Braille Monitor                                                    April 2008

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Ask 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,
I have had a problem lately handling sighted people who make clearly mean comments about my blindness. Such a thing happened to me in a book store recently. I asked a clerk to find a book title for me in the computer. He found it and told me the location, but I was rather unsure of the directions, and I guess it showed on my face. (I have a little sight for reading print.)

I answered, "I didn't see it there."

The clerk then asked in an unsure and annoyed tone: "Do you want help finding the title, sir?"

I replied, "Yes, that would be helpful."

As we began walking to the location, he turned and asked: "Are you partly blind or blind, sir? When you said you `didn't see the title' were you trying to be funny?"

I replied, "Partly blind, and, no, it would annoy me and my fellow blind people to make funny comments about blindness."

So I repeat: How should one handle a clearly mean comment about one's blindness like this one?

Confused about Comments

Dear Confused,
Itís clear from your description of this exchange that you were not the only one who was confused. You did not mention whether or not you were using a white cane or a guide dog, but I infer that you were. Without some such signal your clerkís perplexity and tactlessness would quite likely have been far more overt and annoying. Such a reaction is obviously nothing new to you. People with little or no experience dealing with blind people are nonplussed to find blindness and competence and normality coexisting in the same person.
The clerkís half-formed logic probably went something like this: Blind people need help finding their way anywhere, but then what is a blind man doing looking for a print book, which he canít read. Moreover, a blind man wouldnít talk about ďseeing things.Ē On the other hand, sighted customers need help locating individual books, but they can follow my gesture-filled instructions. So which is this guy, blind or sighted?

Whether the tactless people you come across intend to be rude or manage to do it unconsciously, your question is the same: how should you deal with their resulting comments? In the spirit of civility and etiquette, Miss Whozit urges everyone to take the high road. The more considerate you are, the more likely it is that the other person will actually hear and understand your explanation about seeing a bit but not enough to follow mostly visual instructions. This advice should not be understood as advocating that blind people meekly allow ourselves to be dragged around or consigned to waiting areas or wheelchairs where the sighted can take care of the inconvenience of our appearance in their world. One can simultaneously be both civil and calmly insistent on our right to useful information or appropriate assistance. Getting the mix right is a matter of personal taste and wide experience. Keep working on your responses and concentrate on aiming to be clear but courteous.

Dear Miss Whozit,
I recently returned home from the Washington Seminar. I love this event, and I get a real charge out of being with a large group of blind people from across the country. But, Miss Whozit, please join me in pleading with our members to move to the side of the hallways to conduct conversations. I donít know why people canít pay attention to where they are standing and whether or not they are preventing people from getting through their group or around them. I get frustrated at convention when people donít seem to care whether or not they are causing a bottleneck or being disruptive. Surely we have as much responsibility as other people to be considerate of others, no matter how many times others have failed to treat us with consideration.

The Young Curmudgeon

Gentle Reader,
Miss Whozit rejects the notion that wishing to inhabit a world in which everyone is considerate of others makes one a curmudgeon at any age. Miss Whozit emphatically agrees that all blind people would do well to consider where they are and whether their behavior is likely to inconvenience others. And while we are at it, sighted people who give directions or carry on conversations with blind people in a normal voice while a room full of people are trying to listen to a speaker or conduct a meeting are themselves rude and encourage the unobservant blind people they are helping to make themselves conspicuous.

Once and for all let us agree that the tops and bottoms of escalators, the area outside exit doors, the space immediately in front of elevators, and the center of busy hallways are not appropriate places to chat with friends. Stopping to visit or check for missing belongings or answer a cell phone in any of these locations is likely to earn the annoyance of those being blocked. In the case of escalators, stopping as soon as one steps off the moving stairs is just plain dangerous and tends to create panic in the people piling up behind.

Letís all pledge to be more considerate of others when we get together. We can all move to the side to chat, and we can also be courteous when we are reminding others to step out of the way or speak more quietly. Civility makes life more pleasant for everyone.

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