What she said. A different perspective. One that I can relate to. ~ GGB
As much as we like to think that we don’t make any judgements of people before we know them, my experience is that many do unfortunately judge a book by its cover. I am registered as blind, but physically appear to be fully sighted (I can make eye contact, I wear make-up and my eyes and face appear completely normal). I use a cane when I’m in places I’m not familiar with (especially if I don’t have a friend’s arm to grab), or if my eyes are tired, but a lot of the time I can get around fairly well without anything (admittedly, my ‘fairly well’ would be someone else’s ‘she gets around like a bumper car’).
When I’m walking without a cane, or just on my partner’s or friend’s arm, I get treated just like anyone else – if I smile at a stranger, they tend to smile back and if I’m just keeping myself to myself, I can go around un-noticed. However, if I’m using my cane it is as if I have a sudden spotlight shining on me; I find myself being stared at and will often find when people speak to me, they slow down their speech, or (my favourite) some tilt their heads and give me a sympathetic ‘ah bless’ smile. It’s almost like I have a big sign over my head with my IQ on it and somehow, too many around me, when I get my cane out the points rapidly fall away.
In many respects I am lucky that even when I use my cane, I can still make eye contact and, in every other way I appear fully sighted, I find that I have a much easier time of making strangers comfortable with me and my IQ sign can start to creep back up quite quickly.
However, if I’m with a friend who looks blind, regardless of whether I myself am using a cane or not, most of the general public will automatically address me instead of my friend; ‘Does she need a seat?’, ‘Does he want some help?’. It often makes us laugh as it is generally meant well, but actually ‘he’ and ‘she’ can hear you perfectly fine if you just say ‘Excuse me, do you need any assistance?’. It can amuse me when someone speaks to me like I’m 10 years old when I use my cane, but I’m lucky in that I can put my cane away and that game is over. But, if you’re someone who also looks visually impaired you can really struggle to find anyone who will speak to you as an adult. When I’m with a friend of mine who has almost no sight at all, who can’t make eye contact, wears sunglasses and has a giant white cane (he’s well over 6 ft tall so his cane is nearly my height!), I notice some people talk to him like he’s (for lack of a better word) an idiot; ‘Oh, you’re going on the train? Wow!’ or, ‘You do sport when you can’t see? AMAZING!’ – my friend has a PHD from Cambridge in something so complicated and scientific, that I would embarrass myself if I even tried to explain it!.. Oh, and English isn’t even his first language.
That spotlight that appears to shine on me seems to be 10x brighter if you look visually impaired, and you can’t switch it off like I can by simply putting my cane away. Admittedly there are some small issues being visually impaired and not appearing so…on occasion some especially rude people will call you a liar and have a go at you for ‘pretending to be blind’, or many simply assume it can’t be ‘that bad’ so they don’t make allowances for you. But considering how those who are obviously visually impaired are regularly treated, it’s not just a crass title, I think I am genuinely lucky that I don’t look blind.
I’m sure many of you reading this are sensitive enough already to realise how to act with people with impairments – and I really want to be clear that it would probably feel equally bad if everyone were to purposefully ignore someone and look the other way – but if you are wondering what the answer is, it is simply education! If you’re curious about someone, then why not just ask them a question – for example ‘hi there, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re visually impaired, do you mind me asking you about your sight?’ – that may sound scary and more personal than us Brits like to get, but whenever anyone has taken that approach with me we end up having a really good chat, and I feel sure that they go away feeling more educated and more confident for the next time they meet someone with a similar condition. I know it is a bold step for many, but don’t be put off by doing this in a public place, like on the train, by you showing others that you’re comfortable enough to ask questions helps to put them at ease too!
Georgie Bullen FRSA is a GB Goalball Paralympian and the Director of Team Insight– a team building and visual impairment awareness training events organization. Find Georgie on Twitter!
This article was originally published on Linkedin / January 25, 2018
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