Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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That Well-Known Road

by Nancy Burns

Nancy Burns"Do you know where you are?" asked the elderly-sounding man who was in front of us in the checkout line, waiting to pay for a purchase. I suppose he asked this question because my husband and I were both using white canes.

I truly wanted to scream and say something like, "No, we are totally lost." This sort of inquiry is frequently directed to us. I bit my tongue because deep down I believed that the man was trying to assist but didn't have a clue how to do so. Such questions are demeaning and could have a powerfully negative impact on someone who was adjusting to recent vision loss. Since my husband and I are well-adjusted blind adults, such comments are simply annoying.

As a woman who happens to be blind, I have spent my adult life attempting to educate the general public that it is okay to be different, and specifically that it is okay to be blind. The majority of people don't see it that way. Being asked these questions puts me in a difficult position. My desire is to educate, but these belittling questions or comments are not always easy to respond to. There is a fine line between educating and alienating someone. For me it is like walking a tightrope, and I am never quite sure which way to lean. When the waitress asks my sighted friend, "What would she like?" she is making an erroneous assumption. I suspect she believes that, since I can't read the menu, I obviously don't know what to order. Or perhaps the all-too-common misconceptions about blind people kick in, and she just concludes that I am unable to function. Interestingly enough, some of these folks even speak louder, assuming that my hearing is also impaired.

In books, in movies, and in the media blind people are often portrayed as either amazing or helpless and dependent. Why is it so difficult for the general public to understand that blind people are in fact just people with all the abilities, hopes, and desires of the sighted world? If there are blind people (and there are some) who appear to be helpless and unproductive, could it be that the public’s inaccurate beliefs and false impressions about blindness have contributed to producing their inequality? If you expect nothing of us, nothing is what you will get. Societal attitudes about blindness or vision loss must change in order for those of us who are blind to truly be considered as normal (whatever that is) citizens. On the other hand, if you believe in equality--equality is what we will all achieve.

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