Traveling by yourself after you lose a lot of sight you almost always have to ask for some assistance in new places. This solo travel is often exhilarating. Provided you are in a busy area such as a train station or airport it can be like the mosh pit at a rock concert. The crowd picks you up and passes you along overhead. You just lie back and get carried. But sometimes you get dropped or trampled on!
The social psychological frontier
When you are out alone, you are always living on the edge. Erving Goffman, the famous sociologist, said of blind people that we “ live on a social psychological frontier, constantly facing new situations.” Sight gives people the ability to scan, to pick out who to talk to or avoid. With sight, people make a choice based on how alert and available, or rushed and grumpy, the assistant looks. The person with vision loss is always facing a new and unknown situation. You have no way of knowing the social or psychological state of whoever comes your way.
Having a guide or companion
For the first years after losing a lot of sight, people often want to go out only with a sighted companion. The companion chooses who you will talk to; brings you to the shortest line at the bank; tells you where the waitress put your drink; which way to swipe your card and when the assistant is ready to talk to you. And of course your companion also drives you where you need to go. It is all wonderfully convenient, but it damages your confidence in yourself, and may also make other people value you less.
Going it alone
So are you ready to head into the mosh pit? Recently I was in a restroom at an airport (back with the restrooms !). The first toilet was wheelchair accessible, and I took time finding which part was the door. The attendant who seemed hispanic finally helped me. Then the sink had two identical faucets, and I asked another woman which was the soap. She answered in Spanish, gesturing at the sink. Finally the attendant showed me that one faucet dispensed water and its twin brother the soap. She was talking to the other woman and I just caught the attendant making circles beside her head, indicating my obvious loopiness. I considered getting angry, but preferred my own peace of mind to getting upset. At the check in, I scored another Hispanic woman to assist me to the airplane. She was quite different and very proactive; she immediately asked me what kind of disability I had and what help I needed. We had a great time and I promised to visit her ceramic show next month.
Staying civil or taking revenge
The attendant in the restroom thought I was stupid because she could not understand the problem, and with a job pushing a mop in a restroom she may want to take out her unhappiness on someone else. People with vision loss know very well how easy it is to make the sighted assistant feel stupid because he or she does not understand blindness and makes some dumb remark. It can feel good for a minute or two, but then you have lost your pece of mind. I know, I did it this morning and felt bad for an hour.
Reactive or proactive
It is great to get out on your own and learn how to respond and be civil but still proactive. You often get good help and talk to interesting people. It takes a lot of practice and preparation not to react to bad behavior but mostly provided you are in a safe area it is a lot of fun.
Do you have your own way of staying on top of the crowd? Let the rest of us learn from your experience.
The quote is from Page 13, of Stigma, available from Learning Ally.
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Simon and Schuster 1963, Penguin Books, 1990.