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It's My Life and I'm Responsible For It!

One of the most pernicious misconceptions about blindness is the notion that we are unaware of our surroundings and therefore incapable of protecting ourselves from danger. Most of our sighted friends, when pressed, will admit that we seem to manage, but that they are not at all sure how. Most people are so accustomed to gathering information visually that they have never developed alternative non-visual techniques. They may notice that their living room echoes differently after the furniture has been moved into it, but they rarely think of this difference as a useful tool for getting around.

When a blind person moves from the confines of home to the public streets, those around us often replace curiosity and incredulity with fear. For some people, the thought of a blind person maneuvering safely through traffic is nothing short of terrifying.

One of the most uplifting aspects of being human is our capacity and willingness to reach out in loving concern to those around us. Helping those who cannot help themselves is a hallmark of a civilized society.

Unfortunately, when the thoroughly positive desire to be of service is combined with the generally negative lack of information about blind people and the way we function, the results can be extremely uncomfortable for everyone concerned. The experience of one blind student at Okanagan University College in Kelowna demonstrates the problem.

Janet Erikson has always enjoyed outdoor recreation. She does downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking, swimming, and a variety of other very physical things. She also uses a guide dog as an aid to mobility. Not surprisingly, when she gets the chance, Janet loves to run with her dog. She has learned how to judge traffic and avoid other potential hazards without breaking stride.

One morning, Janet was on her way to class at Okanagan University. It was a fine morning, she was feeling energetic, and she realized she hadn't allotted enough time for a sedate stroll to class. She took off running. Her residence was at the top of a long hill and her classroom building was at the bottom. The main campus roadway -- a roadway marked clearly to give pedestrians the right of way -- was between the two buildings. There was no curb to distinguish the roadway from the rest of the sidwalk, but there were enough other cues to make it easy to find.

On the morning when Janet took her noteworthy run, she listened for traffic, determined it was clear, and simply kept going. A driver came down the road much too quickly and passed within a few feet of Janet. No one was hurt. No accident occurred. It was one of those little incidents that is noted at the time and almost instantly forgotten.

At least, that's how it should have been. But attitudes about blindness run deep and none of us can count on anonymity.

Another student observed what was happening and became frightened. Rather than talk to Janet directly, she took her fear to a student committee assigned to making the campus accessible for the handicapped. Clearly, this must be an accessibility problem. Major modifications must be made, and professional advice must be sought.

The head of the barrier-free committee at the college -- a woman who uses a wheelchair for independent travel, but has no background in blindness -- went to the "experts". She called the local offices of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and related her secondhand account of the problem, although she did not give Janet's name to the staff member.

Faced with such an inquiry from the public, an employee from an agency for the blind must maintain a difficult balance. On one hand, the caller's concern is genuine and must be treated with respect. On the other hand, the caller's observations and perceptions may be filtered through an unreasonable level of fear, and the caller's conclusions must, therefore, be treated with healthy skepticism. Above all, the agency representative must remember that the first duty is to the blind person involved, and that nothing should be said which would in any way undermine that person's ability to be in charge.

One very useful response in such circumstances, is: "We'd be glad to act as a resource for this blind person. Feel free to give him or her our number." Another possible question is: "What was the blind person's assessment of the situation when the two of you discussed it?" Those answers make it clear that it is the blind person whose knowledge and perspective should be sought before professional intervention. Only after these things have been said, it may be appropriate for the agency staff member to talk in general terms about possible solutions for a particular problem.

Janet first heard about the conversation between the barrier-free committee and the CNIB when the committee head called her after the fact. Because Janet's understanding of the conversation is only second-hand, we will never know whether or not the staff member took the basic precautions outlined above. We do know, however, the part of the conversation that was relayed to Janet.

On the basis of her understanding of their conversation with the CNIB, the barrier-free committee offered to advocate that the College administration install a roughened surface at the edge of the driveway to make it possible for Janet to know where it was. They also let her know that a mobility instructor could be made available to help her solve her problems. They even went so far as to suggest that she might want to consider calling the guide dog school which she had attended to request refresher training for her dog. If the CNIB staff member had suggested that things might really be fine and someone was just overreacting, the person from the barrier-free committee had been unwilling or unable to entertain that possibility.

Janet's reaction was predictably angry. In very plain but courteous language, she informed her would-be saviour that she did not appreciate unrequested intrusions into her life. To paraphrase her comments: "If you have something to say about me, please begin by saying it to me."

There may be some debate about whether Janet was acting prudently in the way she crossed the campus that morning. She believed she was; some others did not share her belief. It's really beside the point. No matter how much we all wish that everyone would follow the safety standards we feel are appropriate, we all must recognize and respect the right of other adults to make their own decisions. If Janet had been sighted, chances are no one would have thought her behaviour the least bit unusual. Because she is blind, and because of the prevailing myth that blind people are unaware of their surroundings, others felt it was completely appropriate to take charge of her life for her. No doubt they felt she was being unreasonably defensive when she stood up for herself.

Janet could have simply felt annoyed and hurt, spoken her mind to the head of the barrier-free committee, and let it go at that. Instead, she took the time to put her concerns in writing. She wrote to the head of the barrier-free committee, the disabled students services office, the college president, the residence and campus newspapers, and the NFB: AE.

She received an overwhelmingly positive response. The letter from Okanagan University president, Dr. Bill Bowering, said it best:

Ms. Janet Erikson OUC North Kelowna Residence North Kelowna Campus (December 6, 1996)

Dear Ms. Erikson:

I have discussed the concerns raised in your letter of 95 11 30 with Ms. Valerie Best, Disability Services.

While the efforts of the people that you mentioned in your letter are probably motivated by good intentions, I agree that you have a right to conduct your life as you see fit. Ms. Best will be discussing your concerns with the Barrier Free group.

I hope that there will be no further recurrences of this kind.

Yours truly,

W.D. Bowering, President

That's the kind of simple but profound respect we are all trying to achieve.

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