How many times have you been walking down the road when someone launches into a violent tirade at you? I suspect for many, dear readers, the answer would be never. Or at least I hope this is the case. Sadly, what previously would have been a freak occurrence is becoming more common in my life. Whether it’s a group of kids showing off to each other or a cyclist getting annoyed because I didn’t see them coming, I have become acutely aware of these mild, but nonetheless, disturbing actions. What makes the most recent episode I experienced so worrying was that it happened on a quiet Saturday morning whilst running some errands with the family.
I’m typically quite thick-skinned so when this kind of incident occurs I try to let it slide (is it wrong that I now have a strategy for it?). This particular one happened on a street with extremely narrow footpaths (barely wide enough for my son and I to walk side-by-side) and very little parking. It also has an excellent bakery serving freshly baked bread and a sublime selection of pastries and doughnuts. It’s not uncommon for a customer to nip in whilst their partner waits in the car and this is what set up the event a few weeks ago.
At this point I must come clean and admit that the trigger for the episode was partly my action as I walked past a parked car but I can 100% confirm it was neither deliberate nor damaging in any way. You see, as I began to pass the vehicle parked on the curb, my cane struck the underside of the car’s rear bumper. Now, white canes are many things – lightweight, visible, foldable, comfortable to use and are typically made of aluminium or graphite covered in a smooth white film – but what they are not known for is causing damage to motor vehicles. All their design elements ensure that when they accidentally strike an obstacle such as a wall, bin or car bumper, the obstacle will remain unscathed. Obviously, I don’t make a point of whacking my cane into things (it’s my lifeline after all and I really don’t want to break it), it’s just that I can’t see very well and accidents happen.
So that’s what lead up to the event – my son and I walking along a narrow footpath, him listening to his music and me sweeping my cane unaware that there was a car up ahead parked on the kerb, driver waiting inside whilst his passenger popped across the road to the baker’s – but what made the confrontation most concerning was this gentleman’s behaviour. Firstly, he was aggressive, shouting at me despite me being with my 10 year old. Secondly, his absolute refusal to allow me to explain and thirdly, his denial to accept any responsibility for the situation. Quite simply, if the car had been parked correctly then none of this would have happened.
But why am I telling you all this?
Recent research by the Vision Foundation as part of their campaign, #TheUnseen has found that 1 in 12 visually impaired people have been the subject of domestic abuse at some point in their lives, this is compared with 1 in 20 non-disabled people. Basically, a visually impaired person is almost twice as likely to suffer some form of abuse from those closest to them.
As well as the usual heinous physical, verbal and emotional abuse, someone with little or no sight can be subjected to some very specific forms of harm, essentially making us fearful to move about our own homes (such as moving things so we can’t find them, or deliberately making them trip hazards, withholding mobility aids or refusing to guide us). There are added complications where disabled people are unable to report this abuse as often the abuser is their primary carer and, in some case, will be present in the situation where it could be reported (doctor’s appointments, trips to the hospital or visiting extended family or friends). I must clarify that I am fortunate not to be in the number and am grateful of the way my loved ones adapt to the ever changing needs of my degrading sight.
On the face of it, the thought of heightened domestic abuse to disabled people seems abhorrent (the thought of it happening to anyone is horrific) but when you consider how prevalent it is when we’re just going about our daily lives, is it really that shocking?
Whether it’s an access refusal for a guide dog or someone purposefully causing a situation and then blaming the other party for their actions, there does seem to be this unwritten acceptance that, to people of a certain disposition, we should be grateful that we are even allowed to exist, let alone live fulfilling and happy lives. When you read about a young visually impaired mother refused treatment for their new born because their guide dog is present or a couple being evicted from their hotel room in the middle of the night because staff refuse to accept that their dog is protected by law, it feels that this really is not the case and we are actually a burden on society.
So, what can be done?
I’ve never met anyone who thinks this kind of behaviour is acceptable and suspect even the gentleman I met recently would be outraged if one of their friends told my story down the pub. This is the root-cause of the problem – nobody is willing to take responsibility for their own actions. Not only that, but it takes a brave person to step into a situation with no prior knowledge of how the other party may react and so I fully understand why people are reluctant to step in and show solidarity. So if we cannot rely on others to step in, what can we do? Keep ourselves locked away, prisoners in our own homes?
There are times when I feel this is just what I should do – lock the door, close the curtains and block out the big bad world. No matter how appealing that may sound, it’s simply not an option – the dog needs walking, who’s going to do the school run when Kath’s working and I really can’t avoid going into the office for the rest of my life. Sadly, if we are unable to rely on others to fight our battles and we can’t imprison ourselves then the only choice we have is to take deep breaths, grab our canes and keep going about our lives. I often get called “brave” or “inspirational” considering “everything I’m going through” but that’s not the compliment people think it is. All I want is to go about my life without the constant fear of what will happen today, is that too much to ask?
Sometimes intervention can be difficult, but there are other things we can all do to help, here are just a few of them:
First and foremost, check in
It may not be appropriate to intervene, but there are other ways you could support such as helping the person get back on their route if distracted, providing a visual description of the abuser (should they wish to report the incident to the police) or simply asking if they are ok.
Secondly, helping to educate others on the impact of sight loss
Do your friends and family know what impact sight loss has in the way we go about our daily lives? Sometimes a little knowledge goes a long way in stopping these incidents from happening in the first place.
Thirdly, engage with community members and activists on social media
There are so many wonderful accounts, and here are a few of my favourites Clare Sisk (@CanSeeCantSee), Jurgen Donaldson (@NotJustABlindGuy), Dr Amy Kavanagh (@BlondeHistorian), Clarke Reynolds (@Blind.Braille.Artist), Seren Jaye (@Otters.Have.Pockets) and Justin Bishop (@JustinTheBishop).
And finally, call on businesses to take a zero-tolerance approach towards inaccessible processes
Is your workplace accessible to visually impaired clients? Flag inaccessible processes to your leadership teams to facilitate change or, if you’re a loyal customer of an inaccessible establishment, why not raise these issues in solidarity with visually impaired consumers.
I’d like to leave you with the poem read out on my wedding day, “Us Two” by A. A. Milne:
So if you ever see a silly old dragon frightening somebody, then please stand side-by-side with them and shout ‘Shoo!’ because it’s always better with Two.