Over the Christmas holidays I did something I’m not proud of. I don’t think I committed an offence (skimming chapter 15, part 2, chapter 1, section 6 of the Equality Act 2010 as I write) and I don’t think I hurt anybody – not physically anyway – and certainly not intentionally. But that does not absolve me from my transgression for I did do something that made me feel bad afterall. And I’m only able to publicly share the event today following days and days of trying to put it to the back of my mind because it troubled me so much to think about it, and then beating myself up and losing sleep for another few days before finally confronting it head-on through the only effective means I know. It. was. gruelling.

Now I’m not a “please forgive me Father for I have sinned” kind of girl. The only person I needed to forgive me was myself – and perhaps the guy concerned – but then again there’s reasonable doubt as to whether I really needed  forgiveness from him at all. (You just can’t take the legal out of me can you?) And what is more, I care very little if I am judged by you, here and now, because today I find myself in a place where I can share my contemplation. Because today I’m satisfied that my bad conduct has been successfully overcome (or at least significantly weakened, Insha Allah). I have come through the experience as an improved version of myself. Isn’t it amazing what we can achieve when we accept that we are the owner of our actions?

Anyway, just 01:37 into his talk and already Daniel Goleman gets to the first point. Man I love that guy. What people do or don’t do depends upon “how much of a hurry they thought they were in”. Granted, the guy didn’t need my help at all but did I pass the man but stop momentarily to pat his dog because I was (a) a dog lover in a rush or (b) because I didn’t know how to handle the situation? Or, was I an “unwitting victim[s] of a collective blind spot?” And there is his second point: did I disregard the man because everybody else did too? If I’d seen a passerby say to him “hey, great dog you have there, mate!” then would I have had an exchange too? Normally I’m not one to follow the sheep but I think I would have, yes. Sometimes we just need a good role model don’t we?

I don’t know the answer. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above but one thing’s for sure – I’ve never believed that disabled people are inferior to me or to others. I’ve never behaved oppressively or abusively to a disabled person either. But, was I entirely innocent of being discriminatory against a disabled person? A visually impaired person in particular? I’d like to think I was but nonetheless I needed reassurance – something to salve my conscience – but I also needed educating. There was a definite skills gap.

So, how do I atone?

Well, I reconcile myself with the world and all that is good in it by learning from my mistake and sharing what I’ve learned. Firstly, from the faux pas I did commit I’ve learned that I shouldn’t have distracted the guide dog when in harness – he was extremely busy doing very important work. Also, I’ve learned that most people with sight loss can see something, even if it’s just a vague blur, so the chances are that the blind guy did know I was there petting his beautiful dog before I spoke a word. Now for the faux pas I’ve been torturing myself over not actually committing. We all know that a sudden voice at close range when we didn’t hear anyone approach can be very startling, even to somebody who has full vision.  I’ve learned then that if I do initiate a conversation with a blind person in the future then I should speak first from a little distance away and again as I draw closer. I definitely wouldn’t have thought to have done that before so, rather than making the guy feel invisible, I could have given him a heart attack instead. Every cloud and all that.

Now, you never know when this situation might arise so between now and then, here’s what I suggest you do:

  1. take a few minutes to check out the papers, videos and websites listed in the further reading section. Do they change any of your perceptions?
  2. imagine this scenario playing out tomorrow – will you do anything any differently?
  3. Learn the lingo. We don’t want to do the right thing only to say the wrong thing do we?

So I’m not a completely horrible person, in fact a lovely young chap at RNIB told me that I sound like a kind and caring person. He listened to me – non-judgmentally – and then reassured me that I haven’t done anything wrong or anything to be ashamed about. That people often stop to stroke guide dogs and say “now then, you’re a good fella aren’t you?” I know, sooo patronising right (and don’t even start me on why many of us assume the dog’s male – guilty as charged, again). And that blind people, in the main, are usually quite happy with it (unless they’re the grumpy sort that is – there’s a lot of us about apparently), or they’re in a hurry to get to work, to catch a bus or to return their library books, or feel they have to have an exchange with us just because we stopped them and heck, kudos to me for taking the time to find out more about what it’s like living with a visual impairment.

When all is said and done, my conscience is clear but that doesn’t make me innocent. So if just one person can take something positive from my experience and change how they’ll interact with the next blind person they meet then that’s a fait accompli. Yin yang harmony is restored and there’s one more little note in my blessings jar. No nightcap, no sleep aid pills, no Buddhify on the agenda tonight. Boy I wish I’d called him 16 days ago.

Suggested reading

Miller, P., Parker, S. and Gillinson, S. (2004). Disablism: How to tackle the last prejudice. http://www.demos.co.uk/files/disablism.pdf