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AFBAmerican Foundation®
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What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

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Editor's note: We weren't too surprised to read the following question in the most recent installment of "Dear Prudence" on Slate:

Q. Blindness: I am blind, and I wear dark glasses and use a cane. My problem is that everywhere I go, strangers will come up and grab me to help me walk and yell at me as if I am deaf. I know they mean well, but it throws off my balance when they grab me and it’s scary. I get a headache from people yelling at me. I can hear quite well so what can I do? Being blind does not mean I can’t walk or hear. I find myself staying home rather than deal with people. Suggestions?

Mallory Ortberg, the new "Prudence," offered several sensible suggestions, including stepping back and saying clearly, “Please don’t touch me” or “Please don’t yell at me. I can hear you fine.” But she also opened the floor to her readers with the question: "Are there any readers with vision impairments who have had similar experiences? Do you have any tips for keeping overbearing do-gooders at bay that you’d like to share?"

Boy, have we. And yes, luckily Crista Earl, AFB's director of web services and a New Yorker who deals with large numbers of well-meaning sighted people on the regular, has developed some strategies she was willing to share.

Crista Earl, standing with her dog guide, Paige

Crista Earl, and her dog guide

I’m much too familiar with the behavior the reader describes. I travel the streets of New York, and I used to use a white cane. When I was considering getting a dog, my dog-guide-using friends would suggest that if people were grabbing me, having a dog would cut down on this behavior. Sure enough, although that wasn’t the reason I switched to a dog, the problem went miraculously away.

Last summer, my dog was out of commission with a leg issue for about three months, and I went back to using my trusty cane. I was amazed at the amount of meddling I got! At nearly every intersection, (it’s New York City, remember, people all over the place) somebody would either shout at me or grab me. I’m pretty sure I don’t look helpless, and I am definitely not.

So, after a few days of declaring I was going to trade in my cane for a machete (not good advice, by the way), I remembered my old, pre-dog-guide tricks. Here they are. I hope they work for you:

  • If someone takes hold of you while trying to help—say, someone speaking to you at an intersection, then wrapping their arms around your arm while crossing the street—laugh and say “no grabbing” in the nicest way you can. When you say it that way, they’ll almost always realize how silly (OK: stupid, but I’m trying to be nice here) it is and let go.
  • If they shout unhelpful (or even helpful) directions at you, say “thank you.” It almost always ends the shouting. You might have to practice a polite, dismissive tone.
  • If it’s a transaction you’re trying to complete, and you’re trying to have a normal conversation, say with a bellowing store clerk, lower your voice and answer them in a volume lower than the usual. They’ll lower their volume in response.
  • If they grab you without warning and startle you, feel free to demonstrate your shock. If you’re like me, it’s immediately obvious by the look on your face, so don’t try to act like they didn’t just scare the gizzard out of you. Who wouldn’t be shocked and terrified at being grabbed from behind in the middle of a busy street, or with one foot on the escalator?
  • Write a book. Each silly incident makes great material for a new chapter. I have so many stories...and they are all funny, once you get done being shook up.

Most of the time people are thinking of a way that they can help another person, and they think they’ve chosen a good way. If they gave it a moment’s thought, they surely wouldn’t do the things they do, and, really, most people don’t do these things.

More tips?

  • When people shout “Go left,” you should go right. They almost always get it wrong. Maybe not always, but 60% of the time, in my unscientific estimate.
  • When people say “Miss, you’re going the wrong way,” consider asking them how they know where you’re going. Do it nicely, of course (no point in both of you being frustrated). Sometimes they’ll actually tell you where they thought you were going, and in the process realize how silly it was to think they could know. And, you’ll have one more piece of insight for your chapter 3 on stereotypes people have about blind people.
  • If they ask you impertinent questions, tell them, nicely again (hope this isn’t too much niceness, you see how this stuff gets pretty tedious), that you’d rather not answer.

Remember that you aren’t public property, and don’t let people think you are.

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There are currently 6 comments

Re: What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

you know its been a while since I was in a position of using my cane where i was in danger say like crossing a busy street. I was reminded of a couple of things. One, the more confidently you move the less likely you are to get help. this isn't always easy to pull off but it can be done especially if you walk the same rout every day or several days out of every week. I also think there is a difference between men and women. and it may be kind of like how having a dog results in less help. i am 6 ft 4 and weigh about 260. when people do offer to help me they always reach for my hand. Its as if they are leery of grabbing the arm of such a big guy. I also know that when i do want a sighted guide i have to let people know that I want to take their shoulder not their elbow. Its one more thing they aren't really sure what to do with. love your suggestions and your responses. Here are a couple of my favorite lines when i'm feeling put upon. where are you going? no where would you like to come with me? what are you doing? nothing do you want to help. great post, max

Re: What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

If someone walks up to you and takes your arm without your permission, take your free hand and place it over theirs and calmly tell them that you do not need their assistance. When you make physical contact as a reaction to their gesture, it gets their attention within their comfort zone and they are more attentive to what you are going to say to them.

Re: What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

Oh, love the suggestion of putting a hand on the other person’s arm to get them to pay better attention. I’ll try that.

Max, great points. I’ve observed a dramatic difference between the level of this type of meddling with men and with women. Sometimes my male friends who are blind aren’t sure what I’m talking about, but the women need no explanation.

When I first moved to New York, I figured out I needed to put on that “Don’t bother me, I’m on a mission” facial expression, and it took some practice. It is a sufficient deterrent to the people who might ask if I need help, but I don’ think it makes much difference with the arm-grabbers.

Re: What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

I have often had people put both hands on my shoulders from behind to try to stear me to a place to sit or stand. I don't move but say very calmly, "Please don't push me. Please use words." they don't realize that they are pushing me until I tell them that. I normally use a guide dog, and we dog guide users have a common problem with people grabbing the harness or the leash to stear the dog. Again, I stop, put my hand on theirs and tell them not to do that. It's like grabbing the stearing wheel of a car. I also still have the problem of people grabbing my arm, and I tell them that it confuses the dog when they do that, and that seems to be very effective.

Re: What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

Great suggestions - this was always one of the most challenging things for my Mom after she lost her sight - tough balancing act between appreciating people's kindness without becoming too frustrated by their lack of understanding.

I love the hand on their hand and wonder if anyone couples that with imparting some insights re the proper way to approach and/or guide someone (assuming they actually want the help)?

Re: What Do You Do When Sighted People Grab Your Arm in Public?

I am sighted but my brother is blind. He never walks independently due to other problems. Occasionally I have seen a blind person stop in the middle of a block as if they are trying to get their bearings. Is it acceptable to address them by saying, " Excuse me Sir/Ma'am, my name is XXX, I'm very familiar with this area, can I help you at all?" Or is that too intrusive? I use the Sir/Ma'am to help identify that I am speaking to them. I would never touch someone uninvited. Also, at busy intersections I have similarly offered assistance if someone seems unsure of crossing the street. We don't live in a big city so a lot of the cues (traffic, other people) aren't always there. Is it acceptable to say, "Sir/Madam, I'm about to cross (fill in the blank with the name of the Street) here Would you like to cross with me? I don't want to be offensive but I'm the type that holds doors open for people and smiles at strangers. Am I doing this wrong? Thanks

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