When should we react, when should we let it go?
Back in July, I wrote a post talking about some advocacy victories in which I’d played a part, in order to provide some examples in support of my view that NFB was justified in passing its resolution calling on Apple to ensure that all iOS apps are accessible. That resolution, and my post, sparked a lot of Twitter and email list traffic, and I’ve received a new influx of correspondence following the post’s publication in the November issue of NFB’s magazine, “The Braille Monitor”.
Advocacy is a subject dear to my heart. Not only have I been a paid advocate, it’s just in my DNA. And Mosen Consulting occasionally gets to do advocacy work, which I love. I’m optimistic about the future, and believe that with a compelling argument, good people skills, strategic thinking and determination, an individual can change not only their own circumstances, but change the world for the better. I also believe that when such individuals get together and advocate collectively in an orderly, systemic manner, even greater things are possible. That’s why I strongly encourage people to become active in an organisation of the blind. When we share the heavy lifting, it makes the work less arduous for each individual. We’re all happy to gain the benefits achieved by the sweat and toil of such organisations, so I don’t think it’s asking too much to give a little bit back.
I know first-hand that sometimes you can reason with those who may be discriminating against you, because that discrimination is inadvertent. Sometimes the discrimination is blatant, and it’s necessary to stop the talking at some point and start litigating, protesting and/or lobbying. I’m totally comfortable with all that, and indeed in my career have done all that. There’ll be some people who will disagree with some of the advocacy stances I’ve taken on behalf of organisations I’ve led. They’ll say I’ve been too radical, too politically correct. There’s no shortage of people who think organisations of the blind don’t have a sense of perspective.
I state my strong advocacy credentials to make it clear that when it comes to civil rights, I’m no softy. But in this post, I want to discuss another kind of advocacy issue. It relates to advocacy of a more individual, personal nature. And in my view, it’s by far a much greyer area.
I’m not even discussing clear breaches of the law, such as when you’re denied a table at a restaurant because you have a guide dog. That one, to me at least, requires you to take a stand.
No, in this instance, I’m talking about how we as blind people react to individual sighted people, who are not in authority, who may approach us or say things to us in a manner we find objectionable.
I could give you many examples from my own life experience to try and get my point across, but here are a couple that are uppermost in my mind as I write this.
A couple of years ago, I was walking to a restaurant with another blind person whom I didn’t know particularly well. We were about to cross a busy intersection, and a member of the public came up to us and said, “let me help you”, grabbing my companion by the shoulder. My companion angrily shook off the woman offering assistance, and said, “don’t you dare put your hands on me”. The member of the public was clearly quite distressed, saying she meant no harm and was just trying to be helpful.
At that point, I introduced myself by name, thanked her for her help, and said that if she wouldn’t mind assisting us, that I could take her arm. That way, she could walk ahead of me.
My companion knew the area, and we probably didn’t need the help, but what was to be gained by offending a well-meaning member of the public? We got across the road, she asked me the usual questions I get in the States about where I got that funny accent, and she left, apologising once again for upsetting my companion, but saying she knew better what to do next time.
I’m not oblivious to the argument that there comes a point where you just get sick and tired of being pushed and shoved, that you just get fed up with having to be some sort of good will ambassador for the blindness cause all the time. I’ve been there, having had days when I’ve handled situations poorly, for no other reason than I’m human and was having an off day.
But let’s face it. Blindness is a very low incidence population, and the majority of blind people are senior citizens who may not be seen out and about unaccompanied very often. That makes the numbers of independently mobile blind people an even lower incidence population. I’m all for blind people being taught how to make the most of their lawful rights, and how to advocate to change the law where necessary, but I submit we also need to learn how to be well-mannered self-advocates with a sense of perspective.
Of course there will be jerks who don’t take “no” for an answer, but we should be sure that’s the type of person we’re dealing with before we turn on the verbal fire hose.
Let me give you one more example of an issue where I think the best response is to just let it go. I once encountered a member of the public who told me, quite unsolicited, that blind people had no business being parents. I was sitting with one of my kids at a burger joint, and this guy just came up to me, out of the blue and told me this. I can’t deny it really pushed a button internally. Yeah, OK, I found it incredibly offensive actually. But what kept me together was that I knew my highest priority in this encounter was my son. So I simply thanked the guy for his input and respectfully requested that we be able to get on with our lunch in peace.
My son and I then had a discussion about how some people didn’t know how cool it was to have a blind dad, and that satisfied him.
What would have happened had I chewed the guys ear off as I was so tempted to do? Would it have changed his mind? I very much doubt it. The guy didn’t approach in curiosity, with a series of questions, he approached with his mind made up that I was incompetent. It would have upset my son, and it would probably have caused a public scene. And in the end, for what? In the wider scheme of things, what does it really matter what this ignoramus, who was clearly rude for thinking he had the right to come up to me and say such a thing unsolicited, thinks?
By contrast, let me give you one example where I did take a very public stand, and then try to articulate a principle that defines my different attitude to these three occurrences.
When my oldest daughter was quite small, I was required to speak at a conference as the then president of New Zealand’s consumer organisation, and my daughter came with me for the trip. When we got on the plane and I’d ensured she was securely strapped into her seat, a male flight attendant came up to me and said, “Mr Mosen, because you’re blind, we’re going to have to sit your daughter with someone who can help her in the event of an emergency”. I was absolutely flabbergasted. We’d flown together before, and I’d never been challenged in this way.
I told the flight attendant that in an emergency, there’s no one in the world on this plane who’s going to be more concerned about my daughter’s welfare than me. That she’d clearly be upset sitting next to a stranger, and that there was absolutely no way he was going to move her. I asked him to name the regulation which he felt entitled him to do this. I told him we’d get off the plane rather than be separated.
The whole plane had fallen silent by this point, and to my surprise, the passengers started applauding. At that point, a female flight attendant, who said she was a parent herself, intervened, told the guy he was out of line, and the plane went on its way. I was really touched by all the kind words from the passengers as we disembarked, commenting on what a lovely father/daughter pair we were.
In that case, I followed up with a written complaint. The person concerned was disciplined, and given further education.
So why did I choose to make an issue of that one? First, because as a parent, my daughter was my responsibility. Second, because this was in relation to a public service where the individual had no legal grounds to do what he was doing. To let this guy get away with it would have set a shocking precedent. Third, there was a whole plane load of people who needed to understand that blindness didn’t equate to being disqualified from exercising one’s obligations as a parent. We’re not in this instance talking about one guy without influence as in the previous example, we’re talking about a guy in a position of authority, and a plane load of passengers, at least most of whom I would like to think were reasonable people.
If I had to condense the way I try to look at these things into a principle, it would be this. Is this thing I would prefer not to be happening a challenge to my civil rights, or an annoying affront to my sense of self, my ego if you will? Is the intension to be hostile and to discriminate, or is someone seeking to be kind, with that kindness perhaps a little misplaced? Was offense intended, or have I simply chosen to take offense? If offense was intended, will it matter beyond this moment?
When we deal with entities providing us with public services, I think it’s reasonable for us to expect a certain quality of service, although even then, the front-line staff often aren’t responsible for their lack of education. But when it comes to individual members of the public, most of them want to be helpful, and really, the small number who are deliberately obnoxious are of no consequence. We may get some sort of temporary satisfaction from humiliating them, but there’s a longer-term dignity that comes from being the bigger person.
More important, if you let people get under your skin, in the end, you’re the one who suffers the most. I’ve seen blind people who almost seem in a constant state of warfare with society in general, and sighted people in particular. And when you view the world like that, you’re expecting confrontation. You’re primed for it, therefore you attract it.
For those interested in further reading on this topic, Kenneth Jernigan wrote a brilliant piece called “Don’t Throw the Nickel”.
I would very much enjoy hearing your perspective on this issue. How do you decide whether to make an issue of something blindness-related that happens in your life, and when and why do you let it go? Any examples you’d like to share of each would be interesting to read.