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Please Don't Be Offended

If I Refuse Your Offer of Help

by Donna Blake

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From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Sunday, February 21, 1999, edition of the Hartford Courant. Donna Blake is the pen name of Federationist Donna Balaski. She may not have been blind long, but Donna demonstrates a healthy understanding of how to educate the public about blindness. This is what she said:

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Recently I was very excited to return to New England. I had been away at a school for the blind [the Louisiana Center for the Blind] for more than a year. I had lost my vision and needed to learn how to approach everyday tasks that I had previously taken for granted for thirty years. When I lost my sight, I was in the last year of a surgical residency program, training to become a trauma surgeon. These days blind people can enter just about any occupation they desire, but surgery is not one of them.

When I landed at Bradley International Airport, I was feeling as if I had just received my driver's license and was driving by myself for the first time.

I received many offers of help at the airport. I wasn't lost, so I politely declined the offers from several people. I did appreciate the woman who directed me toward the baggage claim area and the gentleman who helped me identify my luggage. The person I did not appreciate was the one who helped himself or herself to my wallet and its contents. I felt as if my parents had taken away my driver's license.

Who were you? Were you the gentleman who sat next to me on the plane? The elderly couple who felt the need to grab and hold onto my arm constantly? The woman in the bathroom who thought it was a miracle that I could use the rest room without assistance? Or were you the person who bumped into me in the crowd of people? Whoever you were, thank you for leaving me $20 to get home; at least you were considerate.

Before I lost my vision, I would not have understood some courtesy rules that one should follow when dealing with a blind person. The National Federation of the Blind made me aware of some of the common courtesies one should extend to fellow citizens. In reality most of the suggestions are common social graces.

A common misconception is that, if my eyesight is gone, so is my hearing. It's not true, nor is my hearing any more acute than yours is. I recently taught a college course and ran into an old acquaintance in the bookstore. I am sure that people in the gymnasium next door could hear his side of our conversation because his voice was so loud. In fact, it's still ringing in my ears.

Society can be extremely sensitive about political correctness. But it is perfectly fine to use words such as "blind," "see," or "vision" and their synonyms. For example, "Hear you later" just doesn't flow as smoothly as "See you later."

I am perfectly capable of speaking for myself, so please don't address my companion instead of me. Recently a waitress kept asking my companion if I needed anything. My date handled the situation with grace. He asked the waitress for another waitress. When the other came, he asked her to relay to the first waitress the fact that we would like to end our meal with coffee. I requested decaf.

I am still wondering about the woman I met in the airport rest room. I don't recall her fawning on other women for using the facilities. I was a bit embarrassed. God forbid that she lose her vision, but I assured her anyway that she would have no difficulty using the rest room if she did. Whatever events you experience in life, you go on. The rest of the world doesn't stop.

Please do not compliment me for performing everyday tasks. I am just trying to lead a normal life like the next person; I just have to use alternative techniques. The goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act and mainstreaming children in school is integration into society. The next time you see me in a public place, please don't come up to me and continually touch or clutch my arm. I might think that you are trying to obtain my wallet. And don't try to help me cross a street I don't want to cross.

If I need some guided help, I will take your arm at the elbow and walk behind you; it is dangerous for me if you grasp my arm and push me to our destination.

I don't mind your asking if I would like assistance, but please allow me to decline politely without hurting your feelings.

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