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Interacting With Blind People

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Many of us are uncomfortable around the blind. Perhaps we are unsure of how to interact, what to do and not to do, how to keep from offending. This is a guide about interacting with blind people.
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September 22, 2011

These comments have been percolating for quite awhile. Please excuse if some of them strike you as a bit snarky (acerbic and smart-alecky).

  1. Blindness ain't for sissies! Apologies to late actress Helen Hayes who originally said "getting old ain't for sissies", but this is true. It takes a special sort of mental, emotional and spiritual toughness to deal with suddenly being blind. Not that it doesn't take a similar toughness to deal with being born blind, of course. We live in a world designed for the sighted and able-bodied. It's not easy, but it can be done.
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  3. Blindness takes a lot of concentration. I admit it freely that I was born an airhead, and I suspect I'll die an airhead. I was also born a visual learner; I learned best by reading. Of course, that was in my life B. C. (before the crash). In my life A. D. (after the disaster) without much vision left, I now rely mostly on my senses of hearing, smell, taste, touch and of course, my memory. It can be downright exhausting! It sometimes makes it difficult to multi-task, too. I miss multitasking.
  4. I have to speak for myself. Along with having been born an airhead, I was born a "mouse." That is, I was born shy. Thanks to my experiences these past eight years, though, I know I won't die a "mouse." My time in the hospital away from everyone who could and did speak for me, forced me into a new pattern. It was then that I realized, no one knows what I need or want better than I do, and no one can express my thoughts and feelings better than I can. How liberating is that?
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  6. My blindness makes people nervous. I still recall the evening my family attended an event at my former high school. My five children had also attended this school, so I'd memorized much of the layout; especially the area around the auditorium where I'd spent a lot of time as a drama and choir mom. However I created a small panic, simply by attempting to walk to the ladies' room unattended. What did they think I'd do, run for home? In the past couple of years I've learned not to go too far without an attendant, just to spare my family and friends that sort of scare. I don't like it, but I do it.
  7. Toying with obnoxious "normies" heads can be fun. Last Mother's Day, my older daughter took me shopping. I was daydreaming a little while as I waited for her to find something. Suddenly I realized a stranger was literally in my face, repeating "excuse me, excuse me" in a nasty tone. My daughter pointed out something the woman apparently hadn't noticed, my blindness. Then I gave in to the impulse to reinforce my daughter's message by showing the white cane that had been folded, and put into the front of the cart. My daughter told me later, the shock on the woman's face was priceless. Boy, did she beat a hasty retreat!
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  9. My sense of humor still catches people off-guard. Sorry, folks, it's just that I was raised to laugh, rather than cry at every opportunity. My blindness is no exception. Many times when people say something like "I can't see (whatever)." I say in my best Ben Stein impersonation, "That's okay, neither can I?". The shocked silence that often follows such a remark is too funny!
  10. It's okay to use "sight" words around me. You don't have to walk on eggshells or apologize if you use a "sight" word in my presence. My pal Eleanore once joked about "sneaking in and robbing us blind." Of course, I cracked up. She was mortified when she realized what she'd said. That only made me laugh harder. Sorry, Eleanore!
  11. It's okay if you forget I'm blind. Actually, I consider it a compliment when people forget my vision loss. That means I'm doing a good job compensating!
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  13. "Over there" is a foreign concept to the blind. I recently read (well, listened to) a hilarious commentary on the concept of "over there." The author wrote that his long white cane could find many things, but not "over there." Even my hubby does it; and I can never decide whether to smack him or laugh and ask him to be more specific! Please, please tell me the chair is a couple of feet to my left and ahead, not "over there!"
  14. Waiting for sighted assistance is a pain! I can't count the number of times when I've asked one of my sighted family or friends to help me solve a "vision-critical" problem or drive me somewhere; only to hear, "Does it have to be done right now?" Since I hate inconveniencing anyone, I often just cancel the request. That's limiting and extremely frustrating, but has only strengthened my resolve to learn to independently do everything I can. I may never be 100% independent, but hey, I can try!
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      There's a lot more I could say, but I'll keep to my "rule of ten." I hope I've enlightened someone today!

      By JustPlainJo from Springfield, OH

      Comment Was this helpful? 18

June 1, 2010

Back, by popular demand, here are a few more tips for sighted folk dealing with blind people:

One: Don't Be Afraid, I'm Still Me

Okay, I grant you this: that drunk driver changed a lot about my life, but he didn't change who I really am. First and most important, I still love God. I also have the same quirky, dry sense of humor I always had. I'm still the biggest bookworm I know, although my reading method has changed (more about that another time.) I still insist on watching "Jeopardy" in peace, six days a week if I can get it. Some things are different. The core of who I am is the same.

Two: Don't Pity Me. I Don't

Doesn't your heart ache when you look at some poor, helpless soul? That isn't me. I did go through a "bad patch," as the English would say. During that time, I needed all the help I could get. Pity, on the other hand, doesn't help anyone. It only makes you and the object of your pity both sad and weak. Save your energy for something more practical, thanks.

Three: Don't Underestimate My Abilities

I've lost count how many people seem genuinely surprised that I can do even simple tasks, just because I'm blind. I admit, there are things I can't do anymore, like drive. But the list of things I can do is long and growing longer. Yes, I take care of my personal needs, including washing and dressing my own hair. Yes, I choose my own clothes, with occasional color confirmation. I'm probably safer in the kitchen than hubby, and am better at planning meal prep. I get raves over my Jiffy-mix cornbread, lol! Obviously, I can and do use my computer; more about that later. Suffice it to say, I'm far from helpless!

Four: Don't Do Too Much For Me

The issue of "how much help is too much" is one of my pet peeves. When you see a blind friend, coworker or family member "miss the mark" and butter his paper towel instead of his toast, don't snatch it away and butter it for him. That will not only make him more dependent, it will damage his self esteem. It'll probably also make him insufferably lazy! Because I work, believe it or not, I've gotten into the lazy habit of letting hubby do most of the cooking. I know I'm bound to regret that someday, probably sooner rather than later!

Five: When I Genuinely Need Help, Don't Hesitate

There are skills I haven't learned yet. Hubby knows I'm not brave enough to iron my own clothes yet, for example. Because we have pet dogs, I rely on a human sighted guide when I venture into the world outside our door. My ideal sighted guide notices and warns me of obstacles and compensates for my poor balance on curbs. Hubby got kudos from me the last time we went out because instead of dragging me along (lol), he led me to banisters and let me make my own way.

Six: Don't Be Too Impressed. It Isn't Magic, It's Focus

Do blind people have supernatural abilities in their other senses? Nope. When I'm not focused, I can miss as much as anyone. Since the loss of most of my vision, however, I've learned to shift information-gathering to my other senses. Oftentimes that includes what some would call my "sixth sense." You can still sneak up on me sometimes, but not often!

Seven: Of Course My Memory is Better Than Yours

My husband once asked the president of my National Federation of the Blind (NFB) chapter how she remembers so many facts, calendar events, etc. She answered simply, "I have no choice." He was also impressed at how much of my original "Ten Commandments of Dealing with the Blind" speech I recalled. When you, as a sighted person, give a speech, you can glance at notes; whether on a notebook, printed page, or (like Sarah Palin,) on your hand. My visual impairment has robbed me of that ability,and I find it difficult to listen to a recorded note and speak well simultaneously. My memory hasn't improved because I wanted it to, necessarily. I've simply had no choice. I'm frankly glad for the increased skill level. You would be, too.

Eight: Don't Be Afraid to Go Out in Public with Me

Even without most of my sense of sight, I'm still acutely conscious of the importance of appearance. If, for example, you and I went to dinner together, I promise not to gross you out by doing something embarrassing or with sub-par table manners. While said table manners probably aren't nearly as refined as folks who've been blind all their lives, they're not heinous. My sister-in-law balked at eating in public with me recently. Specifically, she voiced concern that I'd knock my drink glass into her lap. Thankfully for all of us, I managed to avoid that humiliation (whew!)

Nine: Describe Things to Me

I'll love it. In the seven years since losing most of my sight, there are a lot of things I've missed seeing. Sunsets, rainbows, and faces are tops on that list. Instead of saying "He's handsome" or "She's beautiful"; why not tell me "He's about 6 foot tall, with curly dark hair." or "She's short and slim, with long, straight, strawberry-blond hair." And PLEASE don't just tell me, "there's a chair over there." I can't SEE where the chair is, for goodness' sake! Try instead, "There's a chair a couple of steps ahead of you and a little to your right." Best of all, you're welcome to take me by the hand and lead me to that chair. Place my hand on the back; I'll do the rest.

Ten: Please Understand My Need to Touch a Solid Object

Here, at the end of this list, we come to one of my major pet peeves. If you're leading me somewhere and have to step away from me, PLEASE don't just drop my hand and leave me standing in open space with nothing to touch. Since I don't see what's around me, I'll feel as if I'm in the middle of a wasteland, devoid of all solid objects. That's an INTENSELY uncomfortable feeling! We blind folks have something called the "anchoring instinct." That is, we're MUCH more comfortable when we can "anchor" ourselves in space by touching something solid. A wall will do, if nothing else is readily available. I'm not clinging to you because I'm trying to get freaky, I promise!

Thanks for your kind attention. I sincerely hope you've gained some insight into what blind people really go through. Perhaps it'll help you feel more comfortable next time you're faced with anyone different from you, in whatever way.

By JustPlainJo from Springfield, OH

Editor's Note: Please share your own experiences with us in the feedback.

Comment Was this helpful? 28

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June 1, 20100 found this helpful

Okay, this isn't going to be full of "these" and "thous." I speak modern English, not King James English. But I thought this format would be the easiest and most concise.

One: Respect Me

So I'm blind. My eyes don't work as well as yours. That doesn't make me any less human than you. Please don't talk down to me or be condescending. I can hear it in your voice. I can feel the attitude coming off you in waves. You're not better than I am just because all your faculties work correctly. Remember that.

Two: I'm Here. Speak To Me

Always speak TO a blind person. Don't speak over, around or through me. I know you can see me. I can't see you, but I hear you very well. Speak to me. Please don't use my sighted assistant as a go-between or interpreter. This happened to me recently with a company of mortgage brokers. I find it incredibly demeaning - not to mention insulting.

Three: Always Remember, I Feel Too

Do you get cold when the temperature drops? So do I. Same thing with hot weather. I'm no less conscious of heat and cold than you are. In fact, I'm probably more sensitive to changing temperatures. If you want to put on a sweater on a winter day, you'd better believe I do, too. A multi-handicapped blind person I know said he'd ask for triple-paned windows, but I won't go that far. Just make reasonable accommodations to keep out the worst of the weather, and I'll be content.

Four: Think Safety

I'm tough, don't get me wrong. Yet as a blind person, I'm more vulnerable - in some ways. Throw rugs and even wall-to-wall carpet can trip me if the edges aren't fastened. A cluttered environment is also a tripping hazard. My balance isn't as good as yours. A sturdy banister on the stairs, even if there are only two, or a grab-bar in the shower isn't a luxury in my eyes, it's a necessity. A peephole does nothing for me. I'd rather have a good, strong security bar, not a chain; it could be too easily broken by a determined intruder. "Slip-strips" on the stairs would be welcome. Some folks with more usable vision could use high-contrast paint on those stairs. It isn't exactly a fashion statement, but hey - it helps.

Five: Help Me Be An Informed Tenant. I'll Thank You For It

I don't read Braille, but a lot of my contemporaries do. If reading the paperwork is too much for you, perhaps someone else (maybe my sighted guide) could accommodate me. If no one can or will read important documents to me, I have a variety of ways I can read for myself. Ask me. Given a little time and help, I'm more than capable of understanding the terms of my lease.

Six: Accessibility is Key

For me, my dream home would include tactile or talking controls on everything. If I had more usable vision, high-contrast tape or paint in strategic locations like doorways would help. Again, not a fashion statement, but helpful. I'm a penny-pincher extraordinaire. I've gotten pretty good at finding economic ways to adapt regular items to meet my needs. My touch-pad oven controls are marked with a $3 tactile marker, for example. Ask me for ideas how to adapt my environment. It can often be done without your having to break the bank.

Seven: Remember, We Need Each Other

Granted, without you, perhaps I'd have a little trouble finding living space. But without me, you might have an empty space costing, rather than making, you money. I'm a responsible citizen. I pay my bills, usually on time. We'll get along fine as long as you treat and and charge me fairly.

Eight: Communication Matters

If you have problems that are going to affect our arrangement, never assume I'll know. I'm not a mind-reader, and osmosis rarely works in humans. If utilities are included in my rent (which I'll pay faithfully), don't make me wake up without water, heat or electricity one morning because you forgot to pay the bill. That'll really affect our relationship, such as it is. If you can't call, stop by or email me, please.

Nine: Respect My Space

If you absolutely have to enter my home, please tell me ahead of time. It isn't only the law, it's simple courtesy. Even for a sighted person, there's nothing more unnerving than entering your home and knowing someone's been in there without your permission. Never assume because I'm blind, I won't know. I will.

Ten: Control Yourself, Your Children and Your Animals

I don't personally have an assistance animal, but I know people who do. When you see the vest, that dog is on the job. Please don't pet without permission, and please teach your children likewise. And please warn me if your 100-pound Rottweiler is about to pounce on me. I know he's there, but can't see him coming at me. Even a small or mid-size dog unexpectedly jumping on or licking a blind person is very startling. I know Fido is only trying to say "hi", but I'd rather not be bowled over, thank you very much!

Source: I wrote this speech and presented it orally at our local Fair Housing Board's seminar for landlords and realtors today, 4/29/2010. Since so many points are of general interest, thought I'd share.

By JustPlainJo from Springfield, OH

Editor's Note: Are you visually impaired or do you have friends and family that deal with challenges like Jo has described? Post your experiences here.

Answers:

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

This is excellent, Jo! Congratulations on your speech and thank you for sharing it with us! (05/05/2010)

By Deeli

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

I had an aunt who went blind from the ravages of diabetes. They didn't catch hers in time. She had been working in a nursing home when she went blind and she decided to go to school in Kansas City to learn how to cope with her blindness. She learned how to read braille, and write braille. She learned how to cook blind and do her ironing blind and I am sure many more things to do without her eyesight. When she returned home they had held her job at the nursing home for her and she was able to pick up where she left off. We were all so very proud of her. She never gave up. She is gone now but never forgotten. (05/05/2010)

By ninya61

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

I worked for many years as a sighted guide for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. It was enlightening to take the course they offer for sighted guides. Its amazing to be lead blindfolded while you depend on someone to lead you safely. Sometimes I think it would be helpful for all people to try this so they have some understanding. (05/06/2010)

By thriftmeg

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

I am the sensitivity enhancement coordinator for H.O.P.E.,Helping others to Promote Equality,We do sessions for local agencies that provide services for the Developmently challenged population,I loved your ten commandments piece,You articulated your feelings beautifully. Hopefully everyone who read your story truly heard you! (05/06/2010)

By swaz63

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

More advice please. Tell us more commandments. I work with blind students, who learn to work on their computers with Voice Out software and using key combinations instead of the mouse. Any information you can pass on helps.

Thanks for an excellent article. (05/07/2010)

By Julia Walton

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

This is great stuff. It's always good to know how we can better communicate with and deal with those whose abilities are different from ours. Thank you! (05/09/2010)

By WildIrish

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

I supervise at a MO Sheltered Workshop. One of my employees lost most of her sight in a near fatal car wreck ten years ago. She can see well enough to move about, run a thrift store as a clerk/cashier, and lives alone, cooks, cleans, etc. I find her to be an inspiration.

This last month she was so excited to be able to go with her church group on a "mission" and tour of Chicago. That was until someone at her church decided there really wasn't anything she could do at this function. I am still scratching my head on this one, and wonder if I should write to the church so that they might know how crushed she was to hear that she is "useless?"

She was talking about serving soup at the soup kitchen, helping kids with crafts, and seeing the sights. I know for a fact she could do all of this and more! She is on a disability income and could never afford to do this kind of trip on her own.

I guess I am unsure of where the line of work relationship and the friendship lays. (05/11/2010)

By Dedeswrkshop

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

Dedeswrkshop, I am appalled that a 'church' member (or board member) would deny your friend! Yes, open your mouth and complain! Make arrangements to talk to her pastor AND find out who his/her boss is and let them know what happened too! How very UN-Christian! And how very hypocritical when this was to be a 'mission'! It's church members like these who turn people away from God! And how dare anyone treat another human being in such a way by assuming they are incapable!

As for your employee friend, would it be possible to do a secret (to her) fund raiser for her so that she and another person can go with her to Chicago for her own 'mission' and be able to do the things she was hoping to do in the first place? Hey, I would run that by the pastor and the pastors boss too ;-) (05/11/2010)

By Deeli

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

I'm loving this great feedback,keep it coming! :D

I'm very open about myself, hubby thinks I'm too open, lol! Now that I know another useful subject, you'd better believe I'll be writing more! I think I'll make my next article on either "lowered expectations" or perhaps my JAWS screen reader and some of my other tools. What do you all think? (05/11/2010)

By JustPlainJo

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

Thank you Thank you Thank you.
This could be geared towards any impaired person. "We" often don't know how to act or treat someone who is a bit different.I'm an amputee and children most of all are curious and most times their parents yank them the other way or appear embarrassed.

Life is full of uncertainties and tomorrow any one of us could be blind,go deaf or lose a limb. (05/12/2010)

By keeper60

The Ten Commandments Of Dealing With The Blind

Keeper, I'm soooo glad to be able to heighten folks' awareness of the frustrations of us V. I. PS, grin! I can't exactly speak knowledgeably for someone in a wheelchair, for example - but I can speak from my own experience. I'm also very open to honest (not demeaning or sarcastic) questions.

I'm just about finished writing "Ten More Commandments of Dealing with the Blind," and I promise to post it ASAP. Of course, I'll keep this thread in my Favorites folder awhile longer, thanks again for the great feedback, and for all your votes. Together, maybe we can reduce the number of unhappy incidents between what a friend calls "normies," and those of us who have various challenges. (05/14/2010)

By JustPlainJo

Comment Was this helpful? Yes
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