Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006

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Ask Miss Whozit

Miss Whozit place setting.
A place card reads “Miss Whozit” and includes the Whozit logo.

From the Editor: In recent months Miss Whozit has answered reader questions about etiquette and good manners, particularly as they involve blindness. If you would like to pose a question to Miss Whozit, you can send it to the attention of Barbara Pierce, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <bpierce@nfb.org>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. Here are the most recent letters Miss Whozit has received:

Dear Miss Whozit:

Can you give me advice about what to do when, even though one is trying to behave graciously, one is not treated graciously? Let us say that a blind person is dining at a social event and is confronted by someone who insists on cutting one’s meat or offering advice about table etiquette—and I don’t mean inquiring whether help or advice is needed. Even when one courteously refuses the assistance or politely ignores the advice, one’s comments are often not acknowledged or believed. What strategy would Miss Whozit employ in such a situation?

Also what would Miss Whozit advise when a blind person asks for clarification about directions. One needs common sense and not “it is over there,” or “it is through the blue door.” Many sighted people refuse to acknowledge that words are needed to convey the information requested. Instead they play the pointing game. Even though the world is increasingly visual, people agree, in theory at least, that we have a right to access information. We would all manage a lot better if they remembered that the world is run by those who are temporarily able-bodied. It is only a matter of time until they too find themselves with some dysfunctional body part. What say you?

Thank you for your courteous attention,
Tired of Being Picked On

Dear Tired:

Grandmother Whozit often said when talking with the little Whozits about proper etiquette, “Gracious is as gracious does.” Curiosity about blindness is both natural and appropriate in everyone, blind and sighted. The biggest problem is that not everyone was reared under the tutelage of Grandmother Whozit or the National Federation of the Blind, so silly questions and inappropriate offers of help often tax our patience and good manners.

As members of the National Federation of the Blind we are not responsible for the actions of others, but we are responsible for our own actions and reactions to events. We should take every opportunity to educate the would-be assistants who intrude themselves upon us. Granted, in the heat of uncomfortable moments, the impulse to educate can be overwhelmed by embarrassment, annoyance, and frustration. One’s immediate response is to refuse assistance and overwhelm the false assumptions by demonstrating what blind people are capable of doing. Unfortunately, a curt and rigid refusal of all assistance is usually interpreted as rudeness, and the parties inevitably separate with a sour aftertaste in the mouths of both. The eager well-doer walks away from the situation, thinking that not only can blind people not cut their meat or demonstrate proper table etiquette, but they also have really bad attitudes and are rude and hateful to boot.

This is not the message about the skills and abilities of blind people that we want to impart. Dr. Jernigan gives a great example in the Kernel Book story, “Please, Don’t Throw the Nickel,” which can be found at <http://www. nfb.org/books/kernel1/kern1302.htm>. In this article Dr. Jernigan tells two stories of the ways he responded as a teenager and as a young man in his twenties to similar instances in which he was offered unwanted and unneeded help.

Maintaining decorum while courteously explaining that specific help is unnecessary is always an appropriate first reaction, but it is well to keep in mind a disquieting possibility. If we find that different people frequently offer the same kinds of unsolicited help, we should ask ourselves why. Like other blind people Miss Whozit has found herself in situations in which a well-meaning but clueless stranger feels a moral responsibility to do something to help a blind person. However, occasionally Miss Whozit has been forced to conclude that an unsuspected problem or awkwardness on her part is eliciting these repeated offers of help. When this happens, she asks the advice of a trusted friend or an acquaintance whose opinion she respects. Privately asking the opinion of such people helps Miss Whozit determine whether some social skills require a little fine tuning.

As for the ongoing challenge of gathering information, Miss Whozit vividly remembers the day she learned how to gather good information when traveling. She was having a cane-travel lesson at a National Federation of the Blind training center, trying to locate an address. Uncertain of the correct direction, Miss Whozit happened upon a pedestrian and asked for directions. It was apparent within a few moments that the other person was uncertain how to provide the needed information. After listening to a bit of verbal stumbling around, Miss Whozit simply requested aural instructions. As the traveler began providing instructions, Miss Whozit would point in the direction for clarification and repeat the directions as she understood them. This technique is not only a means to clarify directions, but also provides indirect education. The pedestrian walked away with new skills and knowledge about giving directions to a blind person but, more important, with a positive attitude about blind people.

It takes tact, patience, and honesty to coax members of the public to offer willingly the information and assistance that blind people need to travel and interact socially while refraining from imposing assistance that is neither wanted nor needed. None of us has the wit and discipline to get the combination of clarity and civility right every time, but attempting to do so especially in the face of absurdity or rudeness is the mark of maturity and grace.

Dear Miss Whozit:

I consider myself to be fairly outgoing and to have normal to good social skills. But I have always had problems dealing with large groups of sighted people. When I was a child, I managed well when playing with one or two other children, but put them in a group, and suddenly they had no time to answer my questions or give me the information I needed to know what was going on.

Now, as a young adult, I find it nearly impossible to make myself move into a large social gathering and try to figure out what is going on, where the food or seats are, and who might be present that I already know. If a band is playing, forget it. Everybody has to yell to be heard, and I suspect that they are mostly lip-reading in order to understand what others are saying. A blind friend told me that she had once ventured into such a gathering only to be grabbed by a probably well-intentioned man, who led her to a chair in a corner, got her a drink and some food, put them into her hands, and then walked off, leaving her alone, not knowing exactly where the door was or anything useful about the room or who was present.

Miss Whozit, I won’t ask you what possesses sighted people to treat blind people like that, but what can you suggest to me as a strategy to prevent my becoming such a victim and maybe even help me to negotiate such situations graciously and gracefully? I don’t suppose that I will ever enjoy such parties, but I would certainly be grateful to get to the point where I no longer dread them.

Alone in a Crowd

Dear Alone:

The blind person may have been born who has not suffered social pangs of the sort you describe, but Miss Whozit has not yet met him or her. I suspect that most blind people feel more comfortable in social settings in which they can clearly hear what is being said and where they have some notion of who is present, where the furniture is, and how it is arranged.

Nevertheless we all occasionally find ourselves in unfamiliar settings in which we must mingle or resign ourselves to shrinking into a corner before eventually creeping home, alone and miserable. One can, however, make both long- and short-term preparations for such difficult social occasions.

The more people in your social circle you know by name and voice before a mixer, reception, or party, the easier it is to identify people you know in the crowd. Become active in campus organizations, social groups at work, or residents associations. You can often get some information about the layout of the space, the location of the bar and buffet table, and the placement of other points of interest by identifying an acquaintance and asking him or her a few questions as soon as you come into the room. The more people whose voices you recognize, the more likely you are to identify someone to help get you started on your way around the room.

Stay on your feet and keep moving about as conversations flag and you recognize voices or are introduced to new people. No one has yet succeeded in depositing Miss Whozit in an out-of-the-way chair when she did not wish to be seated. And I strongly suggest that you resist such handling on principle. Members of the public may be uncomfortable when they observe a blind person standing and listening for familiar voices or even chatting with strangers. This seems to be one manifestation of the reflex that afflicts some people to do something—anything —when a blind person does not appear to be safely in the care of a responsible adult. It is, however, an impulse worth resisting tactfully whenever possible. After all, the object of such social gatherings is to meet people and chat. This can certainly be accomplished more efficiently if one is up and moving.

Successfully navigating around a large gathering requires the appearance, at least, of confidence and poise. The congenitally timid should probably avoid such social events as often as possible and structure their social lives around small gatherings and intimate dinner parties. Those who are unwilling or unable to avoid large gatherings should polish their cane skills. A cane or dog brands the user as blind, but either tool explains why you aren’t engaging in the visual games that often take place across a crowded room. The blind person who moves with grace and seeming confidence radiates the message that nothing needs to be done to save the situation or the poor blind person. In fact, curious or bold strangers may even introduce themselves and inquire if you are looking for someone in particular.

Working a crowd at such gatherings is almost always easier than you think it is going to be when you are worrying about it ahead of time. Developing good cane skills and conversational gambits, together with the confidence that having them at your command
engenders, will go a long way to making cocktail parties and receptions pleasant rather than painful.

In closing I will say a word in favor of sharpening one’s sense of humor. Even among young children, the blind child’s ability to keep up with the crowd by using a cane and find tactfully humorous ways of reminding the group that information is needed can go a long way to smooth the path of fitting in. I am not suggesting making fun of oneself in the name of being one of the gang. But cheerfully saying, “I’m not going anywhere till I know whether Kelly has a squirt gun,” reminds everyone that a little extra verbal information is in order. Finding one’s way through such situations in childhood helps an adult take command in times of social uncertainty. The most important thing is to practice. That’s the only way to gain confidence.

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