I would like to think that I am not totally socially awkward; I am sure this is true for all of us. But when one is blind, one misses some of the visual cues inherent in human interaction, which can sometimes lead to awkward situations. On the flip side, people try SO hard not to hurt our feelings that we do get offended, or worse, end up unintentionally continuing awkward social behaviors ourselves.
More than once I have been in a room, chattering away with someone, and they just leave the room without telling me, leaving me talking to the coffee pot and a bunch of empty chairs. Thankfully, most people I interact with regularly apologize profusely and seldom do it again. Sometimes people stumble all over themselves, trying not to offend me by using words such as “see,” “hear” and “look” (and “blind” MUST be avoided at all costs), and wind up making themselves sound ridiculous and occasionally being offensive in the process. With these, I try and put them at ease by just telling them to use such words; I am not offended, and if I am, I would tell them.
But what if I, as a blind person, miss the mark and DO something socially unacceptable without realizing it? I would like to think that people in my life would tell me, kindly and privately, that XYZ isn’t appropriate/professional/whatever. Not long ago, someone I know went on a social media rant about how sighted people just don’t get it, and they should be able to wear their hair or dress how they wanted in a professional setting. Without knowing the whole situation, someone had told her that how she had her hair was not professional. There are, of course, appropriate times, places and words to address the issue – in the middle of a meeting in front of 20 other people obviously isn’t one of them – but I see nothing wrong with being taken aside and hearing something like “I don’t know how to say this, but when you come into the office, perhaps keeping a comb at your desk might keep your hair neater after coming outside from the wind/rain.” This both addresses the issue without being offensive, without putting a blind person on the spot and on the defensive, but also telling them that something needs to change.
Yesterday, I had an instance with my boss that really annoyed him. It wasn’t a big deal to me, and ultimately wasn’t a huge deal to him, but it concerned him enough that he took me aside and simply told me the truth. Was it embarrassing? YES! Am I ultimately glad that he did it? Yes! Do I wish more people have the guts to take us blind people aside and tell us kindly but firmly that even though WE don’t see certain behavior or dress as unprofessional or unacceptable, that it really is? You bet!
It is very easy to get defensive; no one likes to be called out. But after the initial embarrassment, we will be better for it. We will be stronger, more professional, and more easily able to blend in with the public. Sure, we will walk around with canes or guide dogs, put large print closer to our face to be able to read it, request braille menus in a restaurant… but let’s not give any further reasons to make us stand out and look unprofessional, uncoordinated, or just like we don’t care how we come across to those who serve us, befriend us, or (we hope) employ us.