Thursday, 6 October 2016

6 Things You Should Never Assume About A Blind Person

While it is true that forming and manifesting assumptions is a normal and integral part of day-to-day life, it is also no secret that assumption can breed stigma. I am almost completely blind, and I can say with a massive amount of conviction that having a disability is still something that has a fair amount of stigma attached to it. Don't get me wrong, I was born into the nineties and I feel incredibly lucky to have been born into a generation that has become so liberal. But, as is the case with many minorities, there is still a lot of progress to be made, and a lot of attitudes are still not as they should be.  
  There is no etiquette rule book on how to correctly speak to someone with a disability and the reason for that, quite simply, is that no two people with a disability will view and handle it in the same way. Everyone is different, and two individuals with the exact same disability may approach it in completely different ways. With that being said, when it comes to the blind and visually impaired community I do feel there are some tips to bear in mind that will apply to most of us. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of every single blind or partially sighted person you will ever meet, but I can speak from experience. Below are six assumptions that I have experienced first-hand on many occasions and in many different contexts. You may want to take them with a pinch of salt, because of course, not every blind or partially sighted person you meet will think as I do, but you may want to loosely bare them in mind if ever you do find yourself in the company of someone like me. 

1. If you approach me in public, do not assume that I know who you are. 
If I had a pound for every time I'd made small talk with an acquaintance in public while having no idea who I was speaking to, I would have a reasonable amount of money in the bank. If you notice that I'm looking a little bit puzzled when you approach me, a gentle reminder of your name would be greatly appreciated. It's probably not because I don't remember you, it's just that I can't see your face, so I don't recognise it. Don't get me wrong, I do get it - instant facial recognition is instinctive to anyone with sight. It comes naturally and without thinking. But sometimes - not all the time, mind you - those of us with poor sight will need a nudge in the right direction when it comes to recognising people. In my case, once I've spent enough time with someone I can usually recognise them easily by their voice. It might take us a bit longer, but we will eventually learn who you are without prompting. 

2. Do not assume that my hearing is supersonic because my vision is poor. 
I am without a doubt as blind as a bat, but unfortunately I was not blessed with a bat's hearing capabilities. There is a limited amount of scientific research that suggests that those who have been blind from birth may have better hearing than their sighted peers, but the blind can not hear the unhearable. As much as we'd like it to be, supersonic hearing isn't in our repertoire of party tricks. We might be able to teach you some basic Braille or tell you how a guide dog helps us get from A to B, but we can't hear a whisper from across the room at a party - sorry! 

3. Do not assume that you cannot ask me about my sight loss and how it affects me. 
While it's common sense that nobody wants to be stopped and quizzed about their disability in the middle of the street, the majority of people do appreciate genuine curiosity, given the right time and place. The only way people will become more aware of disabilities is if they get information about them, and what better way to get it than straight from the horse's mouth? I think in the grand scheme of things people would rather be asked questions about their disability and how it affects them than be the subject of a misinformed judgement. What I mean is that ultimately, disability should not be treated as a taboo subject, and (most) people aren't going to get offended by your genuine curiosity and willingness to learn. I'm sure I once read somewhere that an open mind is the key to a happy mind. 

4. Do not assume that I cannot or will not want to do something because of my visual impairment. 
While it might sound incredibly tactless to invite your blind friend to the cinema or to go out partying in a dark nightclub, in most situations people will tend to appreciate being asked instead of prematurely excluded because of your assumptions about their sight. A lot of activities that may seem completely unsuitable for those with a visual impairment can and have been made more accessible in recent years thanks to the right technology and the right support. For example, most cinemas now show films that include audio description, a great feature that allows those with limited sight to have the visual aspects of a film described to them. A lot of popular music festivals now also feature raised viewing platforms so that those with disabilities can enjoy the event whilst avoiding larger crowds. The point is that there isn't a lot that is completely inaccessible to the blind any more, so if you're in doubt about whether or not I can/will want to do something, please just ask. If I'm not comfortable doing it, I will tell you. 

5. Do not assume that my sight loss limits my intellectual capabilities. 
The fact that I cannot see does not mean that I have trouble communicating and understanding. Unfortunately, this notion is something that myself and many other blind people that I have met experience time and time again - it's something of a running theme. You do not need to speak to me slowly and deliberately, as you might with a young child. If you are serving me at a restaurant or a shop, you do not need to automatically look to whoever I am with to give you my order or pay for my items. Whilst it is very true that sometimes I do require help some help, or for things to be done in a different way, but I do not necessarily need other people to speak and act on my behalf in every situation. I can understand and communicate with you just as your sighted peers do, even if I cannot see you. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe these behaviours are often done out of malice. In most situations, I do believe that people have the best intentions. But sometimes the best intentions are born from the wrong, or an outdated way of thinking. 

6. Do not assume that my life is heavily burdened by my visual impairment. 
One of the worst things you can offer someone with a visual impairment - or any disability for that matter - is pity. Empathy and understanding are appreciated and will be accepted by the bucketload, but pity isn't needed. While it is true that having any disability comes with it's own set of challenges, that disability is not the centrepiece of someone's existence, and nobody should be defined by the challenges they face. There are a lot of things that I find difficult, but things could be a lot worse for me and my life really isn't made that difficult by the fact that I can't see. There are several organisations and charities that provide help and support to those with a visual impairment, such as the RNIB and Guide Dogs for the Blind. Advances in technology also mean that day-to-day things that may have been hard to access 10 years ago are now almost as easily access by the blind as they are by the sighted. A great example of this can be seen in banking. In 2011, RNIB launched their 'Make Money Talk' campaign, encouraging high street banks and building societies to introduce 'talking' ATMs. These have a headphone socket and allow you to receive spoken instructions on withdrawing money and using other ATM services. Since 2011, several popular banks have committed to the initiative, including Barclays, Santander and Lloyds. 98% of Barclays ATMs now have this audio feature. So don't worry. Things are nowhere near as accessible as they need to be for the blind and partially sighted population, and there is still a huge amount of progress to be made. But we are heading in the right direction, and although we still face a lot of challenges, we're getting better at overcoming them. 

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