by Nancy Burns
From the Editor: Nancy Burns is a loyal, longtime member who does her best to deposit a nugget of real value to the Braille Monitor. What she has to say is always thought provoking, and this offering is no different. What she offers is her perspective on our obligation to educate the public and the absolute necessity that we mingle if real integration is to occur. Here is what she has to say:
As blind or visually impaired people, we are frequently confronted with demeaning and sometimes insulting questions or comments from the general public. The difficulty is how to respond to these situations without alienating anyone. The sighted public generally has little if any connection with someone who happens to be blind, and therefore long held false assumptions seem to kick into place.
From my years of dealing with such encounters, it has come to my attention that the common belief is that it would be impossible for the sighted person in question to perform typical daily tasks without vision. The truth of the matter is that such opinions are accurate. As blind people we know that it takes training and a positive attitude to become a confident and competent individual. The National Federation of the Blind has for decades provided support and training in these areas. The challenge then becomes how to respond to such a person. These encounters occur all too quickly, and we must think on our feet without hesitation. This is challenging and much easier said than done.
A lively discussion centering around these issues took place during a recent group meeting, and a number of desired responses to these comments were shared. The range of responses went from the use of sarcasm to an attempt to find humor in the situation. Several examples of rather thoughtless questions were reported. Who picks out your clothes for you? Do you know where you are going? Will your dog take you to the right location? May I move your stick? These are just a few of the commonly asked questions. The answers seem relatively simple to those of us who happen to be blind. Occasionally there may even be a bright side to these encounters. Dialog between blind people and the general public does not always occur, but occasionally we are able to clarify a situation. The more we are out there and seen walking independently, catching buses for work, being involved in daily activities, or getting involved in civic organizations, the more we are viewed as “normal.” Each of us is an ambassador of the truth and must respond politely to those never-ending comments from uneducated or unthinking people. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to wear a badge of independence and to share the responsibility of educating and not alienating the sighted public.
The flip side of this is our responsibility to support and educate one another. A proven fact is that we, as blind individuals, are the best instructors for others who happen to be blind. A perfect example of this is the fact that in the past only sighted people taught the use of the long white cane. NFB training centers now exist in which capable blind people administer and work in these programs. We also serve as peer counselors for our blind sisters and brothers. There is no better source of learning than from one another. Questions from how to take college exams to how I coordinate clothes or prepare a meal for my family can be easily answered by a blind friend.
The National Federation of the Blind, as a result of its very existence, provides huge opportunities for training and confidence building. The structure of this nationwide organization provides opportunities to learn and to assume leadership roles. Self-confidence will be gained, and sharing this experience with others who happen to be blind is the very backbone of the National Federation of the Blind.