by Glenn Ervin
From the Editor: Sometimes it is tiresome to be blind: the extra effort required to read and label items, to get material in a form we can read, or to get where we want to go when we want to go there. But one other thing makes being blind difficult—the knowledge that we are always being observed. Whether this results from the curiosity of the sighted or a concern that we will need help, the outcome is the same. Sometimes even well-intended concern can get to be too much, as we see in this article in which Glen Irvin describes an evening walk that turned out to be more than he bargained for. Here is what he says:
We are fortunate to live in a country in which all citizens have the right to pursue the vocation of our choice and recreational activities, as long as they are legal and do not infringe on the rights of others. As pedestrians we have the right to travel in areas that are open to the public whenever we choose. But I was recently reminded that some people seem to think that these rights are not for everyone, namely the disabled.
I am a counselor with the state of Nebraska, and my job is to teach blind Nebraskans the alternative skills that will enable them to live independently, such as Braille, cooking and cleaning, and walking with a long white cane. One reality that I explain to my clients as well as to people who can see is that the most difficult aspect of blindness is not that we have little or no eyesight but that every day we have to deal with people who are unfamiliar with blindness and who don’t know that we can do pretty much anything we want other than driving a motor vehicle.
The other day I was taking my usual evening five-mile walk. Sometimes along my walk I cross a fairly busy street to do business in a particular store. When I was finished with my errand that day, I crossed back to the other side of the street, where I was called over by a couple of police officers who told me that they had been called because I was crossing the street. They had observed me, realized that I was safe, and concluded that they did not need to have been called. Often crossing a street takes a blind person a bit longer than it would take a sighted person to do visually because we rely on interpreting the sound of traffic. Sighted and blind folks with normal hearing can hear traffic blocks away and can determine its speed by the sound of the engines. When a car passes, blind pedestrians must wait until the vehicle is far enough away that its sound does not interfere with hearing oncoming traffic. This is not an amazing skill; it is just a technique people can easily develop if they give it the proper attention. I teach this skill along with the use of the long white cane, which when held upright should reach from the ground to one’s chin in order to give proper warning of objects in the path.
I must admit that I am outraged that this incident escalated to the point of sending officers to the scene. They clearly had more important things to do than making sure I was safe crossing a street. I know that some people think it must be difficult to do anything without sight or that they could never do the things they see blind folks doing and therefore assume that blind people must need assistance. At the beginning of blindness training it is understandably difficult for someone who used to have normal sight to adapt to doing things nonvisually. But, when blind people are out walking with a white cane, they are doing so because they have made the decision to travel independently, whether they are new at it or are skilled travelers. This is an individual choice, and happily people have the right to choose where they walk in this country. Others, blind and sighted, make the decision to take on far more dangerous activities, such as climbing a mountain or jumping out of airplanes, and we don’t call the police to check on them, because we live in a society where people have the right to choose their activities, whether or not others think they are dangerous. It seems to me that the person who made the call to the police should have been asked whether the blind pedestrian being reported was using a long white cane or a dog with a harness. In my case the caller should have been informed that the police had no business offering assistance to the blind person unless contacted by the person himself or notified that he appeared to be under attack or injured.
I want the public to know that, if blind people need assistance, we are totally capable of asking for the help we need. This may seem obvious, but surprisingly the public practices discrimination every day against the blind without even realizing it. This is why the difficult aspect of blindness is not that we don’t see, but that people treat us with little respect. This is largely why folks who should be using a white cane refuse to do so, preferring to fumble around like the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo.
For example, I am frequently at a restaurant with a sighted person, and the server refers to me in the third person with statements like “Would he like a Braille menu?” or “What would he like to order?” Another example of this lack of simple respect comes when people put their hands on me without asking. How often do people put their hands on a perfect stranger? Yet blind people are often grabbed and pulled somewhere, even though they haven’t asked for help. This is not to say that people who are blind don’t ever need assistance, but I believe that the experience of blindness would be far easier if others would just allow us the dignity of asking for assistance when we want it. A simple “hello” provides the opportunity for a blind person to ask for assistance or to provide the person wishing to help the assurance that it isn’t needed.
We all know that the pedestrian has the right of way in traffic. But something that most people don’t know is that since the 1960s the White Cane Safety Laws in every state give the blind the same rights as other pedestrians as long as they are using white canes or service dogs. Governors frequently recognize this law each year on October 15, in the form of a proclamation. But teaching the public about blindness requires more than proclamations—it requires personal contact. For this reason I have offered to do in-service training for our police department, for the emergency dispatchers, and for any other branch of local government that may be called upon to help the blind. My goal is someday to live in a society in which a blind person crossing a street is commonplace and hardly garners a second glance. Making this dream a reality will require work. This work is part of what I do, and the belief that it will make a difference is an important part of who I am.