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Disclosing Blindness?

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Wendy Eddy is Director of Counseling at The Hope Foundation of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta.

I almost always chuckle when I hear my telephone voice saying: "One last thing. Just so it won't surprise you when you get here, I want to tell you that I am a blind person." It seems a strange line for a person who has told hundreds of audiences that they should expect to find blind people out there in society doing what other people do. It sounds a little peculiar coming from the mouth of a person who used to try to sound like a sighted person when she worked for the CNIB-just to confuse those people who thought the CNIB was the only place blind people could work. Oh well, change can be a good thing.

It's not that my employer told me to warn clients about my blindness. That would likely have sent me screaming to Human Rights. It's not that I fear hostility from the clients. In fact, ninety-five percent of them say: "Oh, that doesn't matter." Four percent of them tell me they think it will be helpful, usually because they have admired some other blind person. One percent tell me they are glad, because that means I won't be distracted by their fatness, their ugliness, or any other physical characteristic they dislike.

Even if I were a sighted person, my job would be deemed unconventional in the professional community. I am Director of Counseling at The Hope Foundation of Alberta, a University of Alberta centre for hope research. My biographical notes bill me as a counseling psychologist who specializes in hope and humour. My colleagues and I develop, test and teach strategies which integrate hope research findings into counseling practice. The work is based on the knowledge that certain behaviours and exercises increase hope, and that people who are hopeful respond more positively and actively to physical illness, mental illness, loss, pain, and other serious life problems. People who come to our counseling program do so either because they have been referred by someone they trust, or because they have tried absolutely everything they can think of and have given up hope. They have very little idea what to expect when they call to make an appointment.

I always had a telephone conversation with every potential client, but I didn't warn people about my blindness when I began this work. I'd come down to the reception area to greet distressed strangers waiting in fearful expectation. I'd appear in the doorway, call a name, and reach out to shake hands as they got to their feet. About half the time they'd have both hands full, coffee in one, a book in the other. If I didn't reach out my hand, I would find that a lonely hand had been waving in front of me, waiting to be taken. Now a new burden would be added to the ones they had brought with them. "I am so sorry," they would murmur. "I didn't know."

And why should they have known? After all, you might expect to find blind people working out there. It doesn't seem that anyone minds. But it sure improves the quality of our first five minutes together if I tell them in advance and then ask: "Is your hand free for me to shake?"

I've never much like being a blind person, but my life has been good in spite of it. If I could see I might be a better psychologist. I would certainly have more information about what is going on. On the other hand, with a little effort, I can put my blindness to work. "Don't expect me to notice that you're not getting what you need," I say to students, or to spouses who sit in frozen silence while their mates complain endlessly. "You've got to speak up for yourself." It always makes people laugh, and it seems to help them speak up.

Sometimes I wonder how different I would be if I could see. Undoubtedly I would be driving a car and shopping more. I might have a higher income. I would circulate more at parties and possibly make wiser choices at buffet tables. But I always have to stop and remember the times, back in the days of typewriters, when I raged at secretaries and firmly believed that my letters would go out free from errors if only I could do my own proofreading. It was before the time when spell checkers and voice synthesizers and Braille printers came along to make me more independent, more competitive. It was the time when I had the luxury of being able to blame my problems on somebody else.

So what can I say now when people point out the errors in my letters? "Oh well," I guess I should have noticed that."

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