by Kenneth Jernigan
When is it appropriate for a blind person to accept help from a sighted person, and when is it not? If the offer is rejected, how can it be done without causeing embarrassment or hurt feelings? Since most sighted perople are well-disposed toward the blind, these are very real questionsquestions that I as a blind person have faced all of my life. As you might imagine, my answers to them have changed as I have grown older and gained experience.
When I was a teen-ager, filled with the typical self-consciousness of adolescence, I frequently rode city buses. This was in Nashville, Tennessee. The school for the blind, where I was a student, was located on the southern edge of hte city, and I liked to go downtown. Incidentally, in those days a bus ride cost a nickel, as did a lot of other thingsa hamburger, a Coca-Cola, an order of French fries, a full-size candy bar, a double-dip of ice cream, and much else.
But back to the matter at hand. One day I was standing on the corner waiting for a bus when an elderly woman approached me and said, "Here, son, I'll help you." She then put a nickel into my hand.
I could tell that she was elderly because of her voice. There was quite a crowd at the bus stop, and I felt acute embarrassment. I tried to give the nickel back to her, but she moved out of my way and kept saying, "No, that's all right."
Everybody at the bus stop ceased talking, and my frustration mounted. Each time I stepped toward her to try to give back the nickel, she moved out of my way. It must have been quite a spectacle, me with my hand extended holding the nickel, and the woman weaving and dodging to avoid me. Finally, in absolute exasperation, I threw the nickel as far as I could down the street.
That was over fifty years ago, but the memory is still clear. Once the woman had placed the nickel in my hand, there was really no way I could have given it back. If I had simply and quietly accepted it and thanked her, very little notice would have been taken. As it was, I created quite a show. The elderly woman, who was only trying to help me, was undoubtedly embarrassed, and I did little to improve the image of blindness. Instead, I did the exact opposite. Any notions the group at the bus stop had about the helplessness and immaturity of the blind were magnified and reinforced.
Ten years later, when I was in my twenties, I was teaching at the California training center for the blind in the San Francisco Bay area. One of my principal duties was to help newly blind persons learn how to deal maturely with loss of sight and the attitudes of the public about blindness.
Late one afternoon, after a particularly hard day, I was leaving the center to go home. When I came to the corner to cross the street, and elderly man (he sounded as if he might be in his eighties) approached me and said, "I'll help you across the street." "No, thanks," I said. "I can make it just fine." I was polite but firm.
"I'll help," he repeated, and took my arm. As I have already said , it had been a hard day. I made no discourteous response, but I speeded up my pace as we crossed the street. Clearly the man could not keep up, and if I am to be honest, I knew that he couldn't. He released my arm and said with a hurt tone, "I was only trying to help."
When I got to the other side of the street, I came to a complete stop and said to myself, "Are you really so insecure about your blindness after a hard day you can't afford to be kind to somebody who was only trying to help you."
As with the nickel-throwing incident, there was a lesson to be learned. I should have accepted the man's offer to help, and should have done it graciously. We would both have profited, each feeling that he had done the other a kindness. As it was, both of us experienced pain, even if only a little and even if only temporarily.
By the time another ten years had passed, I was in my thirties and directing programs for the blind in the state of Iowa. My job required me to do a great deal of traveling, and one day when I was checking into a hotel, a bellman carried my bag to my room. As he was leaving, I gave him a tip.
"Oh, no," he said, "I couldn't take a tip from you. I'm a Christian."
Unlike what I did in the other situations I have described, I did not refuse or resist. I simply thanked him and let it go at that. Of course, I might have tried to get him to change his mind, but I didn't think it would be productive. And besides, I didn't feel so insecure or unsure of myself that I needed to prove either to him or me that I was equal.
On another occasion in Iowa, I was giving a talk to a Sunday School class, and when the time came for questions, a woman said:
"How do you help one of them?" I assumed that she was asking me what the proper way was for a sighted person to help a blind person, but just to make sure I asked her to explain.
She said: "The other day I tried to help a blind man across the street, and he shook my hand off of his arm and told me to go to hell." I asked her what she would have done if a sighted person had been rude to her.
I said something to this effect: "You shouldn't hesitate to offer help to a blind person in crossing a street or in any other way you think appropriate. After all, the blind person may need your help. How are you to know if you don't ask?
Whether the help is needed or not, most blind persons (just as would be the case with most sighted persons) will appreciate the offer and treat you courteously. A few will be ill-tempered or rude. I would suggest that you treat such people exactly the way you would a sighted person who is rude to you. The main thing is not to feel awkward about it. If you wonder whether a blind person needs help, ask. Then, if the person says no, let it go at that.
So far, I have talked about help that has been courteously offered and probably should have been accepted. But what about the other kind? Blind people don't have a monopoly on rudeness or bad manners. Sighted people are human, too.
I think of a time when I was standing on a street corner in Des Moines, minding my own business and waiting for a friend. A big husky fellow with the momentum of a freight train came along and scooped me up without ever even pausing. "Come on, buddy," he said, as he grabbed my arm, "I'll help you across the street."
As it so happened, I didn't want to cross that street. I was going in another direction. But he didn't ask. And he wouldn't listen when I tried to tell him. He just kept walking and dragging me with him.
In the circumstances, I planted my feet and resistedand I should have. All of us, whether blind or sighted, owe courtesy and consideration to each other, and in this case I was being treated like a none too intelligent child. No, worse than thatfor children are rarely manhandled in public.
Not long ago I entered an elevator, and a man standing next to me reached out and placed his hand on my arm, between me and the elevator door, in a protective manner. He probably felt that I might lean into the door as it was closing or that I might have difficulty when the door opened. It was a protective gesture, totally inappropriate but meant to be helpful. He would have been shocked at the thought of behaving that way toward a sighted adult passenger, but in my case he saw no impropriety.
When the door opened, the man restrained me with his hand and said, "Wait. You can't go yet." Since I was standing immediately next to the door and since there was no traffic outside, it is hard to know why he felt I should wait. Maybe he thought I should take a moment to get my bearings, or maybe it was simply more of the protectiveness. Who knows?
He treated me very much as he would have treated a small child. How should I have reacted? It all depends on how insistent and how obtrusive he was. There is something to be said for restraint and not hurting other people's feelings, but there is also something to be said for recognizing when enough is enough.
In what I am about to say next, I am not just talking about persons who are totally blind but also about those who now see so poorly that they cannot function the way a sighted person does persons who may be losing sight and who may be having trouble accepting it. I am also speaking to relatives.
As I have already indicated, most blind people appreciate help when it is offered. When a blind person is walking through a crowd or down the street with someone else and trying to carry on a conversation, it is easier to take the other person's arm. This is true even if the blind person is quite capable of traveling alone.
All of us like to do things for ourselves, but there are times when refusing to take an arm that is offered constitutes the very opposite of independence for a blind person. If, for instance, a blind person is walking with a sighted person through a crowded restaurant, the sensible thing to do is to take the sighted person's arm and go to the table without fuss or bother.
As will be seen, my views about independence and help from others have changed over the years. Probably the single most important factor in helping me come to my present notions has been the National Federation of the Blind. Having chapters in every state and almost every community of any size, the Federation is the nation's oldest and largest organization of blind persons.
As it is with me, so it is with thousands of other blind people throughout the country. We work together to help each other and ourselves. We give assistance to parents of blind children, to blind college students, to the newly blind, and to blind persons who are trying to find employment. Above all, the Federation teaches a new way of thought about blindness.
We want to take the mystery out of blindness. Mostly, we who are blind are very much like you. We work and play, hope and dream, laugh and cryjust like you. We need opportunity, not pity. And we are willing to do for ourselves. That doesn't mean that we don't want or need help from our sighted friends and relatives, for we do. All of us (whether blind or not) depend on each other and need mutual help and assistance.
This is the message of the National Federation of the Blind, and it has made a great difference in my life. If I had to sum up my personal philosophy in a single sentence, it would probably be this: Do all you can to help yourself before you call on others; try to make life better for those around you; and don't throw nickels.