It was just like any other winter day in Alaska. It was cold. I was sitting on the floor near the door of a professional building in Anchorage while waiting for my bus. It was a busy foyer with people coming and going, and getting in and out of the elevators. I had on professional, yet casual clothes, my winter coat, and I had my computer bag strapped over one shoulder. Of course, I had my sunglasses on, and my guide dog, Anderson, at my side.
So this guy got off the elevator talking on his cell phone, and walked toward the door I was sitting next to. I heard him come up to me. I tilted my head up as if to look at the man who was standing over me. Then all I heard was, “Here you go. Why don’t you go and get yourself a burger.”
Totally shocked and unsure how to respond, I extended my arm, opened my hand, and felt the man place a folded bill into it.
“Thanks,” I said as I lowered my arm slowly with his money held awkwardly in my hand.
As the man moved on, he resumed his telephone conversation, and away he went. I sat there baffled, holding the bill in my hand. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Did the man think I was homeless? Did he think I was sitting in this building to get out of the cold because I had nowhere else to go? “Do I look homeless? Do I look hungry?” I wondered. “Had he not noticed my clean clothes, clean dog, or my computer strapped to my shoulder?”
As if momentarily paralyzed, the bill still sat in my hand. I finally slipped it into my pocket. What should I have done? Should I have explained to the man that I wasn’t homeless or hungry? Should I have confronted his assumption that because I am blind, I was in need of his charity? After the moment passed, I laughed out loud.
“At least we are now $5 richer,” I joked with Anderson, who wagged his tail fervently and leaned against me happily looking for opportunities to sneak a lick.
As I thought about this later, it was clear that due to my blindness, this man thought that I was in need of his $5. This led to me reflecting on what our society expects of blind people in general. I wonder if cultural expectations contribute to the 70-80% unemployment rate among blind people. I thought about how blindness makes people eligible for SSDI income as long as they don’t work or exceed the income limits. What if the expectations were different? What if blind people were expected to graduate from college with the rest of their peers and obtain six-digit incomes? Would the outcome for blind people be different?
Reeling in my thought process, I thought of the man who assumed I would need his money in order to eat. I thought of other experiences I’d had wherein, based on the expectations others have of blind people, I’d been robbed of my dignity. It happens all the time. I have learned to be increasingly assertive in many situations to preserve my dignity. I have learned to refuse to sit in the wheelchair when the airline attendant wishes to push me to meet a connecting flight in an airport. I have learned to refuse to allow others to buckle my seat belt for me when riding on public transportation. I have a master’s degree; I am pretty sure I can figure out the seat belt.
However, people still manage to trample my dignity from time to time. Just yesterday a concerned citizen found it necessary to try to help me place the harness on my guide dog because she was sure I wouldn’t figure out that the leash was around his leg. Then, there is my personal favorite. This is when people will speak really loud and slow in order to be sure that I, as a blind person, will understand what they are trying to explain. Often others will not even try communicating with me. Instead, they will ask my wife what I would like to order, or what business I would like to conduct at the bank.
So, here is a helpful hint when it comes to most blind people I know. We would rather trample our own dignity by walking into a wall, or fumble trying to fit the key into the lock, than allow others to trample our dignity by assuming that we are not fit to get the job done. I realize that it can be difficult for others to watch a person who is disabled struggle to do something. But I can assure you that as a blind person, I’m very used to these struggles, and they don’t bother me the way they seem to bother those watching.
So, the next time you see a blind person, please ponder what you expect of him or her. Please do not assume the person is lost, even if it appears that way. Please do not assume that a blind person is unemployed, homeless, or hungry. Please do not assume that the blind person lives in a cardboard box or needs a push in a wheelchair. Please do not assume that a blind person needs help with a seat belt. Instead, think of how every human being has various abilities, regardless of a person’s disabilities.