Imagine you are walking down the street with a group of friends chatting about the newest iPhone or current events. Ahead, you notice a person who is blind navigating with a white cane coming toward your group. There is a narrow path, and your group needs to get past the person walking toward you. What would you do?
As you are reading this, I guarantee you’re saying, “That’s easy! I would acknowledge the person, move past him and continue my conversation with my friends.” It sounds easy enough, yet it’s rarely what happens in the everyday world that people with disabilities navigate through.
For some reason, the scenario usually plays out a bit differently, like this: A person who is blind and using a white cane to navigate is walking toward you and your chatting group of friends. You see the person and automatically the conversation halts. As the person continues navigating toward you, your group starts doing a dance to try to silently move around the person who is blind. Once you’ve made it past the person, the conversation picks right back up again. Never, at any point during the interaction, is a word spoken to the person who is blind.
After spending the last two months conducting disability awareness training for staff at a local St. Louis organization, I have come to realize that there is an interesting phenomenon that exists when it comes to training versus actual interaction.
When I explain this scenario and ask a group of people sitting in a training room what they would do, they always say they’d give a verbal cue to let the person know they are there. Yet, inevitably, nine times out of 10 when I am walking down the street, to the MetroLink station or out to a restaurant with friends who are blind or visually impaired, the second scenario is what occurs.
A person could argue that my training group has more experience with interacting with people with disabilities or are better informed (and that may be true), but an argument could also be made that there is a strange psychological effect that occurs between what we know we should do, the uncertainty about interacting with people with disabilities and what actually occurs during social interactions.
I contend it’s the latter. For some reason, when we encounter someone with a disability and it’s new to us, we do the opposite of what we recognize in retrospect we should have done.
Exposure and training are the best ways to counteract this psychological hiccup we sometimes find ourselves in. The more interaction that occurs with people with disabilities, the better. But interaction isn’t enough; actually talking to people and learning about their lives outside of disability exposes us to even bigger and better ideas. More knowledge increases our comfort levels and breaks down stereotypes and uncertainties that can allow everyday interactions with people with disabilities to be seamless in the best kind of way.
Christy Herzing is the Community Access Coordinator at Paraquad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Braille Institute