Helping A Blind Person 101: Ask First, And No Means No

The world is filled with helpful people, and as a disabled person, I encounter many of them. There are plenty of apathetic people to whom I’m mostly invisible, but more often than not, I meet genuinely kind people who want to make my life easier.
The downside of this desire to be helpful is that not everyone knows how to go about it. All the good intentions in the world won’t make up for assistance that puts us in danger or hinders our progress. It may sound ungrateful or presumptuous to dictate how people should help us, but a guide to offering unsolicited assistance is past due. It’s all very well for us to rant about the inadequate and unwanted assistance we receive, but if we don’t advise people on the best way to aid us, we’ll never get anywhere.
Now, this is your regular reminder that I do not speak for all disabled people. I don’t even speak for all blind people. While I listen to the complaints, recommendations, and rants of other blind people quite attentively, I don’t pretend to be an expert in all situations. The best I can do is cover the basics. So, here goes.

Ask First, always.

The issue I run into more than any other is people’s assumption that we live in a constant state of helplessness. They compensate for this by shouting instructions, touching us suddenly and without permission, or insisting that we must be lost, even when we reassure them that we’re doing just fine, thanks very much.
I really can’t overstate this: asking before offering help is not optional unless—and you must be very sure of this first—we are putting ourselves at risk of serious injury. If we’re walking straight into oncoming traffic or poised to walk off a cliff, I’d say that’s a good time to step in. These exceptions are very rare, however.
Asking for permission is the most essential part of being truly helpful, because you’ll find that most of the time we’re capable, competent travellers who know exactly where we are and where we’re going. Don’t panic if we veer a little while crossing the street, or backtrack when we walk past a door we’re searching for. Given time, we can usually straighten ourselves out. Deep concentration is at the root of problem-solving, so distracting us without being sure we are struggling is more of a hindrance than a help. Besides, asking before grabbing or steering someone is a tenet of common courtesy, don’t you think?

No means no.

Unless we are headed for the afore-mentioned life-threatening situations, it’s imperative that you listen to us and respect our wishes. If you offer help and we say we don’t need it, don’t be offended, and definitely don’t push. We’re not turning your offer down out of meanness or spite or ingratitude. We’re turning it down because we simply don’t need it, and help we don’t need slows us down and gets in our way, especially if you’re not skilled at giving directions or guiding a blind person. Chances are, if we’re saying “Thanks, but no thanks,” we mean it. Please respect that.
It’s worth noting that, if you bypass our wishes and grab or touch us without our consent, you’re treading on dangerous ground. It’s never acceptable to violate someone’s personal space, especially when they’ve made it clear that doing so is unwelcome. Here I must return to the rudimentary rules of politeness: no means no.

Be open to guidance.

Despite your level of confidence, make sure you’re open to suggestions. If a blind person agrees to let you help them, and you grab their hand, don’t be upset if they immediately break your grip and insist on holding your elbow instead. Holding the elbow of a sighted guide is safer than holding hands, and blind people have to be aware and protective of our personal safety. There are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak, but it’s up to us to tell you which way is best for our unique situations.
Note: just because you’ve used a particular method to guide another blind person in the past does not mean you are automatically entitled to use the same method again. We’re all different, and we have individual preferences and needs.

Be specific.

One memorable day, I was walking along with another blind friend. As we headed for the mall, a stranger yelled from across the street: “More left! More left!”
We both looked around, confused, and wondered what on earth he meant. How did he know where we were going? What were we supposed to take from “more left?” How much was “more?” Were these vague instructions even safe to follow?
More than anything else, this stranger’s instructions distracted and befuddled us. If left to our own devices, we would have made our way to the mall without incident. We understood that he was trying to be nice, but his chosen directions were so ambiguous that they did more harm than good.
When verbally guiding a blind person, use specific language. (If you don’t know left from right, please, please don’t use them!) Try to mention landmarks, street names, and other universally recognizable objects. Attempt to convey distance if possible beyond “a little more,” “over there,” “watch out!” and other nonspecific terms. Most importantly, don’t shout instructions across the street, since you might be wrong about our destination and are likely to throw us off course.

Use sound judgment.

Let’s say a blind person is making their way across a busy intersection. They’re about halfway across, and you decide they might need help crossing the street. You roll down your window and call out to them. They startle, seem annoyed, and keep walking without responding to you.
Has this happened to you? If so, don’t’ take it personally.
Navigating around traffic and other demanding tasks require close attention—attention we can’t afford to split between keeping ourselves safe and conversing with someone else. Most of us use our ears to feel secure when we travel, so it’s best not to add to all the noise pollution we already have to tune out. Attending to more stimuli than necessary is not something we generally find helpful, so if we’re not seeking help, leaving us alone is key. More than once, I’ve been jolted out of my “travel zone” by someone offering unsolicited assistance at just the wrong moment. I understand that not everyone is able to judge whether the situation is appropriate, which is, of course, why I’m writing this guide!

Don’t let your feelings run wild.

A few mornings ago, I was headed for my office when someone shouted “No, Meagan!”
I jumped, badly startled, and said “What?”
“You’re headed for that door over there. That’s not your room.”
“Um…no, I wasn’t headed for the wrong door. I’m not even sure which door you’re referring to. I was headed through these double doors over here.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“I…definitely was…”
“Whatever, then!”
She stormed off in a huff, no doubt wounded. Rejecting her good deed of the day was enough to cause offence and even, it seemed, resentment. I had managed to anger someone simply by not needing their help.
This person made quite a few mistakes here:
• She shouted very suddenly, frightening and distracting me.
• She used general language I couldn’t make sense of, as “over there” is not particularly descriptive.
• She assumed she knew where I was going, even though there were many places I could have been going to besides my office. (Maybe I was looking for the washroom, or the staff room, or the exit, or any number of places.)
• She did not believe me when I explained that I did not need guidance.
• She took it very personally when I continued to make my own way.
As is typical of me, I was far too polite to say any of this to her. I really have to work on that. I did not want to cause strife or make a scene, so I just walked away and let her think she was right. That was the worst thing I could have done, I know, though as she’s done this type of thing before, I doubt the message would have penetrated her obstinacy.
There’s something disconcerting about being told you’re wrong on the basis of absolutely no evidence at all. To my thinking, it takes an awful lot of confidence and nerve to assert that you know someone better than they know themselves. I’ve never seen an able person continually gaslighted, to the point where they wonder whether they really are going the wrong way. The attitude of “You’re blind, so I must know better” is disturbing, and I’d like to see it disappear.

Let’s recap, shall we?


So, try to remember that, while we appreciate help and occasionally need it, there’s a right and wrong way to give it. If we refuse your offer, don’t interpret it as a personal slight. If we explain the best way to help, respect our knowledge and expertise. If we become frustrated when our space is violated, don’t resent us.
Finally, if we tell you that your help was unwanted, don’t accuse us of ingratitude. We’ve no right to be excessively rude about it, but we do have the right to say no. Disabled people do need help, but only we get to decide what that looks like.

Inclusion For All! (Unless You’re Disabled)

Yesterday, I went through a fascinating but painful experience on Twitter. A very popular activist posted an important piece of information about the women’s march, saying she wanted it to reach as many people as possible and encouraging people to share far and wide. As it turns out, these were pretty words: while she did host a plain-text version of the information on her website, the tweet contained an inaccessible image with the text inside. This makes it impossible for screen readers to interpret the contents of the image, leaving out anyone with too little vision to read the message without sighted help. What is more, this woman placed a URL to the accessible version inside the inaccessible image, completely defeating the purpose of including it at all!
Wanting to make the information easier to access, another disability activist asked that the original poster tweet the URl on its own, and stressed the importance of accommodating screen readers, particularly since the tweet was meant to be available to everyone. If you want something shared widely, then including as many people as possible makes sense.
I joined the conversation (I’m a glutton for punishment), pointing out that Twitter has a handy alt text feature that makes it possible and easy to describe images. This feature would have been perfect for making sure the URL was readable for everyone, including blind screen reader users. I did not expect immediate action; I didn’t even expect a response at all. I just wanted to raise awareness about an option that is often overlooked and that would save people so much time and effort.
What did I get for my trouble? Well, nothing encouraging. Two of this activist’s followers jumped into my Twitter mentions to tell me the following.
• I had no right to “harass” someone who is doing her best.
• I was devaluing the tireless, exhausting work she was doing.
• I should go find something “real” to complain about.
• The only reason I was speaking up was that I was “bored with my life” and had nothing better to do. (Yes, because a full-time job, a social life, a relationship, and a budding freelance career mean I’m ever so bored and useless. I adore being judged based on nothing at all.)
• I should stop attacking people on Twitter.

Let’s break this down. A person (whose followers presumably agree with her) professes commitment to inclusiveness. Intersectionality, a buzzword many on the far left are fond of using, only applies to some groups. Disability is not included in that group, which is typical of a lot of feminist, left-wing activism; we’re often invisible to the loudest, proudest voices. Since I am disabled, I must be a bored, unproductive person. Asking for access is considered harassment by default, even when it’s a fairly polite, solitary tweet devoid of name-calling and anger. My concerns aren’t “real” or meaningful. Inclusion doesn’t include me, or other disabled people, and sharing far and wide means restricting your audience, even after you’re told how to remedy the issue. Finally, harassment doesn’t go both ways: tearing a stranger to pieces and continuing to tweet them after I’ve said I’m done with the conversation is acceptable, but sending one informational tweet is not.
I hate hypocrisy, and it’s inexpressibly devastating to come across it in the very communities that are supposed to support and include minorities. Why is disability so often absent from these people’s minds, and why, when it’s brought to their attention, is it so callously and vehemently dismissed? Why don’t we count?
I try to be patient with people. I try not to live a life of constant rage and victimhood. I realize that baby steps are par for the course and our rights and humanity won’t be fully recognized overnight. Education is vital and not every activist should be expected to have intimate knowledge of what we need right off the bat.
You would think, however, that once they’re enlightened, they’d act on what they have learned. Many of them do; later in the day, another Twitter user I approached apologized and was more than happy to make changes to her inaccessible tweets. Her warmth, sincerity, and complete lack of defensiveness were exactly what I needed after such a disappointing encounter.
I can put this down as one unfortunate incident and move on, and I intend to do just that. Before putting it behind me, though, I feel bound to tell people about my experience, and explain why that never should have been allowed to happen. Even among supposedly inclusive circles, I was treated like an annoyance who should just go away and stop complaining already. These people have “real” work to do. Can’t I leave them to do it?
This is not okay. You cannot and should not be allowed to get away with cherry-picking which minorities to support. You should not get to decide who is worthy and who is not. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we are guilty of cutting people down for honest mistakes. Despite this, I will continue to hold inclusive communities accountable for their refusal to acknowledge and stand with us. (Predictably enough, the activist I tweeted did not back me up or tell her followers to stop.)
In the meantime, I’m going to appreciate and uplift those who are willing to listen and act. The world isn’t all bad, and I can’t let myself drown in a sea of rage-fuel that really isn’t personal. I know I’m not useless. I know that my access requests are legitimate. I know I’m worthy of respect. I’ll just have to wait patiently for everyone to clue in, I suppose.
Now, excuse me while I get back to my productive, useful life.

My Words Are My Own: Language Policing In The Disability Community

“Don’t talk about yourself that way!”
“You shouldn’t devalue yourself!”
“You should always use person-first language. Do not put your disability before your personhood.”

I remember the first time I encountered the language police, and experienced the odd sensation of having my own words criticized and found unsuitable. It’s one thing to be careful when addressing other disabled people and the community as a whole; words are powerful and should be used with care. Even so, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being told that the words I use to describe myself are objectively wrong.
If you are at all familiar with the disability community, you’ve probably seen an article or three about the importance of person-first language: “person with disability” supposedly places the person before the disability, preventing people from letting disability define them in any way. (The policing of individual identities has long puzzled me. What is the deal with that?)
I’m perfectly willing to address and describe others in the way they prefer. Respecting individual preferences is a practice I value very highly. Autonomy is a luxury we are so often denied. Far be it from me to take it away from someone else, especially if their voice is not as loud as my own.
However, when it comes to my own identity and disability, I consider my words and preferences to be above everyone else’s. I do not say this out of arrogance or dismissal of the beliefs of others. My ears are always open, and the way I define myself has shifted with time and experience. That said, if I want to call myself visually impaired instead of partially sighted, disabled instead of differently abled, or normal instead of special, that is my prerogative. I do not feel that anyone has the right to dictate how I ought to view myself, particularly not on my own blog. (Besides, I find “person with a disability” clunky, especially when it comes up multiple times. It’s just quicker and easier to say “disabled.”)
For the most part, this misplaced desire to correct and police my language comes from misguided, well-intentioned able people, who do not understand that just because that one blind guy they know doesn’t mind being called special doesn’t mean they’re at liberty to assume everyone feels that way. I’m constantly running into the frustrating notion that disabled people’s wishes are not as important as nondisabled people’s. I am angered and dismayed by the idea that they know better than we do, and it seems that even those with minimal knowledge of the community are willing to tell us we’re wrong.
Surprisingly, though, some of this policing comes from fellow disabled people, who seem to think that I am somehow harming or degrading myself by using terms they deem offensive. Offence is ultimately an individual experience, and I do not believe anyone can seriously expect to know what should offend me and what should not.
I personally find euphemisms like “differently abled” and “handicapable” repugnant. I see them as proof that society still wishes to tiptoe around disability, remaining unable to fully accept and make peace with its existence. Branding me special or differently abled takes away from the fact that my condition is basically just a hardware failure. No, it does not have to define me, and no, it does not consume my whole life, but yes, it’s a meaningful part of me—one I’ve learned to live with in relative contentment. There is no need to gloss it over or refer to it using roundabout language designed to make able people feel better about it.
Please do not police my language when I describe myself. Please do not presume to know how I should treat my own identity. Please do not shame me for the way I choose to look at myself and my place in the wider world. By all means, let me know your perspective on the best terms to use in general, but do not take it upon yourself to set me straight when I’m talking about myself. When it comes to my blindness, and mine alone, I know best.

How Do You … Stay Organized?

This week, we have another post in the new “How do you…” series. As always, I’m wide open to suggestions!


How do you stay organized?

Uh-oh. I was afraid of this one.
Is this where I admit that I live in a constant state of organized chaos?
Okay, I lied…about the organized part. Basically I live in chaos. My life is chaos, okay? Happy now?
All right, so I do have some ability to keep track of my belongings, and since blind people spend a good deal of our precious time finding and identifying objects, I thought it made sense to address this topic today, squirmy as it makes me.
The key to relative success seems to involve a whole lot of consistency. If I, as a blind person, don’t put things back where I found them, I will never find them again (or, when I do find them, it’ll be because I tripped over them). Since I’d rather not spend my life rescuing items from the danger zone that is my floor, I use a combination of labels, technology, and complex organizational systems to ensure everything is easy to keep track of.
Labels are very useful, especially when I can use handy gadgets like the Pen Friend. The pen comes with special adhesive tags that you can attach to objects. You touch the tip of the pen to the label, hold down a “record” button, and speak your desired message aloud. Then, each time you touch the pen to that specific label, it will play back your message. I use this to categorize my vast tea collection, for example.
My memory isn’t what it was—a combination of medication and migraines has seen to that—but I still rely on it for simpler organization. I memorize which items of clothing make great outfits, and line up foods in my cupboards a certain way so I can prevent culinary disasters (like that time I almost used frozen berries instead of frozen peas).
Technology is more of a last resort: if my other systems have failed, or if I’m unable to identify something I’ve just purchased, there are mobile apps I can use to take photos of objects and have them identified for me. The process can necessitate a whole lot of fiddling, especially since one of my many weaknesses is taking awful photos, but it works well in a pinch.
Perhaps now my sighted friends will understand why it’s imperative that blind people’s belongings be left alone. If you reorganize or move our possessions without our permission or knowledge, you could inadvertently disrupt a complex system that will be difficult to straighten out. Besides the fact that leaving objects where you find them is an element of basic courtesy, failing to do so can throw us off for days while we struggle to put things right. Please, be careful and respectful when handling our things. We appreciate it very much.

How Do You … Coordinate Your Clothing?

Lately, the blog has focused more on introspection than education, so it’s high time I returned to that theme. This week, I’ll introduce a new series of explanations on how I accomplish certain tasks as a blind person. I get so many questions on various topics that I think I’d like to devote a short series of posts to them, so in addition to regular posts, I’ll be writing this series as well. If you have questions or suggestions, please get in touch!
While I cannot speak for all blind people, and may not use the best techniques out there, there is enough public interest that I feel posts like this will be of use to someone (and may cut back on the zillions of questions I answer while trying to go about my business)!

How do you coordinate your clothes?

Dressing well is one of my top priorities. I’ve never been a fashion enthusiast, and I tend to favour comfort and utility over style, but I still value my appearance. Few things make people take me more seriously, both professionally and personally, than a well-chosen outfit. There persists an unfortunate stereotype: the sloppily-dressed blind person, wearing inside-out tops, unsuitable combinations, and mismatched socks. (This last is okay, in my book, mind you.) Since this is what so many people expect from me, I’m careful to prove them wrong.
I’m fortunate to live in a time when blind people are no longer universally advised to dress as neutrally and uninterestingly as possible. Taking risks with clothing, making fashion statements, or seeking individuality is no longer as discouraged as it once was. The public may still look at unusual outfits and assume that the poor blind person was just clueless (God forbid we exercise agency when we dress unconventionally), but we’re working to abolish this notion. We are realizing, as a collective, that we have every right to experiment and embrace our own sense of style. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to a dull, uninspired wardrobe simply because we can’t see.
So, how do I do it? I tend to cheat a little: I have enough usable vision to discern at least some colours, so this helps me keep track of which colour combinations I’m using. Understanding on a gut level which colours clash is never something I’ve been able to grasp, but I can at least go along with conventional wisdom.
One important thing I do is solicit feedback from sighted people I trust. Going shopping with someone whose eyes are fully functional reduces anxiety and helps me choose clothing more confidently. Learning to prioritize my preferences over other people’s opinions is still a struggle for me, as I have too little faith in my sense of taste, but I’m working on balancing sighted people’s opinions with my own instincts. I’ve been criticized for my love of ankle-length skirts, for example, but when I actually wear them, people realize they suit me well. Colouring inside the lines isn’t always the best choice, I promise.
Finally, I tend to choose clothing that’s both diverse in style and easy to coordinate. I go for dark-coloured skirts and pants so that I can wear virtually any colour of top and get away with it. I used to avoid anything that wasn’t black or white for fear of messing up, but I now experiment with brighter colours and more interesting outfits. My other strategy is to pick clothing with a distinctive fabric or shape, so I can distinguish, say, a yellow tank top from a white one. One day, I may have to use special tags or clothing labels to keep my wardrobe organized, but for now my memory works best.
Do I make mistakes? Absolutely, but more often than not, I receive praise for being so well-dressed. That’s good enough for me.