Braille Monitor                                                 July 2010

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Ask Miss Whozit

A formal place setting, complete with placecard bearing the Whozit logo and the words, “Miss Whozit.”From Barbara Pierce: 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, 200 East Wells Street at Jernigan Place, 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 am a local chapter president, and several of my members have had difficulty with staff attitudes in doctors' offices. I realize that these are busy places and that the staff doesn't necessarily have much time to help blind patients fill out forms. I have learned to notify offices about my blindness in advance. Some offices send me the forms ahead of time, and one office asked me to pick up the form before my appointment so that I could bring the completed form with me. Luckily I was able to get to the office ahead of time and pick up the form.

But the response most of us get when we describe our inability to complete paperwork independently is that we should bring someone with us to fill out the forms. First of all, we are not children and do not need someone to accompany us to doctors' appointments, etc. Also such information is personal. I can easily imagine that a blind person might find an acquaintance willing to fill in the form but to whom he or she would not feel comfortable disclosing intimate health details. Moreover I think most of us would feel self-conscious providing such answers out loud in a busy waiting room. The other problem I have found in bringing someone with me to a doctor's office is that the staff tend to address the sighted person instead of me, which is infuriating.

My husband experienced a related problem recently when my niece took him to a medical lab for blood work and then left him there to go to work. The people at the blood center told him that, if he didn't have someone with him at all times, he would have to come back another time with a sighted minder. He and I both believe that this treatment was insulting and discriminatory. My husband was able to find someone to stay with him until they finished the blood work, but the experience was demeaning.

Could you write something that people could take to doctors' offices and blood centers that would explain how blind people should be treated? I know that we have the courtesy rules of blindness, but these situations are a little different.

Unwilling to Take it Anymore

Gentle Reader,

The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in part to protect us from such treatment. A doctor’s office and a lab that serves members of the public who require its services are places of public accommodation, and those who run them must be prepared to provide reasonable accommodation to those who need it. Providing forms to a patient by mail ahead of time seems a reasonable way of solving the problem. Assisting the patient to fill out the paperwork is equally effective. These offices are usually busy places, and it is not surprising that they are not eager to make a staff member available to do the paperwork, so that is a very good reason for patients’ being considerate enough to request the forms beforehand in order to complete them at home. If this is not possible because of an emergency or some other circumstance that prevents the blind patient from completing the paperwork early, the law is clear that the office staff must accommodate the patient by assisting in the completion of the forms since they are not available in an accessible format.

If the patient is an adult, it is inappropriate for any office to require the presence of another person unless all patients in the same medical situation are required to be accompanied by a responsible adult who can take notes and drive the patient home after the procedure.

Your city or state ADA compliance office should be able to back you up if necessary. But Miss Whozit suggests that you be as considerate as you can by planning ahead and then courteously stand on your rights when necessary. It will be news to most doctors’ receptionists that the law requires them to provide accommodations to disabled patients. If you are calm and clear while explaining this fact of life, reasonable medical personnel will respond appropriately.

Dear Miss Whozit,

I have flown many times, both within the United States and abroad. I always ask for help from airline personnel or ground employees. If I get help from a skycap, I always tip, which I know is appropriate.

But I have read in the Monitor Federationists’ accounts of their experiences in airports, and they say or at least imply that they get through a large, busy airport with absolutely no assistance. As a seasoned traveler and one whose mobility is fairly good, I find this unbelievable. Also they sometimes imply that it is shameful for a true Federationist to ask for assistance in an airport.

In a couple of months I will make another flight, and I have to transfer in Detroit, an airport I have only visited once, some twenty-five years ago. It seems absurd to me to think that I could find my way around this airport alone. After all, take away all the signs and monitors, and most sighted travelers would also be lost. That is why the signs are posted. Is it more respectable to ask other sighted travelers to help when they may be busy and disinclined to do so than it is to ask for help from those whose job is to assist passengers?

I also see nothing wrong with preboarding, and I do it all the time. I base my decision on this: I have never seen a person turned away when trying to preboard, no matter what the reason, so I figure why not do it and get a head start on the rush? Yet often in the Monitor needing or accepting such help is characterized as somehow shameful. I agree that a person should not be forced to accept unwanted help, but how is it possible for a totally blind person to traverse an unfamiliar airport without help, and from whom is necessary assistance best sought?

Frustrated Traveler

Dear Frustrated Traveler,

Miss Whozit is wondering whether you and she have been reading the same publication. A quick search of airline stories in the Braille Monitor has turned up no instances when readers have been urged to refuse assistance that they believe they need. This is a very personal assessment shaped by individual skill, experience, and confidence. Even the same passenger may make different decisions about soliciting help depending on the circumstances. With time to kill and little to carry, one might well decide to make enquiries along the way to the gate. Another time the same passenger racing to catch a flight or having a long way to go with lots of luggage might be very happy to grab a cart or the help of a skycap.

Miss Whozit suspects that you are feeling threatened by other blind people who portray themselves as preferring to travel independently. She herself prefers independent travel, though sometimes she admits that it is easier to ask for help she may need or to accept assistance than fight off a would-be Galahad.

You ask how a totally blind person can negotiate an airport independently. As usual the answer hinges on one’s definition of the word “independence.” We who get where we are going without paying someone to take us there make enquiries along the way: what gate is this? Is the terminal in that direction? Do you see a sign for ground transportation? Moreover, when the opportunity arises, it is perfectly acceptable to walk along with another passenger who is going your way. In fact Miss Whozit’s experience is that passengers who do not wish to be slowed down by answering questions just walk past, ignoring a blind person looking puzzled.

When the Braille Monitor staff first began discussing flying and dealing with airline and airport personnel, we were eager to convey to our readers that they had as much right to behave like adults as anyone else in the traveling public. We were trying to counteract the general belief that blind passengers were just so much baggage that some sighted person had to be responsible for lugging around. The most effective way of modeling this new form of behavior was to invite blind people who were already insisting on behaving like adults to write about their experiences so that the more timid could understand how to insist courteously on making their own decisions about themselves and how much assistance they wanted or needed. The intent was to empower people, not to shame them.

Preboarding is a good case in point. Anyone who is insecure about boarding in his or her designated place should make arrangements to preboard. Choosing to preboard simply because it gives one a better shot at the overhead storage smacks of using blindness to get perks that might not otherwise be available. In this case one might remember the TANSTAAFL principle—there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. When a person with a dog or white cane goes to the front of the line, everyone in the gate area presumes that it is because he or she cannot participate in the standard boarding. If this is the case, accepting the nebulous pity for the less fortunate is the price that must be paid for a necessary accommodation. That price will be paid by any blind passenger who does not gently insist on taking his or her assigned turn and not jumping the line.

This point is important. Many blind people choose to preboard aircraft when there is no assigned seating because they find it time-consuming to locate empty seats, and the airlines offer preboarding to those who require a little extra time to find and take their seats. Passengers are asked to load as quickly as possible, and it seems responsible to these blind people to preboard so that they do not inconvenience other passengers. But, when they have assigned seats, they stand up and move with the crowd toward the loading area, trusting that other passengers will direct them to the end of the line. They believe that they are justified in preboarding when that is the most efficient way to find a seat. They insist on taking their assigned places in line when that is equally efficient.

Each of us must make these decisions for ourselves. What is unfortunate is for sighted companions to urge that preboarding be done so that they can take advantage of the convenience of early seating while the blind passenger is identified as the object of pity. By all means make your decisions about preboarding and traveling through airports based on your own level of confidence and competence, but be clear about the cost and do not delude yourself about the price; every decision you make has a cost.

Dear Miss Whozit,

Back in residential school the teachers stressed that we should not use our blindness as an excuse. Though I think this is generally good advice, I have sometimes blatantly used my blindness to get what I wanted. I wonder what you think about the following.

I am extremely unskilled on the Internet. I do not know how to do Websites. I don't like this situation, but I haven't found a way to change it.

Recently I was talking with a customer service person at a phone service to which I subscribe--and which I pay for. I wanted her to make an adjustment in my account, and she told me I had to go to the Website to do it myself. Frankly, I did not believe her when she said she could not do it on the phone. I interpreted her statement as "I don't want to do it for you on the phone." So I told her that I was blind and that I couldn't do things on the Web. (I didn't bother to explain that some blind people can but that I cannot.)

Then she very kindly, if a little condescendingly, did what I had requested. What made me angry was that she could have done it for me all along just because I had asked her and because I was a paying customer. I dragged out the blindness in order to get what I wanted. My alternative would have been to find a friend (not very available to me) to do this for me. Am I being an Uncle Tom or just doing what I have to do to make it through?

Not Ashamed

Gentle Reader,

Your actions were not those of an Uncle Tom, but you certainly did not hesitate to play the pity card, and it did accomplish what you wanted. Miss Whozit suspects that you are pretty quick to use this card, and there may be times when you have no choice, but this was certainly not one of them.

Even though it sometimes seems that everyone in the world has a computer and access to the Internet, this is not in fact the case. Customer service personnel are instructed to insist that callers do what they can for themselves. This is an economic decision on the part of management. But the staff have to be prepared to make changes for those customers who do not have access to the Internet, which in fact is your situation. It would not have been much of a stretch for you to have admitted that you did not have access to the Internet, so how would she suggest that you make the adjustment to your service? You would not have had to explain that your lack of access was connected to blindness and not the complete absence of a computer.

Remember also that many Websites are still not accessible to people who use speech programs. A customer service person is unlikely to have any idea whether the company Website is accessible. Miss Whozit confesses that she sometimes announces to such folks that the site is not accessible to speech programs when it may be only that she is not skilled enough to make the site work properly. Either of these strategies avoids playing the blindness card.

The very fact that you raised this question suggests both that you were afraid of what Miss Whozit’s view would be and that you really were a bit ashamed of your action. Your inability to use the Internet is not at issue here. Plenty of people have trouble with this relatively new aspect of our lives, and we are no less worthy or valuable as human beings because of this deficit in our experience or opportunity. It is simply a fact of life like hair color or visual acuity. Refusing to seize opportunities that come your way to learn to use the Internet would be unfortunate, and unnecessarily using blindness as the explanation for requiring assistance plays on the public’s tendency to presume the helplessness and inferiority of blind people. Doing so is demeaning to you and demeaning to all of us. In future Miss Whozit hopes you will try to avoid playing the blindness card and find a more creative way of solving your problems. After all, we both know that it was not blindness as such that prevented you from making the change yourself.


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