Blind Assumptions

by Marilyn Brandt Smith, Louisville, Kentucky

Many blind or visually impaired people are hassled or stymied by people who don’t seem to understand or care about others. It can be at a government office, a doctors’ clinic, or a commercial establishment.

Guess what? The same thing happens to people with perfect vision. We tend to keep our antennae poised, believing “She wouldn’t have been so patronizing (read ‘rude’) to someone who could see.” Don’t count on it.

We have to choose our battles, and we also have to choose when to make accusations. Bringing blindness into a situation is only appropriate when it’s an established factor in the disagreement.

Recently my friend Amy in Michigan went to the dentist to have rather expensive periodontal and bonding treatments to improve her appearance. The first two times the dentist told her how expensive the treatments would be and asked her if she could afford them, Amy said, “Yes, my husband is employed. That won’t be a problem.” When it happened the third time, Amy told her, “Ma’am”, (something of a putdown itself) “I’m blind, not broke.” Do I blame her? No.

When I was recovering from hip replacement surgery two years ago, the nurse kept denying me permission to get in the hot tub although I was perfectly healed. Finally, in frustration, I asked, “Are you by any chance afraid that I will fall because I can’t see to get in and out of the tub?” I was polite, and the nurse was speechless for a moment. Eventually, she admitted that was probably the reason.

“I’ll take my husband out there with me the first time,” I promised, “but I’ve been doing the same water exercises in the same style hot tub for the past 16 years. It’s you guys who are new to the concept of a totally blind person getting in and out of a hot tub independently. I’m very careful. Please tell the doctor I’m going to go ahead and do it unless he,” I giggled a little, “voids my surgical warranty.” The nurse laughed too, and I never heard any more about it.

Sometimes blindness is just a convenient excuse to get one’s way. That’s a double-edged sword, because blind folks sometimes use it as a reason to cut in line, get extra service that isn’t needed, or have exceptions made which go beyond normal accommodation. If you’re bound by paratransit schedules or in need of accessibility provisions, you deserve reasonable consideration. But playing the “blind card” (just because you can) raises the hackles of proprietors and other customers. Those occasions need to be chosen carefully. We don’t want folks to resent us because we received better treatment than they did for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes we have to subdue others around us who, well-meaning though they may be, try to invoke sympathy or pity to earn us special treatment. If someone steps aside for me, I’m quick to smile and say “Thank you.” If I’m offered a chair by a gentleman who might offer it to any female or senior citizen who came in, I’m grateful. But I’m also not afraid to decline special favors. I can wait my turn in line, and I sometimes feel more like an equal member of society when I do. I want those around me to see me as their peer, not someone they have to serve.

Of course there are times when the argument doesn’t involve blindness at all. I prefer not to bring up the blindness issue first. Make them do it.

Sometimes we’re secretly thinking, “I know you don’t really like working with disabled people. Maybe you’re a little afraid of me, but we have to get through this.” Instead of aggravating them by accusing them of being insensitive to my needs, I’d rather try, in a quiet way, to straighten out their thinking. If they see me as an angry adversary, I haven’t done anything to better the cause of reducing discrimination.

When I was in the hospital, I had to deal with a hospitalist who questioned whether I was diabetic and would have had me on insulin because he refused to prescribe my diabetes medication. I argued with him and threatened to call my family practitioner, but the blindness issue never came up. I won that one. Assertiveness, handled with tact and good timing, is a useful tool. One-upmanship based on blindness usually isn’t.

Sometimes a later call to a high-ranking supervisor is the best we can do. At a neighborhood sub shop the other day, the cashier told my driver, “Call this in next time. It would be better for them,” and pointed to me. I was furious. He was complaining about our order for several sandwiches. How did he know who was in the car? “This is holding up our line,” he complained. I responded to him as if he had spoken to me directly. That usually works in a restaurant when the “What does she want?” question comes up.

No, we can’t always bring someone with us to complete forms. We can apologize for the time we’re taking; we can offer to take the forms home and mail or bring them back; or better yet, we can call ahead and have the forms sent to us for completion at home. Do we force expensive accommodation when there is resistance–and there may be retribution later? That’s an individual call, but it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

This disability dance often feels like a chess game in which the right move and the right timing are not always obvious. Our assumptions about the assumptions of others deserve our consideration, and sometimes, correction. Maybe a misunderstanding truly is about our blindness, but maybe they–or we–are just having a “bad hair” day.