It is always a pleasure to hear from people who read the Braille Monitor, and the occasional thank you can often make my day. Even the questions and criticisms are often blessings in disguise, because they cause me to look outside what I have traditionally thought of as suitable material for this publication.
One of the more persistent questions I have received in the last year or so is why I have decided to discontinue the Miss Whozit column. The simple answer is that I have not. The idea of the piece, which started in 1989, was to answer questions that came from readers with the hope that we would both encourage questions some might feel embarrassed to ask of friends and family and that we might, through pooling the expertise of our membership, come up with good answers that would serve well if only they were shared widely.
Three of the questions that have appeared in the Miss Whozit column have come from me. When I asked them of those I loved and trusted, I felt they were ducked. Either I was told that they were not important, that they did not happen in my life, or that there was nothing I could do about them. I thought that the Braille Monitor might give me a better answer. It did. With the knowledge that it can and the hope that it will, we are reprinting some examples from the column. Enjoy.
Dear Miss Whozit,
I did not have enough proper blindness training when I was young, so I’m never sure when it is appropriate for me to touch food when I’m eating food on my own plate or serving myself from a buffet. Can you help?
You have asked a good question. Miss Whozit believes that two basic considerations determine appropriate handling of food: sanitation and the rules of etiquette. Some foods are appropriate for touching: fried chicken on the bone, French fries, breads, and most relishes (celery, radishes, olives, carrot sticks, etc.), as well as cookies, candy, and small tarts and quiches.
However, it is Miss Whozit’s firmly held opinion that most other foods should not be touched but maneuvered with knife, fork, or spoon. You should never touch food being passed until you have served yourself. If you’re unsure what is on the platter or in the bowl being passed, quietly ask the person who passed it to you.
Miss Whozit is painfully aware that some blind people have not learned to serve themselves. She suggests that, if you can’t do so confidently, you should ask a person near you to place a serving on your plate rather than skipping the item altogether.
You can eat the food on your own plate quite easily without inordinate touching by using a dinner roll or biscuit to stabilize what you want to slide on to the fork. The same thing can be accomplished using the European method of using the knife in the non-dominant hand to cut and stabilize food while wielding the fork in the other hand in the usual way.
Miss Whozit insists that everyone—and she does mean everyone—needs practice in handling table etiquette gracefully and competently. It is a necessary art if one is to be accepted socially, and like all others the skills must be mastered.
Miss Whozit has heard the rumor that the NFB argues that blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance, and she believes that it is a nuisance—nothing more—for a blind person to go through a buffet line. Because it is never acceptable to put your fingers in someone else’s food, the blind person must accept the nuisance and learn how to cope with it.
Miss Whozit finds two ways acceptable: If an attendant is staffing the table, ask that person to assist you by telling you what is in each bowl and on each platter so that you can find the serving piece and serve yourself. Or, alternatively, simply have someone serve your plate for you.
When all is said and done, Miss Whozit dreams of a world in which all blind people are properly trained and graciously accepted by others.
Dear Miss Whozit:
Over the years, even at NFB conventions, I have observed people, particularly those born blind or without families who taught them how to handle themselves in public. I have just enough vision to notice inappropriate behavior and sometimes correct myself when I observe the way sighted people behave. I can then ask for advice about how things should be done. It is often embarrassing but also rewarding.
One thing that should be addressed when people are ready for employment after going through our training centers is habitual rocking or other repetitive motions. Several sighted friends who have worked in the corporate world have asked me about this behavior, and frankly I cannot think of an adequate answer.
Why do people who are blind, particularly those who have been in residential schools, rock? I was helping in a booth in the exhibit hall one year, and my partner was sitting Indian fashion on a folding chair, rocking back and forth, swinging a keychain from side to side in front of his face and shaking his head. I do not know how he kept from falling out of the chair. In the course of conversation I discovered this man had been to college and had several degrees but had been unsuccessful for years in finding a job. I asked him if he had figured out why, and he said that he did not know. He said he wore clean jeans and t-shirts to the interviews and made sure he had showered that morning. I asked if he had ever taken a job-readiness class in college, and he said that he didn't need one. All he had to do was present his résumé and recommendation letters. Setting aside the question of inappropriate dress for an interview, he is not the only person I have seen rocking or exhibiting unusual behavior.
Should I have tried to say something direct enough to make him recognize his unacceptable behavior without making him angry or embarrassing him? Whether we want to admit it or not, the majority of people in human resources are sighted and extremely dependent on first impressions. I worked in an office for almost thirteen years and had to maintain a certain level of decorum. Aren't these subjects addressed at our training centers? What about the importance of good posture and appropriate body language?
Dear Decent Impression:
You have raised a very important yet sensitive issue that often falls into the category of the elephant in the living room that everyone studiously avoids mentioning. It falls into the broad category of behavior often called "blindisms"—idly or vigorously rocking front to back or side to side, twisting the head from side to side, rubbing the eyes, fluttering fingers in front of the eyes to make sure they still work, twisting hair, and other equally odd mannerisms. The second part of the equation is the reaction of sighted people to any unusual, different, or even unacceptable human behavior.
Miss Whozit wishes to begin by pointing out a truth which should be self-evident but nevertheless needs occasional repeating: sighted people can see! Strange as it may seem, some blind people apparently forget this reality from time to time and engage in activities in public which are disgusting or embarrassing to those watching. Any human being, blind or sighted, may well engage in activities in private which are simply unacceptable when the behavior is or may be observed by others. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan wrote extensively on this topic in his article "The Barrier of the Visible Difference" in the Kernel Book Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses. Blindisms have been discussed and written about widely. Miss Whozit is sad to report that some people propound deep psychological and philosophical foundations to explain this phenomenon, and perhaps they are right. Unfortunately such explanations do not provide an excuse that lets the blind person off the social hook. Miss Whozit is convinced that the reasons for such behavior are simple. All small children engage in a variety of behaviors that are universally unacceptable. If little Suzie is sighted, her parents and other relatives will say, "Stop picking your nose [or whatever]! You may not do that. That is a nasty habit." Moreover, the concerned adults will keep at it until the habit is broken.
If little Suzie is blind, however, many parents and other adults seem to be reluctant or even afraid to hold the blind child to the sighted standard. When the parents listen to the faux experts in the field rather than the authentic experts (the organized blind), the expectation for normal and appropriate behavior becomes obscured. When this happens, what begins as a petty little habit eventually becomes a hard-wired characteristic which is nearly impossible to reverse.
These unacceptable mannerisms then run headlong into the social expectations of sighted society and reinforce the minority-group status of the blind. If a sighted person engages in some activity which is not the norm (some do), those around him or her dismiss the undesirable habit as the actions of a weirdo. Other sighted people are not tarred by the weirdness brush and are certainly not placed in that category just because of the odd behavior of one weirdo. When, however, a blind person exhibits such behavior, many in society judge all blind people by the unacceptable or bizarre behavior of the one. Like it or not, we blind people are already thought of as different and are scrutinized more closely. Adding the unacceptable behavior compounds the novelty of blindness and the attention it draws.
In his book Freedom for the Blind, Jim Omvig devotes an entire chapter to the topic of blending in and endeavoring to behave in such a way that one is acceptable to others. Miss Whozit pleads with parents of blind children to read this chapter and also to be relentless in their effort to stamp out overtly bizarre behavior or even silly little habits. What can and should adults do to combat such behavior in themselves or those they care about? If one recognizes personal blindisms, he or she should ask friends and family members to offer quiet, private reminders when the old habits surface. If friends or family members care about a person who is not aware of blindisms, they should go quietly to that person and ask if they can help. In either case a private plan should be devised to give a signal to the blind person as a reminder that he or she is engaging in the activity and should stop.
The sad truth is that until and unless the blind adult with such habits recognizes them and wishes to be rid of them, no one else can help very much. What we can do is to make clear to these friends just how much of a problem the behavior is and at what a disadvantage it will put the person socially and professionally. We do nothing but harm our children or friends by pretending that everyone else will understand or that the peculiar behavior will not be as much of a roadblock to social acceptance as poor grooming or disgusting table manners.
Dear Miss Whozit,
Lately it seems that all of my girlfriends are dieting or at the least hyper-conscious about their carb count. For this reason we constantly seem to have lunch at salad bars. Another frequent occurrence is my family's visits to all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. Both of these restaurant choices make for uncomfortable dining experiences for me. "Why?" you may ask. "Don't you enjoy salads? Or is it that you simply don't have enough room in your stomach for all that's available to eat?"
The answer is neither. Rather, when I go out to eat, I am unsure about how to identify salad dressings and the like at the salad bar. And I consider buffets simply nightmares waiting to happen. How do I handle these social situations? Eager for your response,
Learning to maneuver through a buffet line with grace and ease can feel overwhelming, but, once armed with accurate information and good skills, you too will be able to take advantage of the convenience and selection provided by this vast array of dietary indulgences. Remember that anticipatory anxiety of the unknown is often more unpleasant than the actual event.
We live in an interdependent society. Sometimes asking for assistance is necessary or prudent. As Federationists we have learned the truth of Dr. Jernigan's speech, "The Nature of Independence," in which he defines independence as doing what we want to do when we want to do it without inconveniencing ourselves or others. In that speech he also spoke about the importance of accomplishing tasks efficiently rather than always insisting on doing them alone. Going through a buffet line is one instance in which these two concepts merge.
Once you have made the decision to navigate a buffet line, it is essential to request assistance from someone. If others in your party are going through the buffet line, you can ask one of them to provide the visual information and any necessary assistance, or you can ask your server if an employee is available to assist you. Which decision you make depends on the circumstances. If you are the only one in your party going through the buffet line, solicit the assistance of someone on the restaurant staff. If you feel at ease asking a member of your party for assistance, it is quick and easy to adopt that solution.
Once you are ready to make your selections at the buffet, instruct the person providing assistance about your preference of the best way to move through the line. If you know ahead of time that you are looking specifically for salad items, provide this information. If you decide that life is really too short and you want to eat dessert first, say so. Let the person providing assistance know how you would like the items identified.
If you plan to plate your own food, ask that the items be identified in a column format going from back to front so you know where each item is located when you serve yourself. Be sure when serving your own food to keep extra napkins handy to wipe your fingers if you accidentally come into contact with stray food items or sauces. It is important to maintain good hygiene when handling serving utensils in a public place.
Miss Whozit wants to emphasize at this point that you are responsible for carrying your own plates, glasses, or bowls. You have requested assistance learning what items are on the line and perhaps placing the food on your plate, not providing service as a personal butler, carrying your selections from the line to the table.
One gentle reminder, if you are dining during peak customer hours and you realize that a line is forming behind you, make your selections as quickly as possible and keep moving. The beauty of a buffet is that you are often allowed to return for seconds. So be sure to ask your server ahead of time whether you are dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Miss Whozit recommends that for your first attempt at negotiating a buffet line you go at a time when you will feel at ease so that you will begin to gain confidence in the techniques you devise. If you have a blind friend who is comfortable handling buffets, you might invite him or her to go with you so that you can ask for advice along the way. Remember when embarking on any new challenge, the most important thing is to believe that it is possible and gather as much information ahead of time as you can. Then just do it. As J. Laing Burns says, "You've got to believe if you want to succeed."