by Alison Steven
About 11 years ago my eyesight had deteriorated to the point where I quit trying to bluff my way through life and turned to the state blind agency for help. On my tour of the Assessment and Training Center I asked the questions that I had been struggling with most at the time: how did they deal with social situations as blind people? What did they do when joining a room of people mingling together? How did they engage in conversation with people? How did they know whether someone was listening to them or had walked away? I was mostly met with crickets, bemused silence, and mumbled “I don’t knows”.
As an insecure introvert, losing my eyesight seemed like a cruel obstacle to social and professional interactions.
I’ve learned a lot in the last 11 years as part of the blind community and I am still learning. Some of the ideas I’m about to put forward I have already implemented in my own life. Some of them I’m still figuring out! So, I’m writing this to myself as much as to you. Knowing myself and understanding how to connect meaningfully with the communities in which I move is the prime focus of my growth. Getting the most out of life and contributing the most to it require courage and a willingness to show up, step up and speak up.
The blind and visually impaired walk into social situations and face the possibility of implicit bias, low expectations, and misconceptions about blindness. This certainly adds to the challenge of having productive conversations. So, what to do?
One of the most important ways to have a meaningful conversation is by sharing yourself. Whether at work or in new social situations, letting others know through casual conversations about your interests and taking an interest in them goes a long way to build trust. While that trust is built, there are practical steps you can take to improve perception others have of you. As a blind individual, it is easy to feel handicapped by the inability to see non-verbal communications. It is possible, however, for the blind individual to improve connection in conversation with the sighted by working on increasing and improving non-verbal messages. Simply focusing on nodding and /or smiling while someone is sharing with you, looking in their direction and raising your eyebrows to express surprise or interest will transform the quality of the interaction. These visual signals are an outward expression of active listening and will improve the way others think of you.
You will constantly need to address misconceptions and low expectations from employers, colleagues, or friends. This presents an ongoing challenge for anyone with a disability. Be an ambassador for the blind in your workplace by being comfortable with who you are and confident in your skills. The more you are at ease with yourself the quicker others will relax around you. As you show up in your environment, it will be necessary to have a strong awareness of your legal rights and the skills you have to offer. Thirty years on from the Americans with Disabilities Act, blind individuals are in a strong position legally for inclusion in the workplace but the job of educating those around us is ongoing. Step up and clearly communicate your rights and do this with a positive attitude and with solutions to the challenges of access.
That being said, know that you have limitations. Know that it is all right to make mistakes and to ask for help. In fact, asking others for feedback is invaluable for your social and professional development. Feedback from those you can trust will not only help you gain confidence and hone your people skills, it will also improve the connection and investment others have in you.
Develop a strong self-concept and good social skills, and you will be well on the way to maintaining good relationships and making the most of the conversations you take part in. What about those difficult interactions, the misunderstandings or the people who seem to be out to get you? Many of us want to avoid conflict at all costs. However, think about the consequences of this. Suppressing feelings and holding thoughts back can have negative effects on your mental and physical health. Your mental well-being is affected over time as you avoid sharing how you really feel. Your thoughts and feelings are valid, and may well be helpful to the other party if expressed in a constructive way. When you know you will be having a difficult conversation, think through what your goals are, approach the other party with empathy, share your perspective and allow them to share theirs. Be honest without being offensive and assume the best about the other person.
As you practice all these different skills and approaches, you will have times when the outcome is good for all involved and times when things go wrong, and you make mistakes. Do not be discouraged, do not give up, circle round and take time to self-evaluate. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt: “Be the one in the arena and even as you fall short again and again because there is no effort without shortcoming, continue to strive valiantly, and dare greatly”. If you struggle in the workplace or in social situations, seek support. Seek out those you respect and trust and allow them to speak into your situation. I have observed individuals over the last eleven years and watched how they deal with blindness as well as with integrating in the workplace and their community. I have observed that those that are resilient, who are able to pick themselves up when things don’t work out, and carry on through disappointments and failures, are those who are willing to be honest with themselves and investigate their shortcomings. Of equal importance is the fact that most of these successful individuals have people around them to cheer them on. They have people alongside them who speak insightful encouragement and compassionate truth into their lives.
Walk with me on this journey and let us be understood, seen, and heard together.