Dr. Weis, Researcher and Editor
During a family vacation to Korea, I experienced a dilemma between my personal desires to navigate with only a white cane and my decision to allow others to guide me. My wife and I both had experienced Korea roughly 10 years earlier while in the Army. Our hopes for this most recent trip included experiencing the past, visiting friends and family, and testing the country’s accessibility for the blind.
What we ended up testing was not Korea’s accessibility for the blind, but our conflicting ways of dealing with my visual impairment.
Maneuvering around independently during our family vacation was something I wanted to accomplish. What motivated me were my personal pride and the confidence boosts that I experienced when I had the opportunity to display my orientation and mobility skills to my family. It’s exhilarating to be able to navigate on your own–especially when you’re blind and in a foreign country.
And it’s also very common for family, acquaintances, and even for complete strangers, to take on the role of sighted guide to a blind person. For clarification, a sighted guide is person who offers their upper arm to the blind person to hold onto while walking around. The sighted guide leads, and through a series of nonverbal and verbal methods, communicates about the terrain and possible obstacles.
Sighted guides can be very helpful, but many blind individuals do not experience it as an “act of kindness” when a sighted person simply takes the arm or shoulder of the blind person and starts leading them. These acts of unsolicited support can actually invoke a negative response, as it quickly and effectively removes control and self-determination from a blind person. As a case in point, during the trip, the following statements were frequently made as we started to leave a place.
“You take Tim.”
“Here, Tim, take my arm.”
“Who has Tim?”
My family meant well. What they wanted to offer was protection and security, and to expedite our travel. There is nothing dishonorable about that. They had hoped to retain control of our group and be able to experience as many attractions as possible. But somehow the conversation about where and how we should proceed went on without me—in my presence. Each of these statements removes my right to self-determination for guidance and navigation.
However, their voluntary guidance was unwanted. It severely hindered my desires to navigate completely unfamiliar surroundings with just a cane and various cues. I had hoped to rely on my own orientation and mobility skills because of my firm goal to achieve self-reliance. Traversing with only the white cane in a foreign country was my attempt at achieving my personal goal of independent living.
I wanted to practice my orientation and mobility skills, which specifically refer to a branch of blind rehabilitation. Part of this rehabilitation process is for blind persons to rely on a number or tools and methods, such as a white cane, GPS devices, visual scanning techniques, and hearing, in order to familiarize themselves with and maneuver in their surroundings.
By practicing my orientation and mobility skills, I wanted to define my own way of independent living. For those with a disability, the term independent living represents their personal goals to overcome the barriers that their disabilities impose upon their daily lives as well as their long-term goals. Independent living refers to a broad range of living arrangements, which can be anywhere between achieving success within a person’s professional and private life without any assistance and maintaining a private residence with caregivers and home health professionals offering assistance around the clock.
So, there was my dilemma that placed me at ends with my family: my occasional acceptance of aide that was imposed on me, on the one hand, and my pride and desire to practice my independence, on the other hand. And why shouldn’t I try and be independent? I often travel to conferences, conventions, and meetings independently, and these experiences have greatly enhances my self-esteem, feelings of worth, and control over my life.
I take this story as an opportunity to explain better ways of dealing with the situation. If you are a sighted individual and happen to encounter a blind individual, do not assume that they are lost and run to their rescue. They may not need rescuing. Ask before acting. Use questions like these:
“Tim, would you like a sighted guide?”
“To meet our need to remain together in a very crowded place, could you take my arm?”
“Would you mind if I walk with you, and if you need assistance, feel free to latch on.”
If you are a blind individual, consider this
Don’t contribute to your own setbacks by failing to convey goals for independence. Don’t push away people who want to help. Educate them about how they can help. Use phases like these:
What all parties involved should do:
Express needs and goals.
Have a plan of action.
You may also be interested in a number of valuable resources dealing with this topic. I have read them and chosen them carefully.