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What Not to say to a Blind Person

When I first envisioned this blog, my goal was to create awareness about disability issues and to break down assumptions and stereotypes about disability. My aim was also to educate people about the abilities, challenges, and barriers faced by disabled individuals in order to foster a more accessible, inclusive, and equitable society.

In a much earlier post, I referred to a parent who was on a panel and I shared a list of "what not to say to a parent of a child with a disability." I questioned why there wasn't a similar list for disabled people, and I felt it was essential to rectify that omission.

Under the heading of putting my money where my mouth is (Okay, there is no money involved here.), I am sharing a list of what not to say to a blind person. My intention is not to shame anyone who may have said or done these things but rather to educate. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it includes things that I and others have encountered. I invite my blind readers to add anything they think should be included in the comments. I would appreciate contributions from others as well.

In no particular order, here are 10 things to avoid saying:

(1) "How many fingers am I holding up?" or "Guess who?": While children asking this may be forgiven as a learning opportunity, it becomes frustrating when adults do the same. Such comments imply that I may be faking my blindness or that I should be challenged to prove my level of disability. Moreover, even if I have minimal vision, it doesn't make me any less disabled.

(2) Don't approach me at a party or gathering and simply say hi. Instead, it is more respectful to introduce yourself verbally, gently touch me on the arm or shoulder, and say, "Hi, it's [your name]." This not only ensures that I know who you are, but the touch also indicates that you are speaking to me. Additionally, if you need to walk away during our conversation, please let me know so that I am not left talking to thin air.

(3) "It's over there": Pointing and saying, "It's over there" is meaningless to a blind person. I have no way of discerning the direction you're pointing in. It would be much more helpful if you could provide specific instructions like, "It's to your right, a few steps ahead." Even better, ask me if I would like assistance in reaching the destination or obtaining the object.

(4) "I feel so sorry for you." or "I give you a lot of credit; I couldn't do what you do": While I appreciate empathy and support, I don't seek pity or sympathy. Making assumptions about the difficulty of my life based on my disability is not helpful. I face challenges due to my blindness, but I have a great life. and you have no idea what you are capable of either.

(5) "Let me do that for you": While I appreciate offers of assistance, assuming that I am incapable of performing tasks on my own can be demeaning. It's essential to recognize that disabled individuals value their independence and self-reliance. Instead, ask if assistance is needed and respect that decision.

(6) "You're so brave": Calling someone brave is subjective and personal. Some disabled individuals appreciate this comment, while others find it patronizing or dismissive of their daily experiences. It's best to avoid making assumptions about someone's emotional state and instead focus on their abilities and achievements.

(7) "You don't look blind": Blind individuals look just like everyone else. The misconception that blind people should always wear dark glasses, carry a white cane, or have a guide dog is inaccurate. Disability is not always visible, and judging someone's visual impairment based on appearance can be misleading and offensive.

(8) "Why aren't you using your cane?" Assuming that blind individuals should always use a cane is not accurate. Some people may use other aids, such as guide dogs or assistive technology. It's essential to respect each person's preferences and choices when it comes to navigating their surroundings.

(9) When I am walking, especially when navigating stairs or curbs, and I am holding onto the arm of my sighted companion, please refrain from taking my hand and attempting to guide my movements while providing additional directions. This can be confusing and challenging for me to process. Additionally, it's important to note that holding hands in that manner may not be my preferred method of assistance. Personally, I find it more secure to grab onto someone's arm, as it provides a stronger sense of stability. It's crucial to respect the individual preferences of disabled individuals when it comes to physical support and guidance. Remember, I only need one person's arm for support and that same one person to provide clear directions.

(10) Lastly, it is perfectly fine to say, "Did you see… Did you see that movie? Did you see so and so?" You don’t need to avoid the word "see." Using such phrases is natural, and I won't take offense to them.

Promoting understanding and respect for disabled individuals starts with recognizing and challenging our own biases and preconceived notions. This list of what not to say to a disabled person aims to educate and foster empathy. By actively listening to disabled individuals and respecting their experiences, we can work together to create a more inclusive and accessible society for everyone.

If you have additional insights or experiences to share, please feel free to contribute them in the comments section below.

- Michelle B. Friedman M.A.

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