Editor’s note: Marlon Parieaho, who resides in Trinidad and Tobago, reflects on his adjustment to blindness and an event that helped him realize he is capable. He also offers tips for people living or working with individuals who are blind or low vision. Marlon first published his reflection on social media; APH CareerConnect shares it with permission.
Adjustment to Blindness/ Low Vision
I distinctly remember the first time my Adjustment to Blindness Officer [ABO] visited my home. Helen was a middle-aged woman who braved the elements, fought guard dogs, and climbed ridiculously long stairways to meet blind and low vision clients to assist them. I use the term ‘stairways’ loosely; as, in Trinidad and Tobago, they seem to be more of a collection of large stones than actual stairs.
I welcomed the lady into my home with the usual pleasantries. After some exchange of information between her, my wife, and myself,
“Marlon. I would like to have a cup of tea, please”, blurted Helen.
I thought that she must have had some English roots or something, as it was about three in the afternoon. Instinctively, I turned to my wife, “Babe, can you get Helen a cup of tea?”
Before my wife could efficiently rush to the kitchen and whip up a cup of her best Lipton, Helen said calmly, “Marlon, you misunderstand me. I asked YOU to make me a cup of tea.”
I was a bit taken aback. Ever since losing my vision, my wife Bernadette had always handled, among other stuff, tea making. I got up from my seat and slowly walked into the kitchen, not having a clue what I was going to do. For a long while, I just stood in the small place where meals were made, trying unsuccessfully to process my predicament whilst Helen and my wife were merrily chatting away as if I wasn’t silently spazzing out ten feet away from them.
“Marlon?”, called Helen.
Finally. A lifeline. Just as I hoped. Obviously, Helen would call me back and logically send the sighted half of the couple, aka Bernadette, to make the hot beverage.
“Cup. Hot water. Tea bag. Sugar.”
“Um, ok,” I croaked. My throat was dry. Neither of them was coming to my rescue. I thought to myself, what kind of crazy woman is in my house? I began to wonder if she was, in fact, my rehabilitation officer and not some serial killer from off the streets, who tortured her victims by forcing them to make her tea.
“Do you know where those things are, Marlon?”, Helen asked cheerily.
“No,” I felt the tears dangerously welling up in my eyes.
“Well, maybe you could start with memorizing where things are.”
I jumped, because the voice came from right next to me.
How in blue blazes could she move so fast and so silently?
Soon, with the assistance of my wife, we found where the tea-making implements were. We figured out a way for me to pour the hot water into the cup by listening to the difference in the sound whilst it was poured. I learned where I could find the milk, sugar, etc. in case I needed it again. I was then left to make Helen her tea alone whilst the women resumed their conversation.
I am proud to say that I made a cup of tea in the time it took for a regular flight to Grenada, but the most important thing is that I had made a cup of tea.
Advice for Others
For those of you reading this who reside with or are in contact with a person or people who are blind or low vision, I encourage you to:
• Incrementally desist from doing simple tasks for them.
• Desist from figuring out methods FOR them.
• Work out methods of completing tasks WITH them.
You see, the first point, doing it for them may seem helpful and natural in the first instance, but it erodes independence. As most of my colleagues would know, I do enjoy it when others make me a cup of coffee or tea, but, rest assured, I can make a cup for myself or even another person if necessary.
The second point, figuring out solutions for people who are blind or low vision without the input of said people, may prove to be a colossally bad idea. More times than not, the actions are well intended. We are grateful for it, but understanding the nuances of blindness/ low vision straight from the people who live it every day would be so much more efficient and promotes collaboration rather than the resentment of feeling that we are so helpless a sighted person has to figure it out for us.
Lastly, when you, as a sighted individual, work together with someone who is blind or low vision with a view of finding a solution to a problem, they feel empowered to complete the task because they know it can be done and they had input in the solution.
Some may feel that my colleagues, who may, from time to time, ask me to purchase things for them as I go to the shopping mall next door, are insensitive and even cruel, but I feel satisfied, grateful, and even honored that they trust me enough to do it.
Sympathy is when people do everything for us; assistance is when people help us to help ourselves.
People who are blind or low vision require assistance, not sympathy.
Thank you so much, Helen. You can drop by for a cup of tea anytime 😀(smile).