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 <firstname.lastname@example.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 am blind, but my question is not personal. I was with a group of blind people at a public event where some of us were going to speak. A sighted professional with an agency in our state that works with blind people came over to a blind man sitting near me and told him in tones loud enough for me to hear that his coat and slacks did not go together and that his shoes were different colors.
My immediate reaction was annoyance with her because I recalled Miss Manners giving the advice to provide such information to a person only when he or she has the ability to correct the situation—a spot that could be removed or made less obvious, a slip showing, a button undone, etc. She went on to say that, when the person could do nothing about the problem (as in this case when the man was two hours from home), the most considerate thing one can do is to pretend that the problem is invisible. So I was all ready to take the woman to task, in my own mind at least, for having embarrassed a man to no purpose.
Then the man’s sighted wife spoke up and changed my reaction entirely. She said, “What difference does it make? He’s blind. No one expects him to look good.” I was immediately furious with the wife for saying such a thing and the husband for agreeing, I assume--at least he did not object to her statement.
Miss Whozit, I want your opinion on this matter. I said nothing at the time, but on the way home, when we were able to conduct a private conversation, I tried to explain my view that blind people have a responsibility to do the best we can to look professional and well turned out when we are in public and especially when we are going to address people who know nothing about blindness. The couple got indignant with me. The chapter president, who is a professional and dresses well, blew the whole incident off, saying that he would have the same problem if his wife didn’t tell him what to wear and when to send it to the cleaner or put it into the wash. What do you think?
Disconcerted but Still Angry
You need not continue to be disconcerted, or at least Miss Whozit is shuddering along with you and patting her brow with her lace-edged handkerchief. The very fact that “No one expects him to look good” is the very reason that he should dress so as to confound the stereotype of the blind beggar dressed in rags. I suspect that the wife’s attitude that mismatched clothes and shoes don’t matter because her husband is blind was somewhat defensive since one would have expected her to advise him on such matters in order to avoid his embarrassment in important professional and social situations.
I have heard sighted members of the families of blind people argue that they themselves do not care whether they are wearing unmatching or stained clothing as long as it is clean. That is their right, of course, but they are judged as individuals when they dress carelessly. The blind person who makes that decision reinforces a stereotype that damages all of us. Whatever their own attitudes about dress and good grooming, parents and spouses should in Miss Manners’s opinion do all they can to teach blind children and newly blind adults to identify clothing and remember what garments go together. Color identifiers and systems of organization are often important tools in such efforts. Those who have no idea how to begin helping a blind family member take control of his or her wardrobe should look around them and ask a blind person who consistently dresses appropriately how to begin.
Miss Whozit would like to think that all blind people care about furthering our efforts to persuade the public that we can compete on terms of equality with our sighted neighbors. Blind people who do not care whether their clothes fit well and are clean and matched are working against our contention that we are like everybody else except that we don’t see.
In an ideal world the sighted professional would have waited till the meeting had ended before calling attention to the unfortunate choices the blind man had made. You are correct that there is no point in causing embarrassment when nothing can be done about the problem. In this case, however, the comments probably did not damage his confidence or self-image, but that is no reason to make statements that would cause embarrassment to a person with normal sensibilities who is powerless to change the situation. In the instance you describe, there was plenty of blame to go around, but you can comfort yourself that you did what you could to educate people who should have known better.
Dear Miss Whozit,
I must be a rather old-fashioned sighted woman. I got on an elevator the other day with a blind man, a work colleague. The elevator was in our building, so I know he was familiar with the control panel. When the car door opened, he stepped on before me and then stood at the rear waiting for me to push the button for his floor as well as my own. I do not object to pushing elevator buttons, and I am used to waiting for others to board the car before me.
It seems to me, however, that most sighted men of my acquaintance would have stepped back for me to precede them and then offered to push the button for me. At the very least they would have taken the responsibility for pushing their own button rather than assuming that I would do it for them.
Am I missing something here? If blind people want to be treated equally, it seems to me that they should be alert to making the small gestures of civility that, even in this era of gender equality, courteous men make as a matter of course. If he had had his hands full or had not been familiar with the panel, I would have been delighted to help by pushing his button. Even then, however, I would have preferred to have been asked rather than having him assume that I knew where he was going and would as a matter of course be prepared to let him enter first and then push the button for him.
Am I expecting more of my colleague than is reasonable? It seems to me that I am merely holding him to the general standard of social behavior.
Looking for Chivalry
Miss Whozit devoutly hopes that neither chivalry nor courtesy is dead, but she fears that both are sometimes much put about. In explanation of your blind colleague’s thoughtless behavior, one might point out that sighted people very often step back, waiting for a blind person to enter or exit an elevator ahead of them. It is easy for a blind person to begin thinking of such special treatment as normal. It is also true that, when blind people reach for the control panel, hands fly from all directions to push the button before we can locate it. Even when we ask if we can push it for someone else, a finger usually descends from over our shoulders to do the job.
These facts may explain your male colleague’s behavior; it is, however, not Miss Whozit’s intention to offer an excuse for him. Ladies and gentlemen should conduct themselves with civility at all times. The fact that a blind person does not actually see people trying to get off an elevator or other people waiting to step on does not excuse us from allowing them to leave or get on ahead of us. Miss Whozit hopes that, gender equality notwithstanding, men who aspire to conduct themselves as gentlemen will begin or continue to invite women to enter or exit ahead of them. Ladies should certainly do the same when appropriate. You are to be commended for expecting to hold your blind colleague to the same standard of civility as you do others in your workplace.