• Blind woman with black poodle guide dog crossing Mass. Ave. in Central Square

Riddle: Why Did the Blind Woman Cross Mass. Ave.?

Riddle: Why Did the Blind Woman Cross Mass. Ave.?

Have you ever seen a blind person at a street crossing and wondered what to do?

Answer: To get to the other side, and she most likely didn’t need your help to do it.

This riddle might not be as endearing as the time-honored chicken street crossing riddle, but it’s substantially more socially relevant to the roughly 450 blind or vision impaired (BVI) people who live here in Cambridge. BVI folks cross streets every day, as do many other souls, and for the same reasons: to go to work, to food shop, to have tea with friends, to frighten sighted people. That last reason is made up, but might strike a chord with you if you are sighted. This article is, in fact, for over the 100,000 sighted people in Cambridge who grow ashen, fearful, and heightened when seeing a BVI person with a white cane or guide dog readying to cross a street.

I’ll say that again: “Cross a street.” Something adults and some ten year olds do every day. Not a big deal. Not “…invent cruise control” or “…devise a complex code of raised dots that would enable billions of people to read.” (Both of these inventions, by-the-way, were created by blind folks. The first, by Ralph Teetor; the second by, of course, Louis Braille.) “Cross a street.” But it panics sighted folks. It makes sighted folks wonder why innocent BVI folks have been cruelly jettisoned from Planet BVI. In fact, it sometimes makes sighted folks, when witnessing a BVI person crossing a street, scornfully lookup to the sky, seeking the Mother Ship from Planet BVI, shaking a fist and cursing said ship for allowing the BVI soul – who works, food shops, sees friends – to cross a street alone. “Curse you, Mother Ship from Planet BVI! Curse you!!!”

Indeed, as Rachel Tanenhaus (Executive Director of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities) a BVI guide dog user, noted truthfully, “Sighted people often assume that blind folks are in danger just by leaving their homes.”

Yeah…(sighing)…for sighted and BVI alike, about this reality.

So, when witnessing a BVI at a street crossing, the sighted person often vaults towards this most likely competent, fully travel trained person who is just listening and waiting for the right time to cross the street, trying to save them. Without even watching to see what happens. Sighted people do this, usually, because they cannot even begin to imagine how they would do just about anything without eyesight. From this place of – well – dread and uncertainty, here’s what a sighted person very often does:

Grabs the person’s arm and pulls them either across the street or back from the street.
Pushes (however gently) the person from behind to encourage them to cross.
Tells the person when to cross. Even sometimes insisting on it.
Becomes angry when the BVI is not appreciative of unwanted help.

The above responses are uniquely difficult for BVI folks. And then there’s this one, which will be addressed later on in this article:

Feels full-on compelled to ask the BVI person if they need help.

To report on this sunny-side-up-helpful phenomenon, and to help both BVI and sighted folks cross streets amiably and without a strenuous physical or emotional tug-of-war, I interviewed a few dozen BVI folks (many of whom live in Cambridge), asking this one question:

“Do you want sighted folks to offer you help in street crossings.”

Roughly seventy percent said they don’t want to be offered help, unless they appear to be having trouble. “Trouble,” to these folks , doesn’t mean hesitating, taking a bit – or even a lot – longer to get their bearings, to find the crosswalk, etc. “Trouble” means stepping in front of an oncoming car or about to step into a major hole and get really hurt. Cambridge resident, Sam Hartman, who is BVI and uses a white cane, emphasizes “It can be distracting to ask if I would like help.” And distraction can be dangerous to a BVI person, or, at least, cause a BVI person – who wants to cross when they have determined it’s safest for them – to have to wait for yet another light cycle to devise braille or cruise control. Sam Hartman continues: “Even if I am about to encounter some mild form of harm – like walking into a pole – I’d rather be able to do that than be grabbed or distracted.”

The thirty percent or so who said it’s fine to offer help under any circumstances, as long as the sighted person is willing to take “no” for an answer. (“No,” said politely or, sometimes, not so politely. It can be challenging for the BVI person to stay requisitely polite when declining unsolicited intervention for the thirtieth time in the hour.) As David Ticchi, a Cambridge resident, a member of the National Federation of the Blind (of which there is a Cambridge chapter), and white cane user notes: “I don’t have a problem with people offering help. It’s the way people do it that can be a problem. When people literally put a hand on us and move us like a checker on a checker board, that’s a problem. When in doubt, find out. Ask, ‘Do you need help?’ If so, then ask, ‘How can I best help?’”

Regardless of whether a BVI wants you to offer help in street crossings, here are ideas to keep in mind when you notice a BVI readying to cross a street:

Assume the person is competent to cross on their own.
Never touch or grab a BVI person, their cane, or their dog without their permission.
Remember this: “The way blind {BVI} people do things might be different or take longer” says Rachel Tanenhaus.
If you are reasonably sure that the person is going to get hurt, do what you would do for anyone you see about to get hurt: Intervene.
If you really feel the need to offer help even if the BVI person seems FINE, or if you seriously think the person needs help, offer what’s called “Sighted Guide.” (It’s also called “Human Guide” because BVI folks can give the same assistance.) It’s basically offering the person your elbow (you can literally say, “Would you like to take my elbow?”) and guiding them respectfully with a very cordial choreography. You can watch this video (and this other piece) on how to give Sighted/Human Guide.

I’m truly hoping these guidelines help the sighted reader consider what you do and what you offer. Now, to help you with your morbid fear of becoming BVI, I’d like to offer you the following not-classified information. You, the sighted person, should promise – audibly - , before you read the rest of this, that you will SHARE the perspectives in this article with at least ten of your sighted friends so they, too, can be liberated in mind and spirit in the unlikely event of blindness. Know this so that you may be free, and so that you may liberate BVI folks from unneeded intrusion:

BVI folks get weeks or months of “Orientation and Mobility” training (called “O and M” in the BVI community). In O and M training, they learn to assess and navigate various types of intersections, including novel ones.
BVI folks learn how to align with traffic and use traffic sounds and sources to travel safely. In other words, traffic is a BVI person’s friend.
BVI travelers are trained to correct their mobility mishaps - mishaps like walking into the middle of a busy intersection. Reversing steps, stopping traffic, etc., are among methods of self-correction.

I hope, as do many BVI folks, that this information will help sighted folks discern how to interact with BVI folks at street crossings. As noted, there are two schools of thought – don’t offer help; offer help – whatever help the BVI person needs - and take “no” for an answer.

And please also keep in mind that, were you to chat with Ralph Teeter or Louis Braille in a local coffee shop they’d settled into after crossing Mass. Ave., you’d be reminded that blindness or vision impairment is actually one of the least significant things about them.