Braille Monitor                                                 December 2010

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Just a Helping Hand

by Steve Jacobson

Steve JacobsonFrom the Editor: Those of us who care about changing the image of blind people often question what we should do when offered help. If we need the help, the answer is obvious, and we accept it. When the help offered isn't needed or when it is given without our asking, deciding how to deal with the situation becomes more difficult.

Steve Jacobson is known for his thoughtful introspection and courteous consideration of others, but he is also known for his assertiveness when the occasion dictates. The following article is condensed and reprinted from the Fall 2010 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota. Here is what Steve has to say on the subject of help:

A good deal has been written lately in the pages of the Minnesota Bulletin about the help that blind people receive. This is an exceedingly important topic because it affects the way we interact with and are viewed by the public and even affects positions we take on governmental programs.

In all that I write here I need to clarify my two initial assumptions. As blind people all of us have our own particular sets of strengths and talents. This means that where help might be useful will vary from individual to individual. In that sense I am not claiming that one size fits all. Nothing here should be construed to mean that one should never request necessary help.

The second point is that each of us is an ambassador for all blind people when we interact with the public. We cannot decide whether or not we will be ambassadors; we can only decide whether or not we care about the job we do. Those who say that they don't choose to represent blind people when they interact with the public are simply saying that it doesn't matter to them that their actions may affect the rest of us. Being an ambassador means that I try to be patient when I am frustrated with the manner in which help is offered, and I view the experience as an educational opportunity. Being an ambassador also means that, unless I am careful, the help I accept will be understood as help that all blind people need. Being a part of a minority group whose lives are generally a mystery to the public at large means we understand that the way we deal with the public regarding help will reflect upon all of us, just as we need to remember that our reactions may also reflect on us as a group.

Truly to understand the nature of the help we receive, it is necessary to recognize that help comes from different sources and is generated for different reasons. Of course some help is offered by one friend to another, and we may well deal with it differently from help offered by a stranger. Yet a third, less personal, source of help can often be harder to manage because the source is not a single individual but is instead generated by a management policy or a rule. I call this "institutional help." Those who then convey this kind of help do it with conviction because it also fits their image of blindness.

Let us examine several events to see how this third category of help affects us. Recently an eighteen-year-old woman on a United Airlines flight was told that she should remain seated when the plane landed in Chicago. After everyone else had deplaned, someone would come and assist her in exiting. Airline staff forgot about her, and she believed that she should continue to wait as instructed. The plane completely emptied and was closed. Airline maintenance personnel discovered her some time later. The publicity about this incident was critical of the airline for forgetting her. While I do not know whether other circumstances caused this woman to remain seated, the reasons given mentioned only blindness as the reason for this instruction.

We live in a time when one thinks twice about not doing whatever the airlines say we should do, so each of us must consider what we will do when airline instructions conflict with what we know we need. In this context then I ask why no one questioned her responsibility at least to make her situation known as the airplane emptied. The answer is simple: those writing the news articles and the United Airlines staff believed that being blind, even as an adult, means we are not responsible for ourselves. In their minds they are responsible for us in the same way that they are responsible for children traveling alone. It can sometimes be easy to accept this assumption as truth without the support of other blind people.

Though being stranded on an empty plane is not a common occurrence, being requested to remain seated and wait to be escorted off the plane is quite common. This very request has been made of me a number of times, so I can speak from personal experience, and my course of action is obvious to me. Even if the help is being offered with my well-being in mind, it is not help that I believe I can in good conscience accept, and I generally ignore the request and deplane with the rest of the passengers. The problem here isn't that the woman in question might have needed help; the problem is that she was expected to wait because she was blind. To choose to take an independent course, as I do, means I must go against the instructions of the airlines, but the statement my independent action makes is so important that it must be made. Most blind people who have received training can safely and efficiently navigate the aisle of an airplane, so we need not let someone do for us what we are able to do for ourselves. Making such a statement is not always easy, however.

As Monitor readers know from the November issue, a blind couple recently experienced some difficulty feeding their newborn child while in the hospital. They requested and received assistance, and the feeding problem was resolved. However, the incident was reported to child protection services, and the baby was taken from the parents and placed in foster care. There were no general problems beyond issues faced by many first-time parents, blind or sighted. Children's services wasn't called on the assumption that they might have some help to offer the family. They were called because the hospital staff assumed that the blind couple were incapable of caring for their child and that their little girl needed the state’s protection. This mistaken assumption was confirmed by the agency when, in response to the call, they took the child. The basis for such official decisions is lack of information about blindness and the assumption that closing one's eyes provides all the information needed to determine the capabilities of blind parents. Again the assumption surfaces that these are blind people--not responsible adults.

The final event I will cite didn't make the news, but it offended me to such a degree that I asked Jennifer Dunnam if I could tell her story. She recently traveled to a concert in Chicago that took place in a small theater. Part of the experience was that fans could choose to stand near the stage rather than be seated. Having communicated with others attending the concert, Jennifer chose to stand near the stage. Theater staff first asked and then insisted that she take a seat in the handicapped section. Such language as "We'll put you in the handicapped seats" was used. Since different people approached her each time with progressively more insistence, it is clear that the theater's management was administering the so-called help. Yes, the word "put" was used: not assist, guide, aid, or direct Jennifer to a seat, but put, as if she were a piece of furniture. In their minds she needed the handicapped seats because her loss of vision meant loss of the ability to walk any great distance. No consideration was given to the fact that she had just traveled four-hundred miles by train independently to get to the concert. Accepting this seating would have meant giving up some of her enjoyment, and it would have reinforced the staff’s distorted view of blind people. She finally responded firmly and remained standing, enjoying with others the electric atmosphere afforded by being close to the stage. However, the experience detracted from her enjoyment of the evening--and why? Somebody at some level made some assumptions about her, and the stereotypes of blindness made the staff eager to act based upon those assumptions. They felt that, appearances to the contrary, Jennifer was blind and was therefore less able to stand. They knew, better than she, what was good for her, and who was she to question their rules?

While lack of information about blindness and blind people is at the root of all three of the above events, I maintain that the issue of offering and accepting help is also very much involved. Most offers of help include an element of generosity, of one human being’s reaching out to another. We need to nurture and encourage that part of the help we receive, and, equally important, we need to return it to others. However, we often confront an assumption that we are not as responsible as other adults, that help is to be given whether we think we need it or not, and that we should be grateful for whatever help we receive even if it inconveniences us or is given without consulting us. Particularly when that help is formalized in policies and management decisions, we need to do what we can to change the underlying assumptions.

Connections exist between events like these and our daily lives. Is it too bold to submit that there is a connection between the insistence that blind people should not stand when all seats are taken on a bus and that we should not stand at a concert? Is it plausible that a theater employee might have been asked to relinquish his or her seat for a blind person on the Chicago Transit system? Might it be that some United Airlines staff member had witnessed otherwise able-bodied blind people being moved to the front of a check-in or security line so that they wouldn't have to wait, fostering the notion that special help in leaving the plane is required? Might a social worker have been affected by his or her experience with another blind person who expected to be helped with tasks that he or she could have accomplished independently?

We have a right to feel frustrated at times with the way the public sees us; however, we must also realize that things won't change unless we think about and are selective in the help we accept. As I said at the outset, each of us needs help at times. Though blindness has some unique challenges, all people need help from others. Even in our independence, all of us, blind and sighted, are interdependent. However, we need to be careful not to accept help that someone else believes is necessary just because it is convenient. Our doing so confirms the necessity for that help in his or her mind. We must try gently to educate as well, not just the public, but one another. This is the only way that things will change. Providing education isn't always easy, but we can help one another by thinking about and differentiating between what is needed and what is convenient, and how best to convey the right message to the public.

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