Blowing the Whistle: “Want a Ride?”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Do not be offended if and when a blind person rejects your offer of help.

Advice for Blind and Low vision individuals

  1. Always be polite when declining help and recognize that generally people mean well
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

        …

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.