Caleb Berkemeier is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Kent State University, where he teaches writing and American literature. He discusses his experiences with a visual impairment, navigating public spaces with a cane, and how other people can help or hinder his travels. Caleb clarifies misconceptions and offers one perspective on how sighted individuals can better interact with someone who is visually impaired. Full disclosure: this brilliant guy is my husband.
Audrey: What is your greatest obstacle in navigating public spaces?
Caleb: My greatest obstacle is other people. Buildings, sidewalks, trees, and other inanimate objects are reliable. I know where they will always be, and I can easily navigate on and around them using proper cane technique. But when humans are entered into the equation, my journeys become unpredictable because we often move and behave irrationally. For example, when entering or exiting a building through double doors, it makes sense to always use the door on the right because this is the conventional flow of traffic. I always enter a building through the right door, and when someone is exiting on their left, it results in unnecessary confusion, and sometimes a bruise.
Audrey: So other people can make the environment unpredictable if they don’t follow the flow of traffic. Are there other things people do that create obstacles for you?
Caleb: Yes, and it’s often a result of people trying to be helpful but not knowing what I really need. One time I was walking on a sidewalk that had a sign stand in the middle. I frequently encounter these kinds of obstacles, and I can easily avoid them with the use of my cane. On this particular day, though, there was a group of people approaching from the opposite direction, and a man started yelling at me, “Oh! Watch out!” I was nervous that something big was about to hit me, and my concentration was broken. I ended up running into that sign because I couldn’t maintain proper cane technique. I know the guy thought he was being helpful, but the most helpful thing he could have done was remain quiet and let me focus on navigating safely.
Audrey: It sounds like there’s a difference between what people think you need and what you actually need. Do you have other examples of these differences?
Caleb: That’s a good way to put it, and most of the time it comes down to being verbal in the right context. While yelling at me from a distance is never a good idea, letting me know how to handle person-to-person contact is helpful. I’m always mystified by how many people silently hold doors open for me. I can’t tell if they are holding it for me or for someone else. Some people are verbal in this situation, holding open the right-side door and letting me know it is open. Of course, I never need a door held for me, and I hope no one assumes I can’t get in or out of a building without their help. But as a polite gesture, I appreciate when holding open a door comes with a verbal cue.
Another common interaction is the handshake, or passing an object from hand to hand. I don’t usually get upset when sighted people do things that are less than helpful, but every time someone grabs and pulls my arm in order to shake my hand or give me something, I feel demeaned. I appreciate having the situation described to me so that I can interact autonomously. It might feel unnatural to say things like “I’m holding out my hand to shake yours” or “I’m handing you a piece of paper,” but doing so makes me feel like an equal participant in that interaction.
Audrey: As a sighted person who spends a lot of time with you, I’ve noticed that people sometimes treat us differently based on vision. When we were shopping for a mattress, the salesperson looked only at me throughout the conversation, even when you were talking. When you needed to buy a socket wrench, another salesperson asked me what you needed, even though you were asking about the products. And though there’s nothing wrong with smiling at strangers, I notice that I’m met with sympathetic smiles when we’re out, as though I were doing a good deed by going to dinner with you—as if I were out with you for charity and not because you’re fun and interesting to talk to.
Caleb: To be honest, I rarely pick up on those things when they are happening, but it bothers me when I learn about it after the fact because it’s humiliating for both of us. Just like it is rude to look at a translator when communicating with a deaf person, it is equally rude to look at a sighted companion when addressing a blind person.
Audrey: Sometimes strangers ask you about your vision: how much you can or cannot see, why and how your vision is impaired. How do you feel about that?
Caleb: The only reason a stranger should ask about my visual impairment is if the answer is pertinent to the situation we are in together. I’ve been asked how much I can see when a stranger is helping me navigate a complex room layout, and I have no problem with this because it serves the purpose of making that task easier. I once entered a wine bar to meet some friends and asked the host if he could guide me to their table. But instead of asking how much I could see, he waved his hand in front of my face. I have a small amount of residual vision, and a rapidly moving object inches from my face startled and confused me. It also made me feel like less of a person. This is the epitome of how not to interact with a person with a visual impairment.
Audrey: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Caleb: I’d just like to conclude by saying that people with visual impairments are typically well trained to navigate public spaces, so excessive attention can be patronizing. I’ve been asked if I need help while walking toward my pre-planned destination and while quietly sitting on a park bench. I’ve been unnecessarily dragged toward the bus I’m patiently waiting to board. Sometimes blind people do need help in public spaces, but you can trust that they will signal when they need it.
Thanks for your perspective, Caleb! While individual experiences with visual impairments differ, one thing remains the same: it is important to respect the autonomy of a person who is visually impaired. If you’re unsure whether your actions help or hinder, ask questions instead of assuming what is best. Offer choices instead of making decisions. And always travel with the flow of traffic.