Braille Monitor                                                     October 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 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,

In the May issue you quoted a dog guide user who pointed out that lots of cane users let their canes get so scuffed and scratched that they are unsightly. I am totally blind, and I must admit that I have never given this problem a thought. I want to know what you think of this criticism. I can’t afford to replace my cane every time I nick the finish; who can?

Battered and Bothered

Dear Battered and Bothered,

This is one of those questions that is easier to answer in general than it is in a specific case. I don’t believe my correspondent would expect people to replace their canes at the first sign of wear and tear. After all, the white cane is supposed to come into contact with objects so that the user can avoid them. Nicks and scratches occur to all working instruments, so a useful white cane will inevitably collect the evidence of its working life. The Independence Market still has some solid Fiberglass canes for sale, which do not seem to acquire the unsightly black marks as easily as hollow Fiberglass and carbon fiber canes do. Using one of these canes may slow down the inevitable aging process, but canes that crack or otherwise break after a year or two of frequent use may well be candidates for retirement.

Yet I have known blind people who take fierce pride in the length of time they can keep using the same cane. Sometimes they even wrap duct tape around a shattered section, to keep it going as long as possible. I have heard people brag about how scruffy their canes look. I gather that you do not fall into this crowd. They probably brag as well about their twenty-five-year-old hiking boots, their dining room tables made from broken doors, and the stacks of books holding up their bookcases.

Any cane user who actually uses the cane to travel scratches and nicks it. You should wipe it down periodically with household cleaner to keep it as clean as possible, but when the finish obviously begins to peel and feel rough, it is time to ask a trusted friend if the cane should be retired, at least for dress occasions. Until then, take satisfaction in the knowledge that every scuff and scratch represents an abrasion that you did not receive.


Dear Miss Whozit,

I facilitate several support groups. We frequently read your column because it provides good information and stimulates discussion. We have two questions that we would like you to address:

1. In a group setting, how do you handle the situation when you respond to a compliment then realize it was not directed at you?
2. What is the best way to compliment a person's appearance if you cannot see him or her?

Compliment-Impaired

Dear Compliment-Impaired,

You have raised two questions with no easy answers. Mistakes do happen in social situations, particularly when a number of people are in the room; everyone, sighted or blind, occasionally acknowledges a compliment intended for someone else. That’s why it behooves blind people to be slow to presume that we are being addressed. It’s a good idea to encourage friends and acquaintances to get used to beginning a comment by saying our names when they are speaking to us in a group of people. When in doubt, you can always say, “Were you speaking to me?” After you have done that a few or a few dozen times, people will begin to realize that it is courteous to give you a sporting chance of knowing who is being addressed.

This said, you will still occasionally endure the slight embarrassment of assuming that you were being addressed when you were not. You may feel a bit foolish, but someone once said that the only person who can make a fool of you is you yourself. If you carry off one of these awkward little moments with a deprecating laugh, a brief apology, and a change of subject, no one will think twice about it.

The answer to your second question is clearer: don’t try. A color blind man may get away with complimenting a woman on the color of her dress as long as no one in the group knows that he is color blind. A visual compliment given by a blind person who cannot see what is being discussed is nothing short of hypocrisy, and the proffered compliment may well be inaccurate or obviously untrue. A lady or gentleman only pays compliments that he or she believes to be true. Otherwise such people maintain a discreet silence on the subject. As a blind person, you can pass along compliments from others: “My daughter commented on how lovely your earrings are.” If you have a bit of sight, you might risk a visual compliment if you are sure it won’t backfire. “I like that purse” may seem safe unless you happen to be looking at the woman’s hat lying in her lap. Miss Whozit prefers finding unusual compliments to pay—calling attention to things that most people wouldn’t consciously recognize: Did you know that your smile lights up your voice and makes me smile with you? You have the most infectious laugh. People will prize such compliments because they are unusual, and since they probably assume that you are naturally insightful because everyone is convinced that blind people are unusually sensitive and perceptive, they will be particularly flattered. It is far more sensible to take a bit of undeserved credit for your perspicacity than to be written off as insincere for making statements that you can’t possibly know to be true.


Dear Miss Whozit,

My mother is always telling me to stand up straight, keep my head up, and not slouch. I don’t see why it matters. I stand the way I stand, and I sit so that I am comfortable. If I put my head up, I am afraid that I am going to walk into something. Besides, it’s hard to remember to think about what my body is doing. Is this stuff really important? I think people should accept me for myself and not judge me because of the way I stand. That is just stupid. I told Mom that I would ask you what you think, but I have to say that I’m not promising that I will do what you say if I don’t like it.

Happy the Way I Am

Dear Happy,

I am pleased to hear that you are satisfied with your way of slouching and slinking through the world. Pretty soon no one else will care what you do. Maybe you can then spend the rest of your life as a recluse, talking with other people on the phone or on the Internet. There, does honesty of that make you feel better?

On the other hand, if you want to find and keep a good job, make friends, and command respect from the people with whom you come into contact, I recommend that you begin taking your mother’s advice seriously. Of course it feels strange to you to stand and sit straight; anything we are not used to doing feels odd at first. If you form the habit of standing with your head up and your shoulders back and if you keep your spine straight when you are seated, doing that will soon feel natural.

Why should you bother? Because you will look and act more commanding and in control of the situation if you are sitting or standing as tall as possible. Your clothes will look and hang much better. When your internal organs are not being squashed and your various muscles are being required to do the job they are supposed to, you will actually be healthier and stronger, and you will look more poised and graceful when you move.

Since you are still arguing with your mother about this subject, I presume that you are a young person. If you were older, she would probably have given up by now, figuring that she had failed you by not persuading you to adopt good posture when you were young. So I am confident that you still have time to change your ways. Perhaps you have heard it said of some people that they have “presence.” This is a nebulous term that is difficult for blind people to appreciate fully. A large component of it is good posture and personal focus that emanate from people who control and command their personal space. For a blind person to do so, it is important for his or her cane or guide dog harness to be long enough so that using it does not require the person to hunch forward or list to the left. If you intend to live and succeed in the world, I urge you to stand tall and get used to it. Ask the advice of an athlete or dancer of your acquaintance to try to show you how to move your entire body so that it works together the way it was created to. And ask your mother and other family members and friends to remind you quietly when you forget and fall back into your old slouching ways.

Perhaps the most important single part of all this is keeping your head up but not thrown back. A blind person cannot hope to command attention while looking down, refusing to face the person being addressed. If you have your cane out working in front of you, you will not walk into walls or doors. But it is important not to throw your head back so far that it looks to others as if you are looking down your nose at them. Getting the angle right is a matter of having accurate feedback from people who care enough to provide it when asked to do so.

I do hope that you will decide to devote the necessary time and attention to improve your posture. For the rest of your life you will be glad you did.

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