Ye Dinna Look Blinn

“The thing is, Missis, ye dinna look blinn!”

This was the reposte I received from a local policeman some years back. I had stomped along to the Police Station to jump up and down and complain about cars not stopping for me at the zebra crossing. Now, leaving aside that this remark presumes only the obviously disabled can expect traffic to stop for them at a crossing, I've since wondered what exactly does a blind person look like. Especially as on that bright, sunny morning, I was wearing wrap-around dark glasses and had my guide dog at my side.

So what is the public's perception of blind, or to use the Gallovidian expression blinn? Many years ago, the BBC's Sunday serial was “Treasure Island”. I remember hardly anything about the production, I was barely into primary school at the time, except Blind Pugh. Tap-tap-tapping along with his stick, eyes hidden behind roun smoked-glass lenses. I've no idea why he frightened me so, perhaps it was connected with my starting to wear specs. However, he haunted the nightmares of my childhood.

By the time I'd reached my teens, I'd noticed Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. But they weren't scary; they were cool. They wore sunglasses. And they were much better pianists than I could ever be.

Not a lot of examples, then. Even Lord Nelson was always described as having one good eye. Well, there was Helen Keller and she was both blind and deaf. But growing up with various deaf relatives, deafness didn't bother me. Even my Great Aunt, an afficiando of Westerns, who watched “Wagon Train” and the like, from the chair nearest the telly, volume at maximum and the power on her hearing aid so high it emitted a piercing whistle, could pick up a disparaging remark made against her across a crowded room, no matter how sotto the speaker's voce.

A person is usually described as “a bit deaf”. You never hear someone described as “a bit blind”. I'm not one for those politically correct phrases, such as “vertically challenged”, but I do prefer both “partially sighted” and ”visually impaired” to “blind”, because they do provide a distinction of degree.

So when my eyesight crashed, I didn't have any role models, especially as I was neither a jazz musician nor a politician. When I went off to Forfar in 1996 for mobility training with the Canadian cane I told everyone that if this was going to involve tap-tap-tapping, I'd be home even if it meant travelling the whole way by taxi. However, I found myself amongst a group of friendly, witty people who just couldn't see very well. It was, so to speak, quite an eye-opener!

But I'm now on the receiving end of the public's perception. I remember asking the bank for a template for my cheque-book. They were delighted to hand one over, the first time my branch had ever done so. And would I like all my statements in braille in future? At the time I declined. The assumption seemed to be that if I couldn't manage print any more, I had somehow automatically shifted into another method of communication. I have since learned to read braille and have mastered the bank statements. I even give impromptu readings, usually in the Co-op. “See, this says humous and this chicken in red wine sauce.” The assembled shoppers and staff sound suitably impressed and for the rest of my shopping trip, can be heard telling each other, “Ah fun some mair wee dots!”

Everyone thinks my other senses have become more acute but I doubt it, especially with my sinuses. It's just with one sense knocked out, I can pay more attention to the others.

And then there's Mr. Dog. A wee wifie once told me that she couldn't have a guide dog because of her budgies; she didn't elaborate further. And I have met other visually impaired people who just don't like dogs. Why should they? Not all of the rest of the population does. But I do find strange some people's preference for things mechanical or technological. More reliable, they say. A computer! Reliable! Most illogical thing there is! On the contrary, I enjoy the chance to have a working relationship with an intelligent animal, something denied to most people in modern society. Yes even although sometimes there is projectile vomiting and he might mug a wean for its ice-cream. But again, the public have strange ideas. I've often been asked, “How does your dog know where to go?” and people seem surprised at my answer, “Because I tell him. ” In a strange town, he'd be nearly as lost as me. But at least he'd know where the kerbs were.

Even the process of applying for a guide dog is a mystery. Once, colleagues of my husband were discussing someone who'd just lost most of his sight. “When will they bring him his dog?” one asked. I don't know who “they” might have been, but no, someone doesn't just knock at the door one day, saying, “Here's a dug. You can come oot noo.”

Then there's officialdom. Here, the assumption is, anyone using either white cane or guide dog must be both very deaf and extremely thick. All questions are delivered slowly and VERY LOUDLY. Now, whenever I encounter this, I reply in the same manner. That soon brings things back to normal decibels.

And would you ask a total stranger in the queue at the bank puggy machine, for instance, “How long have you been married?” or “Is that your husband? What on earth do you see in him?” Well, I wouldn't but I am a wee Scots wifie of a certain age. Yet I'm often asked, by total strangers, “What's wrong with your eyes, then?”

Yes, I must be an enigma, walking along with Mr. Dog. I don't look like Mr. Blunkett and I don't wear a Blue Peter badge. I might be able to read braille labels on Co-op products but I don't always recognise people by the perfume they wear or by their footsteps. And I haven't even dared broach the subject of gate-crashing into the blind world as an adult. Blind Pugh might come tap-tap-tapping after me!

© Charlotte Bennie 2008