From the Editor: From time to time Miss Whozit answers 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, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <email@example.com>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. Here is the most recent letter Miss Whozit has received:
Dear Miss Whozit,
As I begin to think about and plan for the holiday season this year, I would like to ask your advice about an issue that is a little hard to define and explain. The problem is the way I am treated, accepted, and allowed to participate in various holiday activities and events in my community. I am a blind person, and I assume that most of the negative experiences that I will discuss in this letter are partially the result of my disability. Let me see if I can explain my problem through a couple of examples.
At my church the holiday season is truly a time for giving to those in need. We sponsor dinners throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas season for poor people, and we provide gifts and other holiday favors to underprivileged families. In addition to simply donating money for these programs, many church members gather to assemble baskets, wrap gifts, and generally deal with the many tasks that need attention. When I offer to help with these projects, I am welcomed, but it quickly becomes clear that people really do not expect or want me to contribute much to our efforts. I'm generally encouraged to sit back and let everybody else manage things for the sake of speed, or I am given some repetitive task that isolates me from the socializing that is part of the holiday preparation. I usually leave these work parties feeling as if I have been unproductive, forgotten, or both. Again, everybody's pleasant enough, but my festive mood and giving spirit are often dampened at project's end because of the way people deal with me.
Another example worth mentioning is my experience with my book club. I participate in a weekly reading group at my local library. Generally I am able to find the books we discuss in Braille, on tape, or from the computer. At the holidays we bring seasonal refreshments and exchange gifts during our meetings. When my turn to bring the treats for our meeting last year came, I was actually told not to bother because it would be too hard for me to transport several trays of cookies along with my bags on the bus. Ordinarily I take public transportation to these meetings in order to save money, but I explained that I'd take a cab for this special occasion. Although I insisted on taking my turn, the dispute over it made the task less satisfying and joyful. The book club leader also told me not to bother bringing a present to exchange because I live on a fixed income and would have trouble doing the shopping anyway. Naturally I ignored this advice, but it took some persuasion on my part to get the book club leader to understand that I could and should participate like everyone else.
When I opened my gift from my Secret Santa, I was a bit dismayed to find a gift certificate to my local grocery store. Please understand that I was grateful for the thought, but honestly the gift struck me as a bit condescending and tinged with charity to the poor more than a gift from a friend. I had hoped to receive something special and representative of the giver. Money for food, while helpful, was not really what I wanted for Christmas. I can’t help suspecting that, if I had been sighted, I wouldn’t have been given the gift of groceries or discouraged from contributing food.
The holidays are an excellent time for giving, and I usually have the seasonal spirit, energy, time, and desire to participate in community activities and events to mark the occasion. I find myself frustrated, though, when public attitudes and low expectations about blindness seem to limit my involvement or prescribe my enjoyment of social holiday traditions. Do I bring this treatment on myself? I would be grateful for any suggestions you may have about what I could do or say when I encounter situations like the ones I have described.
Willing to Give and Receive
It sounds to Miss Whozit as if you have managed pretty well to stand up for yourself in rather trying circumstances. I hope you made as much a point of presenting your gift in the exchange as you did in insisting on bringing cookies. In these situations Miss Whozit has found that the best defense is an vigorous offense.
In fact the holidays are an excellent time to make the point that you are a contributing member of your entire circle of friends and acquaintances. Doing so takes some imagination, especially if you don’t have extra money to throw at the problem. But the truth is that, if they sat down to make a list of the folks who have gone out of their way to help them during the past year, most blind people would have quite a group of people to thank: neighbors who have run errands, church members who have provided rides, work colleagues willing to read a memo or posted notice, not to mention the friends whom you wish to remember during this season of giving.
Such gifts don’t have to be costly; in fact it is much better if they are not. Expensive items can start inflated gift exchanges. Three or four pieces of fudge in a decorative little box or bag, on the other hand, can be passed off as a simple remembrance. A holiday paper plate of homemade cookies sends the same message. If you knit, you could give hand-knitted dishcloths. If you like plants or know someone who does, you could make up pots of spring bulbs or plants to brighten the winter. The point is to dream up inexpensive and simple gifts to give as thankyous or just as tokens of friendship.
Not only will this demonstrate that you are a thoughtful and appreciative person, but it will go a long way toward showing the doubters around you that you have unsuspected talents and skills. If you present such gifts with conspicuous fanfare, you will undermine your effort. The point is to be a bit self-deprecating―here is a little something to say how much I have appreciated your friendship and help this year. This should be said quietly and the gift given inconspicuously.
If you make plans early in the season, you can usually find a way to participate actively in holiday gift-giving. It can be more difficult to find your way into the center of activities like filling baskets or packing bags of groceries for the food pantry. Taking someone in the group into your confidence and asking for help evaluating the situation and finding a useful job that you can do without slowing down the operation may be the easiest way of solving the problem. Other than that, you may just have to stand and listen for a few minutes to decide what is going on. Ask yourself if empty boxes need to be flattened or paper bags opened. Is a bottleneck developing at one point on the production line? Offer to step in to do half of the job that is slowing down the line. Standing around waiting for someone to think of something you can do is doomed to bring you disappointment. Mostly, sighted people don’t know what blind people can do in such a group activity. You will need to take the lead in suggesting things you could do and ways you could help. If you are cheerfully firm about wanting to help, most people will give you a chance.
In the hope that you like the idea of passing out fudge to friends and neighbors, here once again is the recipe for the fudge that Diane McGeorge has taught many Federationists to make and give away:
1 stick margarine or butter
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 large can evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
7-ounce jar marshmallow cream
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
8 ounces Hershey bars
Chopped nuts, optional
Method: In large, heavy pan combine butter, sugar, evaporated milk, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Meantime in a large bowl combine chocolate chips, Hershey bars broken into pieces, and marshmallow cream. Set aside. Butter a 13-by-9-inch pan and set aside. When sugar mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to low so that mixture is just simmering. Cook, stirring constantly for four and a half minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla and contents of bowl. If you are using nuts, add them at this time as well. Stir the hot mixture until the chocolate and marshmallow cream are completely beaten in. Pour fudge into buttered pan and allow to cool. Cut into pieces before chilling. Remove from pan and store in tightly covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
May your holiday season be filled with giving and gifts.