Future Reflections Fall 1994, Vol. 13 No. 3
by Joyce Scanlan
Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the April-June, 1993, issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.
As members of the National Federation of the Blind we frequently find ourselves engaged in serious discussions of pertinent blindness-related issues. We compare notes on the most humorous stories, the absolutely unbelievable attitude demonstrated by someone, how to handle difficult family situations, blindness and relationships with significant others, what blindness really means, what constitutes independence and competence for a blind person, how blind people can achieve equality with the sighted and full acceptance in society, and a great number of other weighty topics. Depending upon personal experience, exposure to constructive training, and a variety of other factors, opinions on these matters cover a broad spectrum.
The subject of accepting help-whether one should or should not, how to accept it and how to reject it, what to say or not say-generates profound conversations which stir up the emotions and challenge the intellect. The question comes up numerous times for a student in an orientation program. For some students it is taken for granted that if one is blind, help is definitely needed and should be sought and accepted at all times. End of discussion. For others, if one is blind, accepting help is prohibited. Blind people must be independent, and accepting help creates a negative public image. End of discussion. For most people the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. For most of us attitudes have evolved and are still evolving through constructive training, exposure to differing views, positive experiences, and ever-rising expectations.
As we work with many people with different backgrounds, we learn how many facets there are to an issue which may seem so simple. In a recent discussion with an orientation center student who has been blind since birth I found myself trying to convince the person that although he made a practice of soliciting help from sighted people, he could break the cycle and be independent. My friend brought forth all the arguments supporting his use of sighted help. "Although I may not need help, if I don't accept the offer the sighted person may not be willing to help the next blind person who may really need it." "Taking help from sighted people gives me good social contact. It's a way to meet people." "It's disrespectful to turn down an offer of help, especially from someone like a policeman." "If I turn down help the sighted person may become angry and yell at me." "I may think I can do it, but if I make a mistake the sighted person will see that and I'll be embarrassed and be forced into letting the person help me anyway." "I must accept help because I don't know how to refuse it."
I pointed out that if one were to be perfectly honest about it, the underlying belief probably was this: I really do need help. As a blind person I am expected to take assistance; that's what I'm used to, and I can't change it.
The extreme position of always using assistance is just as harmful as never taking help from others. Because my friend had habitually used sighted assistance whenever traveling about, he had developed numerous techniques to garner help whenever he felt the need, in his home or out on the street. He could cajole, play on guilt, manipulate, be direct or subtle-whatever a situation might call for. For a blind person on the public streets, attracting help is not at all difficult. If one merely stops for just a second Mr. Public is sure to approach and ask, "May I help you?" or "Do you need help?" My friend had perfected some techniques which invariably drew attention to himself. These behaviors had become so natural to him that he no longer recognized them or their effect. For instance, he would approach a building or an intersection and begin talking aloud. "I wonder if this is the right building" or "I hope I can make this crossing without being run over." Hearing such comments most individuals would be bound to conclude that help was not only needed but being requested. Therefore, without directly asking for help, my friend received just what he felt he needed. Yet, he could claim, and rightfully so, that he hadn't requested help.
Breaking a habit so ingrained is a major challenge. But overcoming the denial and accepting full responsibility for what is going on is a first step. It's easier to make excuses by saying, "The help came to me because of Mr. Public's negative attitudes toward blindness. People always think we need help. I did nothing to invite the help I got." To make someone understand that he had actually appeared helpless, had caused alarm, and was primarily responsible for what happened forces a painful realization upon the blind person. But once that has happened, the next step is to recognize that one can also take charge of making something else happen.
The question is what do you want to happen? Do you want to be helped in a different way, or do you not want to be helped at all?
As our discussion proceeded my friend slowly but surely admitted that he sought and accepted any help he could get because he firmly believed he could not function competently without it. That brings us to the question of how to have opportunity for successful experiences which will overcome such a negative belief. "How can I seize upon the chance to prove to myself that I can accomplish a task without help when all these people descend upon me?" Well, you can. And the best time to do that is when you are in a training program. There you are in a structured environment where you will have as many successful experiences as possible so that you will overcome fears and doubts which have ruled your past.
Remember that others are around; they may be watching you and certainly can hear what you say. Don't talk out loud. Think anything you want but to yourself only. If some over-zealous person approaches you to help, say (and you must practice saying this to yourself ahead of time over and over again so that you can speak spontaneously), "Thank you, but I am in a training program and must work this out independently." You might also add "My instructor is nearby watching to see me work this out by myself." Most people will not pursue the matter. When you have done this a few times your successes will build upon each other and you will find yourself believing that you definitely can be independent and do not need to accept help whenever it is offered to you.
At this point, once you are convinced that you absolutely can locate an address, cross a street, or resolve any number of travel problems independently, you are in a wonderful position of having options. You are the decision-maker. You can accept help some of the time, or you can turn it down. The choice is yours. As long as you know you can accomplish whatever it is you want to do by yourself, you are in good shape. The pressure of worrying about whether or not someone else offers help to you is off. Your energies can be focused on other, more interesting matters.
Because of the National Federation of the Blind more and more people are breaking the stereotype of the helpless, pitiful blind person. We give ongoing encouragement and support to each other in our struggles to break the cycle of behavior that labels us and forces us into accepting less of ourselves than our full capabilities. Many of us are still in the process of convincing ourselves that we are fully capable of independence and first-class citizenship. Once we have gained full belief in ourselves, we will be in a better position to go out and convince the world.