by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Justin Salisbury is now an orientation and mobility instructor with Ho`opono Services for the Blind. He graduated from Louisiana Tech University in March 2016 in the first cohort of the Rehabilitation Teaching for the Blind master’s program and the first cohort to receive the National Certification in Rehabilitation Teaching for the Blind (NCRTB) in addition to the NOMC and NCUEB. His experiences in the states of Connecticut, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Louisiana have helped prepare him to empower blind people in Hawaii. Here is what he says:
The Walmart near my apartment faces into its parking garage rather than facing the street. In order to enter the building, I climb a short flight of stairs and then follow a zigzag sidewalk past a Starbucks and a few other restaurants built into the side of the Walmart until I finally get to the door. Without fail, after I finish climbing the stairs, I get a few steps before I hear, “Sir, you’re about to run into a wall.” If I’m lucky, I even get to hear it again for one or two of the other walls in the zigzag pattern. I usually ignore it, but the other day I stopped and asked, “Have I walked anywhere that sighted people don't normally walk?” The man replied, “No, you're doing fine. It's just that you were about to run into a wall.” I was not sure how he reasoned that I got myself all the way to the Walmart from wherever I had been only to risk it all by potentially running into a wall. I told him that it was actually not normal for people to run into walls, and I left him with that bit of genius.
As blind people we often have experiences where we are out traveling, just going through our normal day, when well-meaning sighted people jump in to rescue us with an important piece of information to which they assume we are completely oblivious. They mean well, and their hearts are in the right place. Their expectations of us, however, bear a noteworthy degree of room for improvement. It can be valuable for us to take a moment to reflect on the foundations, shaky and inaccurate as they may be, and the consequences of these acts of kindness.
When I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the doctoral students were always included in the Friday faculty coffee hours, and I grew a lot from those experiences. Sometimes the coffee hours were shared between two colleges, which generally meant more serious catering and a wonderful array of dessert items. One day, when we shared coffee with the College of Human Ecology, I met a faculty member who took particular interest in my blindness. In these gatherings, it was quite customary for people to talk about research interests, publication efforts, travel destinations in faraway places, and the newest fun things to do in Madison. In the general public, blindness is usually the first conversation topic most people try to breach with me, but this gentleman actually stood out for that in this setting. After we introduced ourselves, he jumped right in with a question.
“So what should I do when I see a blind person?” His question was very simple. It was well-intended, and it even demonstrated an eagerness to learn about blindness and the needs of blind people. If anyone has a question like that, I want them to feel comfortable asking me. Why do so many members of the public, including some blind people, believe that blind people need something special? I suppose it helps if communication is nonvisually accessible, rather than just a wave or a peace sign, but what really makes us so different that we would need anything beyond that? I asked the professor what he meant when he asked what to do.
When he would see a blind person on campus, he would often feel the urge to help the blind person, but he never really knew how, so he held back. He was generally uncomfortable with blind people. I told him that he ought to just do whatever he would do if he saw a sighted person. It would probably be a good idea to say hello, just as it would be for anyone else, and carry on as he would naturally. It is perfectly acceptable to approach a blind person to ask a question about something he or she is wearing or to introduce yourself for any of the normal reasons. It is not beneficial, however, to approach the person to offer help just because the person is blind.
There is a common presumption that the sighted bear a responsibility or even a sense of authority to know what information a blind person needs and lacks. Even though that professor meant well and even made an effort to become more educated about blindness and the needs of blind people, he held the belief that he needed to be ready to do something for the blind people he encountered.
In Honolulu people with low expectations for blind travelers have implemented the installation of an auditory traffic signal that we unaffectionately call “clickers.” The button to push for the crosswalk signal emits a soft and slow clicking sound. Once pushed, and when the traffic light changes appropriately, the clicking becomes much faster and louder on both sides of the street. Custodial orientation and mobility specialists will teach students to choose their placement, alignment, and time to cross the street based entirely on these clickers. I have to teach my students how to ignore the noise pollution that they create and to refute the low expectations that their implementation demonstrates. My students aim to cross based on the sounds of traffic, which is, of course, safer and more reliable than audible crossing signals. When approaching the streets, we are often greeted by well-meaning sighted people who think they are helping us by telling us that we are about to cross the street. It must not occur to them that this might be our intention. Many times, when we are standing at an intersection waiting to cross, well-meaning sighted people will walk up or get out of their cars just to push the button for us to initiate the clicker crossing signal. They take time out of their day to do something that they think will help us get what we want and that they think we cannot do for ourselves. They assume that we want the button to be pushed and that the problem is that we are unable to push the button ourselves. They assume that we want to cross the streets using the audible traffic signals. Instead, we are then faced with the choice of either crossing with the distraction of all the noise pollution created by the clickers or to wait for a future cycle without the clickers. When they push the button for us, they make it harder for us to pursue our own objectives, even though they think they know what we want.
When I was leaving a state convention of the National Federation of the Blind, I arrived at the airport about two hours and fifteen minutes prior to my departure, thanks to absolutely no traffic delays. As I was approaching the security checkpoint, a TSA agent decided to walk with me up to the podium where another agent would check my identification and boarding pass. I let her know that I didn’t expect to need any help but thanked her for her kindness. She followed me anyway, marveling at how independent I was. I am not accustomed to custodial members of the general public mentioning independence on their own. After the man at the podium had returned my boarding pass and identification, the female agent told me to come with her. Now, I was at the back of a line which seemed to be about twenty feet from the conveyor belt, so I asked her where we were going. She told me that she was going to take me to the front of the line so that I could go through security. I had plenty of time, so I decided to take advantage of a teachable moment. I explained to her that I did not mind waiting in line, that I had plenty of time to catch my flight. She persisted, and the man at the podium asked what the problem was. They expressed to each other that they could not believe that I did not want to go to the front of the line, that I actually wanted to wait in line. Even though they each had jobs to do, they decided to focus themselves on talking to me about this seemingly irrational decision that I was making. If we blind people want to have rights equal to those of our sighted counterparts, we must bear equal responsibility, and this applies to waiting in line. I explained this to them. Then, we discussed how the members of any minority, if they wish to achieve rights equal to those of the majority, must bear responsibility equal to that of the majority. They informed me that they were both black, and that they knew very well that, as a minority, they must each take every special opportunity they could get. I told them that I did civil rights work for the blind for my career and that I was not going to contradict my job while on my personal time. “I'm going to bring you to the front of the line, and then I'm going to treat you equally,” she said. I explained to her that equality is not something that can be switched off while cutting the line and then switched back on once I’m at the front. She finally let me go so I could stand in line like everyone else. She had been so sure that she knew what I wanted, but she made it harder for me to do what I wanted. I cannot think of any other subset of the population, except maybe children, who might have their priorities questioned to that degree.They think that they know what we want. They assume that they know our priorities, our hopes, and our dreams. If they try to act in pursuit of the priorities that they assume that we have, this takes our plans and our dreams out of our hands. In the National Federation of the Blind, we work to support the self-determination of blind people, which enables us to live the lives we want. The Federation continues to teach me that I should be able to pursue my own goals, which starts with being the one who knows what I want. Many well-meaning sighted people have attempted to help me while assuming they knew what I wanted, but the messages they sent in the process told me that they thought they were the ones with the capacity to know and pursue what I wanted. If I walk up to a street, it just might be intentional. If I walk up to a wall before turning, I might mean to do that, too. If I wait in line, it just might be that I am content there. My priorities, just like those of anybody else, can be more complex than what people who do not know me can perceive. The National Federation of the Blind is teaching me that I am the keeper of my own priorities, that I can live the life I want.