I was recently doing some “research for my thesis” about Daniel Kish, the blind guy who uses echolocation to get around instead of a cane or guide dog. I say “research” in quotes mainly because it makes me feel pretentious and academic in a way that it has become clear I am not and am not likely to be. “Research for my thesis” implies that my thesis has a formal research component, when what it actually means is that I spend lots of hours Googling stuff I’m not even sure I’ll use, and skittering down various information rabbit holes. And my thesis is no more defined than it was last month or last year. But I digress.
So, spoiler alert, I find Daniel Kish and his echolocation perplexing at best and annoying at worst, but that’s not the point here. The point is that as I was reading about and listening to interviews with him, he mentioned that he had gone to elementary school with another blind kid. Unlike Daniel, the other blind kid (TOBK) was more or less helpless: he ran into walls, people carried his books for him, and he sat out in gym class. Daniel didn’t run into walls, carried his own books, and killed it in gym class. Or at least, climbed a bunch of trees and rode his bike around the neighborhood.
Despite their differences, Daniel said, eventually people started lumping them together. They were “the blind kids.” They got called each other’s names and eventually got the same treatment, which defaulted to over-helping, because, well, they were the blind kids. And as annoyed as I was by some of Daniel’s opinions, I was completely on board with this situation being absolutely infuriating.
I haven’t been around many blind people for large parts of my life, because I was “mainstreamed” from preschool and was the only blind kid in my class. But I have noticed that every time I’m around other blind people, we become an indecipherable blob of white canes and guide dogs and robotic screenreaders.
This has become clear to me most recently working with other blind people. I worked with people with varying assistance requirements. Some needed a person to sit with them the whole time they were operating a computer. Some needed an escort to the bus stop. It’s not really my place to judge whether they “should” have been able to do these things without assistance, but it did start to irritate me when my sighted coworkers defaulted to trying to help me do the same things as some of the others. It’s like they forgot we were all individuals, and assumed we all needed as much help as the most helpless.
I admit to being someone who stubbornly refuses help, at times to my own detriment. My stock response to this acknowledgement is: “I’m working on it”, which I am, kind of. I bristle at the thought of having someone looking over my shoulder while I’m doing anything on my computer. If I have someone walk me to the bus stop, my goal is to pay rabid attention so I can do it myself next time. I mostly just want to be left alone, and if I need help, I’ll ask.
But the assumption that blind people need help all the time is pervasive. A few months ago, I was crossing a busy street in Downtown Seattle. In the middle of the street, while I’m concentrating on not getting run over, a woman who was also crossing says out of the blue, “Do you need help?” I had made it to the middle of the street without help. I was walking upright, in a straight line, presumably not giving off an air of desperation. But she asked anyway. I said, “No, I don’t.” She said, “Ok, well, I’m getting my degree in care-giving, so I have to ask.” To which all I can say is: no. No you don’t.
Sure, ask if the situation seems dire. Ask if someone is walking around in circles, looking super lost. Ask, if you can, out of a sense of genuine compassion, not to feed your ego or give you the opportunity to talk about your education. I’d be willing to bet most people in the middle of the street really don’t care about that, and would much rather just get to the other side in peace.