mean we don’t know either. Have a little faith in the abilities of blind and low vision people and take the situation as a learning experience for yourself.
- Do not be offended if and when a blind person rejects your offer of help.
Advice for Blind and Low vision individuals
- Always be polite when declining help and recognize that generally people mean well
- Remember that you may be the only blind person this individual may ever encounter; and like it or not, your actions may impact this person’s perspective about blind people. You don’t want to be rude and leave him/her with a bad taste in his/her mouth about helping blind people. You also can use this opportunity to educate this person on the abilities of a blind person.
- Because we as blind people are often dependent on others, we sometimes can become too dependent, or fall into a submissive role around sighted people. Please understand that we as blind or low vision individuals can be in control of our own actions and abilities. If you don’t need help, it’s okay to say so. It is also possible to take assistance but still be in control of our choices and circumstances. For example, if you are crossing a street, it’s okay to get help from a sighted person, but just because a person may come up and grab your arm to help you cross the street, doesn’t mean you have to let them. You can say no thank you”, or “please let go of me” if this is not comfortable for you. This especially applies to blind females. WE often are the ones who become more vulnerable and not as assertive when someone makes us feel uncomfortable. WE tend to be more wired to be nice or polite and not aggressive or confrontational. It is possible to be assertive and still be polite.
- Trust your gut. AS I mentioned, there have been times when I’ve taken strangers up on their offers for rides. But this is usually because of certain circumstances at the time, (which I’d be happy to explain) and I never do it if my gut or instincts tell me otherwise.
Well, that’s all for this whistle break. Please let me know what your thoughts are on the situation. I’d love to hear both sighted and blind perspectives on the matter. Maybe some of you reading have encountered similar situations. I’d love to hear how you handled them.