There are many aspects of blindness that I wish were more universally understood: What we typically do and do not need help with, the fact that we’d much rather have people ask questions than say nothing at all and the reality that just because we do everyday things a bit differently, we aren’t performing magical, wondrous feats by any means.
But these problems can be solved fairly quickly once you become friends with a blind person, sit down to think seriously about them or do a Google search. So instead of sounding like every “How to Interact With a Blind Person” article ever, I’ve put together a list of the top 10 mistakes that even my friends and family sometimes make. Even though they don’t happen often, they are the kind of gaffes that tend to hurt or bother me the most when they do occur.
1. Don’t play games. Playing childhood games like “How many fingers am I holding up?” and “I’m going to pretend I’m not in the room with you” are not cute or funny.
2. No surprises. You may think it’s funny to run up behind your blind friend, playfully grab them and yell, “Boo!” But it will never, ever be funny to us. If you do this, you will probably either get punched or feel the pain of our cane introducing itself to your kneecaps.
3. Mess with my cane, and you shall regret it. Never take or move anyone’s mobility aid without asking. If you’d like to look at it, or even take it for a spin, by all means ask. I’ll most likely let you. But you’d better not run off with it or leave me stranded somewhere without it.
Also, if I don’t have my cane for whatever reason, it would be extra nice if you’d let me know you’re aware of this and are keeping an eye out.
4. I do not need an interior decorator. I know sometimes it’s an accident, but please don’t move my things without telling me. Especially if we’re at my house, and you move something then leave. Rearranging my stuff to fit feng shui principles could cost me a few hours.
5. Sighted does not equal superior. Sometimes sighted people like tell me how to dress and present myself in a condescending tone. I can’t see what I look like, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own sense of self, identity and image. If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it. But generally, I prefer compassion, not a list of “you coulds” and “you shoulds.”
6. Quit comparing. Blindness is just one trait. It doesn’t have any bearing on anything else about blind people as individuals. We come in all different flavors — like ice cream. We don’t like being compared to other blind people. “He could do this independently, why can’t you?” “He liked audiobooks, why don’t you?” “He wasn’t awkward, why are you?”
Perhaps worse is being held up alongside famous blind people like Helen Keller and Stevie Wonder. We can’t all be blind freaking superheroes and, more to the point, most of us don’t want to be blind freaking superheroes. Most of us are just normal people who happen to be blind.
7. Be a sensitive sighted guide. Unlike many blind people, I’m not particularly fussy about how I walk with sighted guides. If we’re close, warm-and-fuzzy pals, I’ll most likely link arms or hold hands with you. If we’re more formal acquaintances, I’ll do the traditional hand-on-elbow sighted guide. But here’s the bottom line: Don’t ever clench my wrist or hand in a vise-like grip and yank me around like I’m a 2-year-old. Don’t push and pull me by the shoulders, shove me from point-to-point with your hand on my back or fling your hands all over me in an attempt to show me where to go. Not acceptable.
8. Either ignore the blind flails or help. If you happen to notice me fumbling around looking for my drink or my napkin, see my cane get stuck in a crack in the sidewalk and slam me in the chest or watch as I get spectacularly lost and wander around in circles trying to get my bearings, please don’t make a big scene about it.
My blindness-related shortcomings aren’t fair game for dinnertime story hour, unless I make it plain that a healthy dose of teasing commentary is OK and won’t upset me. I’ll love you forever if you ignore these blind flails, or if you laugh them off with me and keep them between us. I’ll love you even more if you can see a blind flail coming and can help me avoid it in a discreet manner (this, of course, takes some practice.)
9. Don’t be dismissive. If I confide in you that something’s tough or scary for me because blindness adds an extra layer, please don’t discount my feelings by saying, “Everyone feels like that sometimes.” I appreciate that you’re trying to make me feel better and less alone, but this type of response can come across as flippant. It’s as if you’re thinking, “Don’t think you’re such a tragic, special, uniquely broken little snowflake just because you’re blind.” Do we all struggle? Of course. But blindness can indisputably make our struggles different. If I’m revealing blindness vulnerability, which I rarely will unless I trust you quite a lot, it will mean the world to feel listened to, understood and validated.
10. I do not exist to make you look awesome. Don’t make a big, braggy show of helping me, so you’ll look like a hero in front of the guy you have a crush on. Don’t talk about me patronizingly as if I’m Baby Einstein: “Look what Caitlin can do all by herself! Isn’t she so smart?” And don’t treat me like a trained seal: “Caitlin, show everyone how you Braille, use the computer and walk a straight line!” If you just ask me nicely, “Caitlin, would you mind showing us how you text?” I’ll be happy to do a demo nine times out of 10.
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