Reprinted from the Spring 2003 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota.
Editor’s Note: A resident of Minnesota, Dunnam is the author of the NFB publication, The Slate Book, and is the manager of Braille programs for the NFB Jernigan Institute. She also comes from a Federation background; her parents, Sandy and Butch Dunnam, are longtime members and leaders in the NFB in their native state of Louisiana.
Sometimes, in the course of the mundane acts of my day--walking down the street, finding a seat on the bus, using stairs, opening doors--I feel the constancy and magnitude of the need to educate the public about the capabilities of blind people. Long ago I came to accept the ever-present possibility that some ordinary, everyday movement of mine might prompt an anxious passerby to try to protect me or make something easier for me. I know that the vast majority of such instances involve people who want to do something good, and I do my best to deal with them kindly while maintaining my dignity. But sometimes I wonder inside if blind people’s efforts to educate the larger society are having any effect at all. Will sighted people ever come to understand any of the reasons why it might be preferable to let a blind stranger go her way without extra interference? Not long ago, I got an answer.
One day, as I was walking down a hallway in the building where I work, a man I didn’t know said, ”excuse me”,” as if he wanted to tell me something. For a moment I thought to hurry on, but he didn’t seem anxious, so I was curious and stopped.
”I know you don’t know me, but I’ve been hoping I’d see you again”.”
Before I had time to wonder if he was some kind of stalker, he continued: “About two weeks ago, I saw you walking down this same hall. I thought you might be about to bump into something, so I grabbed your arm. That obviously startled you, because you jumped and jerked your arm away. As I thought about it later, I realized that I had invaded your space, and I hoped I’d get a chance to apologize to you sometime.”
I had forgotten the incident, but when he recounted it, it came back to me: I’d been in a hurry to deliver something to an upstairs office, and he seemed to come out of nowhere and firmly took hold of my upper arm. Usually, when things like that happen, I remove my arm from the person’s grasp and politely say something like, “Thanks, I’m okay”,” but in this case, he had startled me so much that I just yanked my arm out of his hand and scurried on my way without saying anything at all. I knew he hadn’t meant it this way, but I had indeed felt intruded upon. Would he have done that to a sighted woman?
But here he was now, weeks later, having thought this through. Many times I had wished someone would just “get it” without my having to explain it every time. Now that it had really happened, I hardly knew how to react, but I did manage to express to him how much I appreciated his thoughtfulness and that I hoped he wouldn’t worry about it anymore.
The exchange lifted my spirits for the rest of the day. It also helped me remember that, relatively speaking, sighted people try to assist blind people unnecessarily far less often than they just go their way and allow blind people to do the same. Even in airports, where the sight of someone walking independently with a white cane tends to cause great anxiety, the people who accost us are outnumbered by the people who just go on about their own business. This proportion is not a naturally occurring phenomenon; it is the result of the concerted effort of thousands of blind people--both individually and collectively--blanketing the country with good information and teaching people one at a time. My awareness of all my fellow Federationists working along with me is one of the most comforting things in my life.
A few days after the apology from the man in the hall, I was boarding a bus on which there was standing room only. A few people kept offering me their seats, which I refused with a smile and a thanks. But they kept insisting, and after a while, the bus driver said, “She’s already said she’d rather stand, now leave her alone.” What a contrast to the times when the bus driver is the one insisting that someone give up their seat for me. It felt great to have such an ally!
In no way do I believe that our education work is done. There are still too many blind people without jobs because of employers’ misconceptions, too many movies that are informed by and that perpetuate harmful stereotypes depicting helpless blind people. But more and more, blind people are gaining and demonstrating the skills and confidence they need to live freely in the world. And, in turn, society is beginning to understand that people who are blind have the same kinds of dreams and hopes, and deserve the same respect and freedom, as everyone else.