At the conclusion of the AIR 2014 New Voices meet up which directly preceded the opening event of the Third Coast Festival, I exited the conference room to set out on my first non-blindness related conference. When I exited the room I was immediately reminded of my inner hater voice who two months earlier tried to convince me I shouldn’t even try to attend a conference that isn’t blindness focused.
What I encountered seemed like total chaos from my perspective. The conference center hallway was jammed packed with over 500 excited, enthusiastic men and women anticipating the start of the radio producer’s conference. My self-confident and assured voice said I should maneuver my way through the congested hall without help. I visited the conference center a day earlier to learn the layout. I had a pretty good visual map of where the rooms were located and practiced trailing the wall to find specific landmarks. For example, I often choose to take the stairs when it’s an option and I knew I could easily find the stairs where the carpet ended and the ceramic floors began. However, with the start of the conference, exhibitor tables lined the walls making trailing impossible.
One of the things I knew I needed to work on during this conference was accepting help from others. It’s not something I tend to do with ease. I think it’s more than being macho; it’s what I’ve been taught all my life. Whether by our parents or society, we are taught that doing things alone is good. Self-starters, self-motivators achieving their goals alone. Picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps is an admired American trait.
What I am only beginning to realize are the benefits of accepting assistance. In the case of navigating the crowded hallways of this conference while I could have done it alone it would have probably concluded with a broken white cane, other attendees labeling me an angry blind guy, reduced interaction with others and in general probably an uncomfortable experience for those who come in contact with me and myself.
Accepting assistance gave me the chance to meet new people. It usually went something like this; after I literally tapped someone with my cane and they excused themselves I would say:
TR: “Pardon me; I’m looking for the [insert name] room.
Kind Woman: “Oh, that’s this way, would you like a hand”
TR: “No, but I will take an arm if you’re offering” (Actually I just thought of this one now and may put it to work in a future conference)
Kind Woman: [While chuckling] “Of course”
TR: “My name is Thomas by the way”
Kind Woman: Introduces herself and now we are having a conversation. Boom!
All of that because I accepted help.
You may notice that I specifically say Kind Woman. That’s not just because my cane only finds women, it’s also because guys don’t really ask if I need help. I’m not sure if it’s because women are just more helpful in general. I would love to think it’s because they are checking for the TR, but I don’t think that’s the case. Either way, I’m not complaining. My friend explained that it’s sort of a mutual benefit. I get to the place I need to go and the person who assists feels good about helping someone. I used to have a problem with this because it made me feel like a charity case. I don’t think people who interact with me feel I am a charity case. Even more importantly I know I’m not. The experience really ends up as an even transaction of sorts.
The other area that I worried about and in fact I know bothers many blind people is the buffet line. There’s really no choice but to get assistance. It would be rude and disgusting if I were to put my nose or hands in different trays in order to determine its contents. Someone is almost always willing to help.
During one lunch a fellow New Voice Scholarship winner assisted me with maneuvering through the buffet line. In fact, it was a man. When we got to the end of the line I realized he was not getting his own food at the same time. This made me feel awful because I knew he would need to go back out and return to the line after he helped me find a seat. I was also upset because I was looking forward to speaking with him during lunch.
The lesson here applies to so many things people with vision loss need to incorporate into our lives; fully own the process. While I may let someone guide me, it’s up to me to steer. Not steer in the context of driving a car, but rather as in setting the pace and path for a project or task. In the example of the buffet line from now on I will make sure that the person assisting me will not have to endure the additional burden of getting back online. I want to make sure that anyone who assists me gets a return on the investment. That could be benefiting from a special accommodation like priority seating, the satisfaction of helping their fellow man or just the enjoyment of hanging out with me. Well that last one needs a little work!