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The Braille Monitor – October 2000 Edition


Standing, a Different Perspective

by Stephen O. Benson

Stephen Benson
Stephen Benson


From the Editor: Steve Benson, a National Federation of the Blind Board Member and President of the NFB of Illinois, has been recording some of the adventures he has had over the years as a resident of one of the largest cities in the country. Here is another one:

In 1976 the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) implemented regulations that required public transit systems to put in place priority seating and appropriate signage for the elderly and disabled. Immediately upon installation of the required signage by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), blind people in this city began to encounter bus drivers, train station agents, and passengers who insisted that blind people sit in the priority seats. No provision in either law or regulation required blind people to occupy priority seats, but we were often berated, verbally abused, and humiliated because we chose to sit where we pleased. The problem here was, and still is, that too many members of our society, sighted and blind alike, believe that blind people don't possess the same physical capacity as sighted people and that it is necessarily more dangerous for a blind person to stand on a bus or train than for a sighted person to do so.

Shortly after my mother's eightieth birthday in the summer of 1983, she and I boarded a CTA bus on our way to a business appointment. My mother boarded in front of me, paid her fare, and sat just behind the driver. I boarded, white cane in hand, paid my fare, and stood in front of her, holding the overhead grab rail. Since we were traveling during a peak period, the bus carried a standing load. Once I set my feet, I was ready for the customary sways, dips, jolts, bounces, jostles, pushes, and bumps typical of urban bus travel.

All at once I became aware that an elderly woman sitting next to my mother was saying in most unfriendly tones: "You have to get up and give him that seat; he's blind."

My mother shot back: "I know he's blind; he's my son. I'm eighty years old; he's not going to make me stand."

The other woman was persistent: "The sign says you have to stand for the handicapped."

At that point I brought the gathering storm to an abrupt halt. I said: "Madam, my mother will stay where she is, and I will stay where I am. Thank you for your concern."

Less than a year later my wife and I traveled home together from work on a very crowded subway train. We stood side by side at the end of the car. A woman tapped my wife's arm and said: "Does he want to sit down?"

My wife replied: "He can't see, but his legs work fine." We both thought it was amusing. The woman who offered her seat was not at all amused, and I think she was annoyed that her gesture was refused.

If I couldn't stand because of some physical disability, infirmity, or advanced years, I might have appreciated the kindness, but the offer was made solely because I was blind. It's the age-old stereotype: if you're blind, you can't . . . . The truth is that I am like millions of other men of my age and physical condition. I have often given up my seat on a bus or train for people who are very old, ill, using crutches or a support cane, pregnant, or more tired than I. I don't recall ever giving up my seat solely because a person was blind.

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