Hands-Off Navigation, Please: How NOT to Give Directions to a Blind Person

I’ve been quiet here for a while. I wasn’t able to keep up even my modified blogging schedule while my wrist healed. It’s been hard, not having the time or energy — mental or physical, because healing takes both — to write about so many things I’m passionate about. I’m delighted to finally get back to The Dark Side!

Today I’d like to share a recent experience that put into context a vague sense of discomfort I’ve experienced most of my life. It’s an experience of ableism, and ironically it happened at the Alabama Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. For you able-bodied readers, that’s my local state agency that supplies things like training on how to use a mobility cane, Braille lessons, and assistive technology. These people ought to know better.

The Experience

One of the few good things that came out of my temporary acquired disability, the broken wrist, was that I was forced to evaluate the time-cost of everything I did. I determined that many of my computer-based tasks were taking too much time and mental energy because my vision had deteriorated to the point where following a mouse-pointer across a screen is no longer practical. I need better screen reader settings, and to transition entirely to a mouse-less, monitor-less experience.

I also realized that I hadn’t had any Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training, or an evaluation for technology and training needs related to blindness, since high school. My vision and lifestyle have changed significantly in the past 15 years. Time for an update, so i decided to seek help from the afore-mentioned Voc Rehab, as it is colloquially known.

I got in touch with an application coordinator and made an appointment, and at the stated time I arrived at the building where Voc Rehab and several other agencies were housed. When I located the lobby of the right department a helpful lady greeted me verbally, so I knew to turn right and find the reception counter.

First problem: she offered me a pad of paper and a pen to sign in on. Really?

I solicited the receptionist’s assistance in filling out the sign-in sheet, then asked her to give me verbal directions to an open seat in the waiting area, since I had arrived a little early.

finding seats is a challenge for me, and it’s only recently I gained the confidence to start asking people for help. When I enter a busy coffee shop or office, I feel like I’m messing up peoples’ workflow by asking for directions to a seat, but there’s no better solution and I’ve never heard complaints from either staff or other customers.

I specifically stated “verbal directions” because I’ve found I feel less like a nuisance that way, rather than having someone come around the counter, leaving a line waiting for them to get back, just to walk me to a chair. But this particular receptionist decided she’d come around anyway. there was no line, after all, and some people appear to have trouble giving directions while standing still, I’ve noticed.

Then she grabbed my elbow, saying “here, I’ll guide you.”

The gesture was at once both familiar and frustrating. Hadn’t I just asked for verbal directions? Had she not heard me?

The irritation at not being listened to brought to mind a conversation I had recently with Laura Millar MPH MA MCHES, a consultant who specializes in providing sexual education and consent training to blind and low-vision organizations. She talked about how O&M instructors often make physical contact with their students to guide, reposition, or encourage them to break mental barriers without the student’s consent. And how often that can cause a panic attack.

How many times in my life had I been grabbed by total strangers without warning, let alone permission?

For the first time in my life, I determined to enforce the boundary of my body against intrusive assistance.

“Can you give me directions without touching me?” I asked.

The woman seemed taken aback, but not offended, for which I am grateful. Able-bodied readers, if a person with a disability refuses your help or asks for different help, please stop taking it personally and just listen to us!

The Problem

Eye contact can allow people to implicitly communicate consent or refusal in a language that I cannot speak. I can’t see your hand or arm coming toward me, and thus I can’t say “no, don’t touch me” until the deed — and sometimes the damage — is already done.

I’ve been going to occupational therapy appointments twice a week for over a month, now, to rehabilitate my wrist. I started experimenting with asking the different therapists that worked with me to give me verbal directions when guiding me around the obstacle course of PT machines, tables, and chairs that clutter the treatment area of the clinic. I also took note of which therapists asked me how I liked to be directed, and which ones automatically reached for me and which ones automatically defaulted to verbal directions. More importantly, I compared how I felt about myself and my relationship with each therapist as we navigated the complex world of sightless navigation.

When They ask:
It feels like a gift. Someone has acknowledged my individuality and wants to honor my unique needs and preferences. I feel like a whole person, whose past experiences, present comfort, and future wellbeing are important and expected

When They Grab
I feel like a child, or a pet that has to be walked. My arm is a leash and I’m being propelled or dragged through unfamiliar territory with no choice. I’m not expected to WANT a choice, but to be taken care of. At its worst, I feel like a piece of luggage that’s inconvenienced someone and they want to solve the problem as efficiently for their workflow as possible.

When They Talk
When someone just starts giving me verbal directions, I feel normal. I feel as common-place as any other patient. No one has drawn attention to me, calling out my disability so everyone’s heads turn. I’ve heard plenty of professionals give sighted people verbal directions as they navigate maze-like hallways in office buildings, and now I’m being treated the same way.

Options One and Three are both good choices when you find yourself confronted by this situation as a sighted person. You can either accept the blind person’s presence as totally normal, or honor their individuality by making it clear you are happy to make mental space for them as well as physical space. If you’re good with body language, perhaps you might choose option Three for someone who appears anxious or insecure in their environment. They might not want attention drawn to them. But if you’re unsure, ask away.

Do Not Grab

It wasn’t nice when you were a kid, and it’s worse when you’re an adult. We teach children not to grab toys or people as part of our efforts to instill in them a respect for others’ autonomy. So what do you think you’re saying to a blind person when you impose physical contact on them? Whether you realize it or not, you’ve just communicated that you don’t respect their personhood. You have declared “because my intentions are good, I have a right to your body.” You do not.

When I first began to learn how to use a cane at the age of 13, my instructor taught me how to disengage from someone grabbing my arm on our first lesson. She explained that people have a habit of seeing blind people at crosswalks, assuming they know what the blind person wants, and grabbing their arm to drag them into the street. “It’s clear, I’ll help you across!” She made a point of explaining to me that if I didn’t feel ready to cross a street I could disengage and say “thank you, but I’m fine on my own.” We rehearsed several similar scripts for several different situations.

Never having wielded a cane in public before, I couldn’t imagine anyone being rude enough to just walk up to a stranger and grab their arm. Not only did it seem disrespectful and awkward, just socially taboo, but also dangerous.

What if they threw me off-balance with the sudden pull? We could both fall into the street, incurring gravitational damage and risking assault by vehicle. How was i supposed to tell the difference between an aggressively helpful stranger and a kidnapper?

Frankly, in most jurisdictions within the United States there isn’t much of a difference at all. someone trying to take you from one place to another by force meets most of the criteria for the crime.

Help is No Help

I could write an entire post on the following subject. Maybe I will someday, but it deserves to be mentioned at least briefly here, because it addresses one of the social forces that often prevents people with disabilities from speaking up for their boundaries.

You offering someone help isn’t about you being a good person, but about them receiving help. When your help is refused, you’ve no right to be offended or angry about it. You don’t get to argue that you were “just trying to help.” It doesn’t matter. This story isn’t about you, but about the recipient…who may or may not want to be a recipient. Forcing aid, especially in the form of physical contact, is demeaning and dehumanizing, not to mention dangerous and even potentially damaging in and of itself.

Survivors of physical violence come in all types. Tragically, people with disabilities may have acquired said disabilities from interpersonal violence, or received it because they were easy targets. And there is no way to know by looking at someone if they are a survivor. So if you walk up and grab the arm of a blind person at a crosswalk to try and “help” them across, and they turn around and slug you or go rigid and start hyper-ventilating, you shouldn’t be too shocked. You just triggered a flashback that could have been avoided with a little common decency.

They couldn’t see your friendly expression, your kind eyes. They couldn’t see the hand coming in order to flinch and involuntarily signal that touch was a bad idea. A hand reached out of the dark and thrust them into the recesses of unprocessed memories. That was your hand, and you’ve now set that person up for distress throughout the rest of the day, maybe even the week.

And all you had to do to avoid it was keep your hands to yourself. Why does the sight of a mobility cane seem to erase that childhood lesson from adult brains?

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you “what other common courtesies do you tend to forget when faced with unfamiliar circumstances?”

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