Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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Ask Miss Whozit

 A formal place setting, complete with placecard bearing the Whozit logo and the words "Miss Whozit."From the Editor: From time to time Miss Whozit answers reader questions about proper decorum, 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. This column seems to be a popular feature, but we have not received many or varied questions. Miss Whozit assures us that, if she does not receive letters, she will withdraw to ladylike solitude to practice proper etiquette and civility in private life. Here is the most recent letter Miss Whozit has received:

Dear Miss Whozit:

Thank you for your column in the December issue about appropriate dress. I really think this subject is critically important. I was shocked and distressed when I first realized that some men who attend our Washington Seminar do not wear coats and ties.

I hope I am not the only one who thinks that this subject is important and that blind people need to know what is expected by the sighted community. Please take the time to talk further about this topic.

I am also concerned about the question of appropriate posture, body language, gestures, and expressions. We need reminders and hints about all of these things.

Eager to make a good impression

Dear Eager:

Grandmother Whozit had a saying that still holds true today, ďDress the way you want to be perceived.Ē A second rule to remember is to dress for the event. If you are going swimming, wear a swimsuit; if you are going camping, wear camping gear; and if you are attending a formal or business event, wear formal or business attire. Sometimes it is appropriate for one to express oneís individuality, but not when presenting oneself in public.

Blind people, all of us, are typically judged by one, the one who creates a bad impression, the one who fits the beholderís stereotype (usually negative) of the way blind people dress and behave. Generally the public considers blind people helpless, incompetent, unwilling to dress properly, and unable to care for themselves adequately. We of the Federation know that this is not the truth--or it should not be--but we must recognize that the public continues to hold many erroneous ideas about our abilities.

Hand-in-hand with this problem, readers need to be aware of another point. When a blind person is seen on the street, in a mall, at school, or at play, members of the sighted public are going to stare--their eyes are inevitably drawn to the novelty of watching a blind person. Some blind people who are aware of this fact look upon it as an unfair burden. Miss Whozit would prefer that we not find this a problem but recognize it as an opportunity to mend the publicís misconceptions by providing positive public education. Dressing and acting appropriately for the occasion, any occasion, is essential if we are to change the publicís misconceptions.

Miss Whozit also wishes to observe that leaders in our organization, communities, state governments, federal government, and indeed our world--sighted or blind--know how to dress appropriately and recognize when it is important to do so. They recognize that, when they are representing their constituencies, companies, or governments, it is important to project a positive image and leave a lasting impression that honors those they represent. In Miss Whozitís opinion every blind person has the responsibility always to look his or her best. Since we as blind people are fully aware that we must overcome erroneous attitudes about blindness if we are to enjoy first-class citizenship, we must do what we can to change the publicís perceptions of us.

Ask yourself two important questions: ďAm I contributing to the problem or the solution? Do I fit the publicís stereotype of what blind people should be like, or do I portray a picture of what properly trained blind people can really be?Ē

Whether or not as a blind person you wish to represent the blindness community by the way you present yourself, the fact is that you do. Whether we are talking about dress, grooming, and hair; courtesy, reliability, and punctuality; or posture, appropriate social behavior, and blindisms, you are always making a statement.

Regarding blindisms and body language, Miss Whozit said a good deal on the subject of blindisms and other unfortunate personal habits in the November 2005 Braille Monitor. With respect to gestures, expressions, and body language, human beings vary in the amount of animation they convey through movement and expression. Unless you plan to become an actor, using an animated voice and remembering to smile before greeting others in person or on the telephone are usually sufficient reminders to protect a blind person from appearing to face the world with a wooden expression. An alert sighted friend can confirm that all is well or tactfully suggest how and when to express more animation. Such a friend can also help you develop some gestures that can be used during conversation.

Developing good posture, effective body language, and appropriate personal boundaries, however, is a matter of steady attention to detail. You may have to recruit a coach from among sighted friends or family members. It takes practice to remember to sit or stand straight and not to sprawl in a chair or sit with legs spread wide. It may also take time and coaching to master looking attentive when you are listening to someone or remembering to face the speaker in conversation or when asking a question. Yet doing these things will be time well spent and will set anyone firmly on the path to acceptable public behavior.

Respecting personal space is merely a matter of getting used to the personal distance that Americans like to preserve around them and then remembering not to invade it. This distance varies by culture. Americans prefer about two feet and generally expect that others will ask permission before touching them. Blind people are painfully aware of how invasive uninvited grabbing and patting feels, so we should be the first to reserve tactile exploration for inanimate objects.

Here are a few additional pointers that may be useful if you wish to help dislodge old stereotypes. Seek counsel from a trusted friend who can provide specific, accurate feedback about fashion, grooming, and personal characteristics. But in the meantime consider these general tips:

Many young, sighted people today dress in a way which would not have been appropriate a generation ago--apparently they do not care what impression they make. However, sighted young people are not judged by one another; they represent only themselves. Also, when they want a good job, a prized internship, or admission to some special opportunity, they can pull up their trousers, throw away their stocking caps, cover their bare skin, and dress appropriately for the occasion. Young blind people do not have this luxury. They canít discard their blindness. Remember that all blind people are judged by the one who perpetuates the negative stereotype.
You have only one chance to make a good first impression. For your own good and that of our movement, do your best to look great and conduct yourself appropriately. It will give you confidence and help you to feel secure. Miss Whozit is absolutely convinced that together we can change what it means to be blind.

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