Dear stranger who passes me on the street,
It seems a little strange, addressing a letter to you, even though I haven’t walked alone anywhere in the past six months, but I am an eternal optimist (a terrible flaw, I know), and hold hope that I will be able to do so someday again. At the outset, I would like to clarify one thing, regardless of whether you are the-stranger-who-have-actually-passed-me-on-the-street or stranger-who-might-do-so-one-day.
Every White Cane Day till date, I have mostly written articles on the mechanics of using a white cane and how it works, or introspective essays on what the white cane means to me (short answer: independence). This white cane day, however, I would like to remind you that, in order to have independent and enjoyable travel experience, it is not enough to have or use a white cane merely.
The people I encounter while travelling and their attitudes also determine whether my travel is stress-free. I would like to now turn my attention to micro-aggressions that are frequently directed toward me as I travel alone as a woman with a disability. Without further ado, here are some dos and don’ts for the passer-by.
First of all, let me tell you, it is absolutely inappropriate to stop me in the middle of the street and make comments such as “My sister’s son is blind too! He is amazing!” or “I pray for people like you every day.” Don’t you realize I’ve got things to do and places to be, just like everyone else? Consider it your lucky day if I don’t retort with “I meet hundreds of insensitive random strangers like you all the time. Shocking, Isn’t it?”
Secondly, it is equally inappropriate to grab me as I walk, without my express permission to guide me. If you really think I need help, the best thing you can do is to ask me if I do (politely and calmly, now). Grabbing someone who is just walking around, and minding her own business, is completely unjustifiable. Really, haven’t you heard anything about consent? Or is it that you don’t think it applies equally to a disabled body as a nondisabled one? You might have good intentions, but how would I know that? You wouldn’t ever dream of grabbing a nondisabled woman in that way, would you?
Next, If you do ask me whether I need help, and the answer is no, walk away, even if your instinct urges you to push it. I am the one who decides if, when and from whom to accept help, not you. Moreover, I am under no obligation to explain to you why I do not want your help. You asked, I answered, you walk on—end of the story.
Now, if there comes a situation where you are going to guide me (regardless of whether you offered help or I asked for it), either offer me your elbow, as people generally should when a sighted person guides a blind person, or take my non-cane hand. For me, since I am right-handed, my left hand would be the one you are expected to take. Please, please please, do not hold my cane or lift it up from the ground.
The whole point of having a cane with me is that it will sweep the ground in front of me and alert me to obstacles in my way. I need it, whether or not you are guiding me. Don’t force me to engage in a tug of war with you in the middle of the street, with you on one end of the cane, and me on the other. It is highly undignified.
Next, the brief moments in which you help me from one side of the street to the other, are not exactly the right ones to ask questions about blindness in general or me in particular. Like I mentioned before, things to do and places to be. General questions such as how I use my phone, how blind people travel, etc., are best addressed to Google. After all, you Google everything else, so why not this?
Answers to specific questions such as how I became blind, whether I was born blind or became blind, etc., are part of my personal story, which I am under no obligation to share in the middle of the busiest 80 ft Road. Essentially, what I am trying to say, is that I do not live for the express purpose of teaching you what blind people can do, or how we do things.
An offer of help shouldn’t come with an expectation that I will answer your questions in return. I realize that this is perhaps the first time you are ever meeting or talking to a blind person, but you might not be the first or even fifth person I would have met over the course of that day to ask me these questions, and it can get old really soon.
Next, it is also not your place to make comments such as “people like you should stay at home.” Or, my favorite “Where are your parents?” As I am an adult travelling by herself, these questions are not necessary, to say the least, and are better kept to yourself. Don’t force me to reply with “none of your business!”
Finally, if you are a person with strong religious beliefs, specifically about a cure, please do not stop me and tell me to pray to so-and-so deity, perform so-and-so poojas, or read so-and-so portions of the bible. The fact that you think all disabled people need to be cured is in itself highly ableist.
Therefore, don’t blame me if I, equally politely, ask you to read up on ableism and the very contentious issue of cure. Same goes for those people who believe in certain doctors, alternative medicines, or any other cure. I am not a broken doll that needs to be fixed. I am a person who celebrates her blind body and all that it entails. And of course, it goes without saying that the middle of the street is certainly not the place to be debating these things.
The above is not an exhaustive list of the types of micro-aggressions I encounter, but merely the most annoying ones. This White Cane Day, I urge you to keep these in mind and cooperate with the disabled community, as we try to create less stressful travel experiences for all.
This article in the form of an open letter is written by JAF volunteer O. Aishwarya, who is a research scholar at IIIT B.