GUEST POST: Pinky Fang is an illustrator and maker from Wellington, NZ. She has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a cat with a distinct lack of ears, and is about to get her very own guide dog.
Last year I shared an account of my experience with losing my eyesight & being issued with my first cane for mobility on website On The Left. Since then, It seems like I’ve run the full gamut of different reactions from the public, most notably when a Wellington bus driver refused my specially issued card for the bus as he believed I ‘wasn’t really blind’.
I have a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which means I am now left with just 5% of my vision. While my direct central vision is currently unaffected, my peripheral vision has completely deteriorated. There is no known cure or preventative measures available.
While to the average person I may not ‘Look Blind’, by definition and on paper, I am legally blind. It’s very important to note that only a very small percentage of people who are considered blind have no functional vision whatsoever, so capabilities within ‘blindness’ vary largely. I’ve been using a RNZFB issued white mobility cane for just over a year now, and have in the process become visibly recognised as a visually impaired person to the general public.
I understand that it’s very difficult to know how to be helpful to someone when you have no idea what level of vision or difficulty they are dealing with, so I’ve tried to put together a general list of Do’s & Don’ts for helping & dealing with visually impaired people in public from my point of view.
These of course are just guides, there is no universal preference for a blind person on the way people treat them. These are just a few things I have gathered from VI friends & my own experience that would benefit from people around us understanding.
If I’m meeting or hanging out with you on a personal level:
DO Introduce yourself clearly, especially if we’re just meeting or I don’t know you well. Probably not worth attempting to shake my hand, I won’t see it, haha. Oh yeah – High fives are pretty much out of the question too, sorry.
If we’re having a conversation, DO let me know if you are leaving the conversation or the room. It sucks realising you’ve been talking to yourself for minutes.
DO let me know if you’re trying to hand me something. Something like ‘Hey I’m just passing you this on your left/right’ is great. Also take note people working in hospitality, if you’re aware you’re dealing with a visually impaired person it would be super appreciated to explain where you’re putting drinks/dishes etc.
DON’T give me special treatment. There’s a difference between being considerate of my needs and giving me special things because of my condition. This one may need a bit of unpacking – I’ll be writing something on this in the near future.
DO ask if you aren’t sure if I need help! I will never be offended about you asking me if I need help. A lot of the time I will be fine, so DON’T get offended if I politely decline any help. I in turn will make sure I ask you if I need help & won’t expect you to always know if I do.
DON’T try and test my fields of vision – such as ‘Can you see me now? how about now? etc.
DO ask about my fields of vision if you are concerned about trying to help and need to know my limitations. I’m more than happy to explain it to you on my own terms.
DO let me know if you see hazards that you think I may not be aware of. A heads up about any steps or unexpected obstacles is always appreciated. Give me super detailed instructions if i’m going to be meeting you somewhere i’m not familiar with.
If you see a blind person out and about:
DON’T tell me it’s ok to cross the road when it isn’t. I follow the lights to know when it’s safe to cross the road. If that man aint green, I ain’t crossing. Jaywalking is not an option. We generally have ways of making sure we keep ourselves safe, we know what we’re doing most of the time.
DON’T stop in your car for me to cross the road if your light is green. Just because you have stopped it doesn’t mean the traffic coming the other way will.
DO be wary of me but follow your lights as usual, I’ll follow mine as well and I’d rather wait than put myself in danger.
DON’T randomly grab my arm and direct me if you don’t know me. It’s really startling to be grabbed unexpectedly by a stranger when you can’t see. Also, yelling instructions at me from far away is very disorienting.
DO ask if I need I hand if I look like I’m confused or struggling to cross a road.
DON’T be offended if I say I’m fine and don’t need help this time
DO use verbal directions, such as ‘Right’ or ‘Left,’ landmarks etc. It should be obvious but I can’t see which way you are pointing.
DO be wary of other people when you’re walking down the street. If you’re completely engrossed in your phone you’re not likely to be aware of someone heading towards you with a cane. We have to rely on people with sight to avoid us, not the other way around
These are overall pretty simplistic tips for dealing with visually impaired people. There’s a huge amount of scope in what we can and can’t see and needs vary a lot from person to person. There are further things that I believe need a huge shift in understanding from the general public and I will continue to talk about it.
The biggest tip I can give you is to just ask if you’re not sure – do it politely and do it for the right reasons. You could make our lives a lot easier.
Next week I will be undertaking a huge new step in my journey. I am getting and starting the training with my very first guide dog. I expect this will present a whole set of new challenges and experiences in the public arena. However, it is a very exciting step and overall will increase my mobility and public confidence ten fold. I will be writing about this adventure in the weeks to come.