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.
As we all continue to experience the challenges of lockdown, social distancing is becoming almost a regular part of our lives. But have you thought about the challenges social distancing poses for someone who is blind or visually impaired?
A few weeks ago, my guide dog, Fiji, wrote a guest blog on my Beyond Sight Blog about her feelings about social distancing. Yes, it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective for me to share, but the challenges are real – and not just for guide dogs!
Here’s how I experience social distancing, and some of the ways you can help me, and people like me, to ensure we keep safe when we’re out and about.
If I’m walking along a busy road and there is masking noise, like passing cars or wind rustling tree leaves, I might not hear you approaching. So, I might get closer to you than is safe. It would really help me if you could recognise that I might not be able to take evasive action– either make a sound so I know you’re there, or take the initiative and ensure we are a safe distance apart.
The painted lines in shopping queues are invisible to me and my white cane (or my guide dog) Unless you’re aware of a shopping centre that has created tactile lines, I have no way of knowing where the marks are. It would really help me and my guide dog if you can give us verbal guidance of where we should stand, and when we can move forward.
Never before has the #JustAskDontGrab Campaign been so important for the visually impaired community. I, like most of my blind friends, have countless stories of people grabbing us in order to attract our attention, or in order to move us physically. Nowadays that is simply not a safe option. We need people to speak to us when offering help.
Yes, there are technologies we can use to help us maintain social distancing. I could use the Be My Eyes app and ask a sighted volunteer to help me navigate safely. Or I could make use of a Sunu Band, a band that is worn on the wrist and gives tactile feedback when I’m approaching something. Or someone. Both are options for me.
But let’s be honest, I’m not keen to wave around my iPhone when I’m out and about in public. It’s just asking for trouble. And the cost of the Sunu Band puts it out of reach of most blind and visually impaired South Africans.
Which means we have to do the best that we can using our own skills and the help of those around us. People like you.
So, next time you see Fiji and I walking down the road, please speak to us to let us know where you are, and be willing to step out of our way as we walk past. Next time you spot me in the queue at Blue Route Mall with my white cane, speak up and let me know how to move from one painted line to the next as the queue progresses. And please, please don’t reach out and grab for Fiji or myself to guide us – ask us what form of help will be most safe and most comfortable for us all.
Thank you – Fiji and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness!
Date: 24 March 2020
Category: Disability Awareness, Audio,
**Craig, not sure if the podcast link will provide us with an image; please let me know
You’re walking down a road and see a person with a guide dog or a white cane approaching you. Do you offer to assist them? And if so, how?
One day, an elderly woman grabbed my arm and propelled me across a busy road. Then she walked off, no doubt feeling good for assisting the poor blind lady. Here’s the thing – I didn’t need to cross that road. But she didn’t give me the chance to say so.
The topic of how to engage with a visually impaired person and offer help became a hot topic on social media recently, due primarily to Dr Amy Kavanagh’s #JustAskDontGrab campaign. The campaign aims to change the way sighted people offer assistance to those of us in the VVI (blind and visually impaired) community.
In many ways I agree with the aims of the campaign. If I’m standing at the top of a flight of stairs figuring out the safest way to navigate them, I might get startled if someone suddenly reaches out and grabs my arm. It puts me at risk of losing my balance and falling down those stairs. So, #JustAskDontGrab has its place.
But truthfully, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What if there isn’t time to connect verbally before I put myself into danger? What if it’s a noisy or busy environment where I might not realize you’re talking to me? You need to consider what’s happening there and then.
But here’s the thing, most blind and visually impaired people who are out in the world are very capable of navigating our way around it. Almost all of the time. Except for the very rare occasion when we’re not. And we’ll usually ask if we need help.
Am I saying you should never offer assistance to a member of the VBI community? By no means. Because maybe it’s the one time we actually do need assistance. Just please, , rather than reaching out and grabbing our arm, or our guide dog, rather verbally ask if we need help. And, if you think we might not hear you, lightly touch our arm and then ask.
It sounds so simple, right? Yet, there’s so much happening in that moment that you reach out – metaphorically, of course – to offer assistance. And that’s the subject of a conversation Jeff Thompson, of the Blind Abilities Podcast Network, and I had a few weeks ago.
I’d love for you to listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. Whether you’re sighted or a member of the VBI community, I’m interested to know your thoughts.
Besides, you never know – it may help next time you’re walking down the road and see a person with a guide dog or white cane and try to figure out whether or not to offer assistance.
To some people stepping into a revolving door may not be much of an issue. But for me, standing there with my white cane, stepping into the revolving door was a matter of deep thought and planning.
Here’s why I find revolving doors scary:
1 Stepping in– as a blind person you have to figure out when it’s safe to step in without being hit by a door blade.
2 Walking through – it’s not easy to assess the appropriate walking speed to avoid connecting with the blade in front or being smacked on the back of the head by the one behind you.
3 Stepping out – sometimes it will sound different when it’s okay to step out of the door… but sometimes it’s not – I’d hate to spend the rest of my life walking round and round in circles captured by the revolving door.
Is it any wonder I call them revolting doors?
Let’s go back to where you left me – standing with my white cane on the outside of a building, with the revolting door in front of me. What happened next?
I found the right-hand side of the revolting door and gently extended my hand along the doorframe until my fingertips brushed against the edge of the blades as they passed. I let a few blades pass me so I could get an idea of how fast they were turning. That way I could gain a sense of when it was safe for me to step into the door and how fast to walk.
I knew the door would stop moving if I touched the blades so there was no risk of being knocked out by a mindless rampaging blade. Once or twice I accidentally tapped the tip of my white cane into the blade in front of me and the door froze. I’ll admit it was reassuring to discover how sensitive the door was.
And so I made my way through the door.
Stepping out was my biggest worry. In the shopping centre where I was putting my skills… and my courage… to the test I wasn’t able to use sound to judge when it was time to step out of the door. But a very kind gentleman, who I hadn’t realized was walking alongside me, told me I could step forward into the centre and all was okay.
Did I manage to travel through the revolting door totally independently? No, I didn’t. but here’s what I did achieve – I managed to push my way past the fear of using a revolting door on my own. Even if I did get help stepping out of the door, I’m sure I would have figured it out on my own eventually, and not spent the rest of my life walking in circles.
Next time I’ll do even better. Because I’ve proved to myself that there’s nothing to fear
So, maybe those doors aren’t so revolting, after all.
Do you have any idea how bizarre it was for me to realize that I’m using my white cane to walk around independently for the first time ever?
Please don’t think I wasn’t taught to use a white cane when I first lost my sight. I was. But somehow the only time I used my white cane was on my lessons with the O&M instructor. Otherwise I asked family, friends, and fellow students to help me get around. Which is probably why getting a guide dog was such a revelation to me – I was able to walk around independently for the very first time.
In my defence, and in hindsight, I’d probably say that my inability… refusal? to connect with the idea of using a white cane was part of my adjusting to losing my sight. I was dealing with so much at the time, and learning so many new skills of living as a blind person, that my poor overworked brain just couldn’t cope with it all. And it was just easier to ask people to help me get around.
And that became the pattern. Even once I started working with a guide dog, on the rare occasions my dog wasn’t with me, I’d need someone to help me get to where I needed to go.
So, walking round my neighbourhood totally on my own, accompanied only by my white mobility cane, is such a profound difference for me.
It doesn’t mean I’m going to depend on my beautiful guide dog any less. I can’t even begin to find the words to describe the remarkable bond that exists between Fiji and myself – and how natural it feels to work with her. But it’s great that I’m developing cane skills for those times when she’s not able to be with me.
Talking about how natural working with Fiji feels, I found myself praising my white cane when I encountered a car parked on the side of the road on one of our walks… but at least I didn’t try to give it a treat for good behavior!
At least, not yet! ….
And now to move onto another topic for a while, in case you’re bored of hearing about my O&M lessons!
Walking on my own across the road to my neighbours house should be simple, right? I mean, it’s less than 10 metres. So, it should be easy.
Well yes, it should. But I’ve never done it
At least, not before my second Orientation and Mobility lesson with Golden Dzapasi, of the Cape Town Society for the Blind. Which is totally crazy, since we’ve always got on really well with the neighbours and I’ve visited the house tons of times. I’ve just never walked across the road entirely on my own. Someone’s always walked with me
Not that I’m going to bother the neighbours all the time just because I can – that’s not the point. Besides, it’s not very neighbourly. But at least now I can get there if I need to.
And it’s quite liberating.
Now, if I could just find a way to reassure my guide dog that learning to use my mobility cane doesn’t mean she’s going to be out of a job…
A few days ago, I had two meetings at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. For various reasons that aren’t relevant to this post, I wasn’t able to take my guide dog Fiji with me. Instead I used my white mobility cane.
I have many blind and visually impaired friends who prefer to use a white cane as their primary mobility aid and they’re superb at it. But me, well… Let’s just say that because I generally use a guide dog, my cane skills aren’t that great.
Both rely on effective O&M skills – orientation and mobility for those who don’t know our jargon. Orientation is the ability to know your location using your other senses, and mobility is the ability to get from one place to another.
Here’s what I mean. I’m not used to walking into obstacles. Fiji usually walks me round things that are in our way. When using a white cane, I feel that life is much like a full body contact sport. I only know obstacles are there when I hit them with my cane tip, bounce off them, or fall over them. Also, I think I missed out when they were handing out senses of balance since I don’t have one. It’s okay when I’m with Fiji because she helps to balance me, especially when walking down stairs, which is probably my least favourite part of getting out and about. This absence of a sense of balance is magnified wen I’m using a white mobility cane – I simply don’t feel steady on my feet. And finally, I seem to battle to find straight. Again, that isn’t a problem with Fiji since I can leave it up to her. But when using a white cane, it’s up to me and I seem to spend my entire journey tacking from one side to the other.
I know my cane skills would improve significantly if I were to use them more often, especially when travelling on my own. Because traveling independently with a cane leaves me feeling anxious, incompetent and unable. Which I hate.
I recently decided I needed to do something about that.
I’ve already contacted the O&M Instructor from the Cape Town Society for the Blind to set up a lesson so I can brush up on my obviously rusty cane skills. I also want to get a new, longer white cane since I’ve started walking faster since working with Fiji and a longer cane will give me a slightly longer reaction time when I encounter obstacles. I’ve also set myself the goal of becoming braver about using my cane independently so I can practice the skills I need.
Does this mean I’m going to use Fiji less? Absolutely not. Fiji will always be my first choice as a mobility aid. But it will definitely be valuable for me to be more comfortable using a white cane for those times when I can’t have Fiji with me.
To go back to the start of the post and answer the question, I firmly believe the winner will be me…. Because any way I can improve my levels of independence will help me be more effective in what I do.