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Open Access: All it takes is education, understanding

The weekly column continues.

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I’ve often heard it said that invisible disabilities are harder to detect. I’ve never understood this, since sight isn’t the only sense we posess as humans.

In my case if that which I can not see did not exist, very little would exist in it’s literal form. That’s the thing about being legally blind. I’m one of the many for whom vision isn’t my dominant sense. 

That being said, even those who have it, don’t necessarily use it. When one is missing a sense, be it sight, hearing, or whatever, they will often use their other senses to compensate.

I’ve written before about how I see inanimate objects by touching them, and that is why I don’t like being touched as a form of communication. I’ve also written about my hearing.

On Friday night my 7 year old nephew tried in vain to trick me by shaking bags of legos, tiny stones, and little metal cars. He couldn’t figure out how I always knew what was in the bags. He was as amazed at my ability to do that as he was when I pulled a Hershey bar out of my hat, and managed to procure an ice drink that matched my tye-dyed t-shirt perfectly. 

I’d like to take a moment to address the people with their seeing and hearing present enough for them to hold down the average job. If you are fortunate enough to have a job that helps with your cost of living, it would behoove you all to be present and aware. Don’t take your unimpaired senses for granted! At the same time, a little “common sense,” will benefit us all. 

Last week I went to the grocery store for a can of pineapple juice. I was in a hurry to catch the bus, so I asked the cashier if she’d please grab it for me. This store was new to me, so I was unfamiliar with it’s layout.

She happily obliged, and while she was doing that, I took a moment to look over the lottery tickets. Not wanting to drop my white support cane on the floor, and not having a place to hang it, I placed it infront of me on the counter. It’s a good 4 feet long with a black handle, and red and black tip. It’s hard to miss. 

The cashier came back, and after I thanked her for finding my pineapple juice, I told her I wanted to buy two bingo tickets. 

“Oh, we don’t have Bingo tickets,” she said. 

“Yes you do,” I replied. “They’re right there.”

She gave an akward chuckle, and said “Oh, you’re right. I’m blind!” 

While this was said calmly and with no malice intended, you can bet your sweet seat I wasn’t going to let it go. Equally calmly I gestured to my cane spanning the lenth of the counter, and asked her for a job application, adding that it’s nice to see a store in town that is so willing to hire blind people. If I were permitted to use the store’s scooter during my shift, that would eliminate any problems caused by my mobility issues.

Dead silence! It was at that point she realized she’d cracked a blind joke at the wrong customer. 

“Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I wasn’t paying attention,” she said.

“We’re all human,” I replied. “I’d rather know when someone’s not paying attention, than have them brush it off with a joke about a disability.” 

She was a delightful woman, and that was definitely a teachable moment. 

The next day I decided to go out for lunch. I found a place with free wifi, but needed the password. 

“Can you please tell me the wifi password?” I asked the cashier.

“It’s over there,” he replied, flicking his hand with lightning speed. 

“I can’t see where you just pointed. What’s more you moved your hand really fast.”

“Oh, ok. I’ll go grab it for you.” 

I thanked him, and he retrieved a laminated sign from the mantle of a decorative fireplace. 

In all fairness to him, I was standing behind the counter, and my cane was in my hand, so he would not have seen it. However, when I asked for the password, how hard would it have been to say “it’s on that sign over the fireplace?”

For the sake of the hearing impaired, he could have gestured a bit more s-l-o-w-l-y, and pointed, while clearly articulating that it was on the fireplace, as he looked straight at the one to whom he was speaking. Not only would the visually impaired people know where to look, the hearing impaired people would have lips to clearly read, and his body language would have shown them exactly where to go.

In one small act of common sense, one can communicate with the mainstream demographic, and two different disabilities at once! How’s that for communication? This understanding man was as receptive to my suggestions as the lady at the grocery store, and again, it was a teachable moment. My question is this. Why are people just learning this now? Why is clearly articulated language being replaced with two word answers, and pointing?

I should mention that the people in both my examples spoke with accents that suggested they were born very close to where these two interactions took place, so there were no language issues. 

When I was born my parents and doctors were concerned that my neurological issues would hold me back, so they gathered a team of therapists and other support workers, and made sure I had the start I needed. That might have worked a little too well, as I was the youngest “adult” in my Kindergarten class. 

I’m not the only person with challenges, to express frustration at how hard we have to work, while the mainstream population seems to coast through. We are not upset because we have to work harder, we are annoyed that many people around us can get away with not paying attention. Then, as I addressed in last week’s column, someone mistakes effort for struggle, and forces unsolicited help, causing a whole new set of problems. It would appear that society takes so much for granted that when someone makes extra effort to move cautiously, they automatically appear to struggle. 

The most helpful thing would be to improve our communiation skills, and not just rely on the physical, and the visible. Last week I addressed personal space, and why for some, touch is not an appropriate form of communication. This week I’d like to add that body language and verbal communication also need to be balanced. 

Take note of your surroundings, so when someone asks where something is, you can tell them, as well as showing them. By showing and telling at the same time, you are making things less challenging for those with visual and hearing impairments. 

Finally, we need to learn the difference between our left and right, and their left and right. Many times someone will say “it’s on the left,” failing to realize that I’m facing them. If someone is facing me and I need to tell someone where something is, I think of my left or right, and tell them the opposite. I also try to visualize the situation from where they’re standing. They don’t want to know where it is based on my position, because if they were in my position, they wouldn’t need to ask the question in the first place. 

It doesn’t take much to make life less challenging for the challenged. All it takes is education and understanding.

The more we know, the less it will feel like the disabled are complaining, when all we are doing is trying to be heard. 

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