I was walking to the shops on Main Road in Plumstead. Suddenly, an elderly lady grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. She very kindly told me that the traffic was heavy and that she would guide me across the road. Which she proceeded to do, despite my repeated protestations.
You see, I hadn’t needed to cross the road at all.
But there was no way for me to disentangle myself from her grip without possibly hurting her.
When we reached the other side of Main Road, I smiled and thanked her. Then I waited for her to go on her way and crossed back to where I’d originally been. And continued on my way.
Why is it that people feel it’s perfectly okay to reach out and grab me? Even worse, why do they feel it is a good idea to grab my guide dog’s harness and pull her – and me – in whatever direction they think we need to go?
For one thing, grabbing us and pulling us around is dangerous – it disrupts our balance since we are unable to control what is happening. For another thing, few people are trained in how to safely guide a blind person and guide dog. And those who are trained would know better than to grab us and pull us. And let’s not even get into the topic of how on earth you know where we do and do not need to go without actually asking us.
An effective guideline when engaging with a blind or visually impaired person is #JustAskDontGrab.
This is a phrase that was first used in social media by UK blindness activist Dr Amy Kavanagh and quickly spread around the globe.
What this means is that if you see Fiji and I walking around and feel we may need help, #JustAskDontGrab. If we’re navigating our way round a room and you think we might need help finding the doorway or anything else, #JustAskDontGrab. And if you think we may be wanting to cross a road and may like assistance – please, please #JustAskDontGrab!
Because the reality is that we probably don’t need any help at all. But, if we do, then we’ll really appreciate your asking if we’re okay.
One day a courier delivered a package to my home. This was back before the pandemic changed the way we live our lives. Back in the day when couriers expected you to actually sign for a delivery.
On this particular day, the courier handed me the parcel and started to walk away.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Don’t I have to sign for the parcel?”
“Don’t worry,” he said in all seriousness, Ï know you can’t write so I signed it for you”
And then he left. While I stood there, stupefied with shock.
It’s not the first time that’s happened. And usually I make a point of calling the courier back and showing him that I am quite capable of holding a pen and signing my name on the delivery papers. But this time it simply happened too fast.
In truth, I can almost certainly do more than people believe I can. I think it’s because they don’t understand the techniques I use to accomplish tasks, and automatically assume it’s not possible. Which is why so much of my work is about explaining the tools and techniques I have at my disposal as a blind person.
Even people who know me well sometimes struggle to understand what I can and cannot manage, and occasionally default to assuming that a task is not possible for me. A colleague who has known me for several years once offered to make tea when she visited me. Because she thought I couldn’t do it myself.
I understand that people are often just trying to help. My husband sometimes gets frustrated when he offers help because he sees me struggling with a task. And it’s true he could probably do it quicker and easier than me. That’s part of the reality of being blind – things just take longer.
So, why do I insist on struggling? Mostly it’s to prove that I can live an independent life, not only to the world, but also to myself. But it’s also because I have a nagging fear that if I fall into the trap of letting others do things for me, that it will undermine my confidence in my own abilities.
While that fear might sound groundless, it’s happened to me before.
After my previous guide dog, Eccles, retired, I spent two years without a guide. During that time I depended heavily on my family and friends to help me get around. And I became exceptionally good at obeying their verbal instructions – when they told me to step up, I would do so; when they tole me to turn right, I would do so. I became a perfect little robot!
What I didn’t realize was that I was slowly losing the ability of interpreting the world around me using my own senses. Until I was on training with Fiji, my new guide dog, and it became horribly clear how out of practise that skill had become. Happily, with a lot of support from the guide dog trainers and my beautiful young Fiji, I managed to rediscover those skills and everything worked out fine.
But that fear is still with me. And it’s one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable letting people help me.
SoObviously, there are some things that I can’t do because of my blindness. And, of course, it’s not always imperative for me to refuse help all the time. But it’s also unnecessary for me to spend every minute of every day proving that I can do things independently. But it’s difficult to find a balance.
What message do I want you to take from this article? There are two – first, to understand why I am sometimes stubborn about struggling to accomplish tasks on my own. And secondly, that I can almost certainly do more than you think I can, even despite my blindness.
Next time you feel compelled to reach out and do something for me, please rather just ask if I need help. Then it’s up to me whether I accept your help, or if I want to do it myself. Even if it looks like I’m struggling, respect my right to make the choice. Even better, ask me what tools and techniques I’m using, so you can understand my world a little better.
There’s a commonly held opinion that the French people actively dislike the English, and that this often affects English-language speakers from other countries. This general dislike is said to be especially so of the Parisiennes.
At least, that’s what I’d been told.
Yet, in the three weeks I was in France, that simply wasn’t my experience.
You don’t believe me? Let me share a few examples with you.
When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were trying to find the commuter train to Paris, several people helped us, including a railway official. You might argue that, since he deals with lots of confused tourists, that his job requires him to be helpful. But a friend of mine had the opposite experience in the same environment.
Then, as we negotiated our way through a maze-like station to catch the Metro that would take us to the place we were staying, a young guy offered to carry our luggage so Craig could assist me. As South Africans we were naturally hesitant. So, with a typically Gallic shrug, he offered to assist me instead, leaving Craig to carry the bags. Which is what we did.
It seemed like there were always people willing to assist me off a train or a Metro. Serving staff in restaurants were hospitable and friendly. And the people we met as we visited the various tourist sites on our list were approachable and willing to assist. In fact, I can’t think of a single person on the trip who was less than friendly.
On one occasion we were helped by an elderly gentleman who couldn’t speak a word of English. He guided me through a Metro station onto a train, climbed on and travelled with us. He assisted me to the next train and again travelled with us for a few stops. Then he said goodbye in French, climbed off the train and headed back the way we’d come.
I don’t know whether it helped that Craig and I are able to say a few words in French – we try to do so for any country we visit. Or whether my blindness played a role in making people feel more welcoming and willing to assist.
But, whatever the reason, I certainly found the French people to be charming and hospitable – nothing like what we’d been led to believe. And I’ll be happy to say so anytime I hear someone mentioning how unfriendly the French people are.