I’m blind, but there’s no need to talk to my dog

I’m utterly exhausted with people constantly asking how I became blind. Considering that I’m 42, and blind since birth, it could be imagined that by now I would be familiar with this question.  On the contrary, if anything I’m getting more impatient with the same old questions day after day. “Have you been blind all your life?” To this I always respond: “Not yet”.  “Your hearing must be so much better than mine?” Answer: “Pardon?” “That’s a lovely Labrador you have there.” Answer: “Labrador? My dog is a Shepherd.”  Not original answers, but they always make me and Moss, my black Labrador, chuckle.  It always happens when I’m trapped and unable to escape. When I’m on a bus, train or taxi. People are naturally curious; I understand this. But they can’t resist going that little bit too far if you show any glimpse of being generous with your responses.  “Couldn’t you get an operation to get your sight back?” Answer: “No! I like walking into bus stops.”  “My auntie was blind. She had to stay in bed. You’re so brave going out and about.” Staying in bed. Umm, now there’s an idea. That was one smart auntie.  “How do you find your mouth when you eat?” Answer: “In the same way you find your bum when you wipe it.”  “If I was blind I would have to kill myself.” Answer: “Why wait?”

These normal questions are the reason I’ve come up with a fantastic plan. For years, various organisations have been providing Blind Awareness Workshops. In fact, I’ve had to deliver a few. These workshops show the public how they should respond if they encounter a blind person. Topics such as, don’t go up and shout at blind people, they are not deaf.  ASK, if they want to cross the road? DON’T drag them across the road by the ears. When you are giving directions, DON’T waggle your finger in some vague direction and say: “It’s just over there next to the post office. SEE, you can’t miss it.” Wanna bet?

Many years ago I was waiting for a bus in Union Street in Glasgow, when two little old ladies decided to lift me, from behind, on to the bus. They proceeded to push, heave and shove me. Now, I know I’m not known for my speed, but I was heading in the right direction of the door under my own propulsion. You won’t be surprised to hear that they failed miserably. After all, I’m 13 stone and 6ft. To get me safely aboard they caused mayhem: pushing mothers and toddlers aside to get to their prey. The driver had to leave his cab to untangle buggies, shopping and various limbs and walking sticks.  I wonder if the ladies survived that day. I know I’m scared.

I’ve decided to call my new training course The Blind Person’s Guide to the General Public. Topics such as dealing with people who are giving directions to my dog while ignoring me. This did happen in Glasgow’s Central Station by a member of the railway police. I couldn’t believe it. Was he having a laugh? No, he really was under the misapprehension that my dog knew what he was on about. Not once did he refer to me at all. Bizarre behaviour!  My course will teach blind people how to cope when faced with this kind of attitude. When people come up and say: “You are a lovely boy” – when talking to the dog. Say, “Thank you very much but I’m spoken for.”  Another tip is always to have a pair of headphones in your pocket. It is awful to be trapped on a train with someone going through all their fears and traumas about being blind. Just say that you are going to listen to an audio book. Pop on the headphones and put the jack in your pocket. They’ll never know the difference.

When you get caught by someone asking silly questions, the answer is to turn the conversation round at the first opportunity. The one main conversation that everyone likes to talk about is themselves.  Now this doesn’t just apply to us blindies – the technique can be used by everyone. Let me give you an example. I was travelling on the Glasgow Underground. Sitting opposite was a woman who decided to interrogate me about my then German Shepherd guide dog. “What’s its name?” The following questions took that kind of line. Then she started to get a little more probing. “So how did you lose your sight?”  Now in the correct circumstance that is a perfectly reasonable question. However, not on the underground when surrounded by ear-wigging passengers. I had a number of options. One is telling her to mind her own business (or words to that effect). I took a different tack. This was the first time I had put the technique into action.  It worked a treat.

I ignored her question. Then I asked her some questions of my own, such as, “Where are you off to today?”. By the time she got off three stops later, I knew that she had just broken up with her boyfriend, she was looking for a flat and was thinking of moving south again! But she left the tube feeling happy. I hadn’t been rude, and the only thing she found out about me was the name and age of my dog.  A good result, I would say. I’m not a reporter for nothing.

Ian Hamilton reports on disability issues for BBC Scotland.

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