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Fall 2001 Table of Contents
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What Do You Do When...You Need Help But Don't Live in Utopia?

By Winifred Downing, San Francisco, California

Reprinted with permission from Dialogue, Summer 2000 published by Blindskills, Inc.
Donation/Subscription information can be obtained at (800) 860-4224 and at www.blindskills.com

Utopia for most blind and visually impaired persons would be a place where they could find a ready supply of volunteers to help them with all sorts of shopping, provide transportation to doctors' offices and opportunities for recreation, read any amount of material, and generally perform all the tasks that are difficult, if not impossible, for us to do for ourselves. I suspect that the individuals who find themselves in this fortunate situation are unique in a number of ways. They probably live in communities of a slightly slower pace than that in large urban areas, are well known by their participation in news-making and dramatic events, have the wherewithal to be well dressed and attractive in appearance, perhaps have an appealing home of their own, and in every way provide volunteers with a real sense of status because of their efforts.

That such a situation exists is no criticism either of the lucky people who so easily get the help they need or of the individuals who gladly provide that assistance. What that situation does, though, is to explain why similar opportunities are not available to most members of the blindness community. Sighted persons in bustling urban areas are called upon to participate in countless volunteer activities in connection with their student life, employment, the schools their children attend, their churches, and many philanthropic activities.

The blind or visually impaired person may be an SSI recipient who lives in a small apartment in a congested area where parking is found to be difficult or impossible by a would-be volunteer. The needy individual may also be like the 85-year-old woman who called last week needing help with just about everything but so traumatized by her new experience with vision loss, plus the normal problems of aging, that she would be almost frightening to someone not trained in assisting such persons. The ordinary individual who finds himself called upon for that kind of aid would, in fact, probably be terrified at the realization the he himself might face similar difficulties in his own later years and might instinctively avoid getting involved just for that reason. No community accolades are bestowed on people who snatch a couple of hours a week to help someone shop for ordinary groceries, read through a half carton of junk mail, or deliver someone to a long line in a clinic.

There are also wide differences in how one feels about help. I have read articles by blind persons who maintain that they can fly to a busy airport, deplane and find their own way to the luggage area, pick up their own baggage by touching the luggage as it goes around on the carousel, find the courtesy phone themselves, and leave for the area of pick-up outside. Now I don't believe these stories, but the thirst for independence and self-sufficiency breeds them. These are the types of individuals who maintain that blindness is nothing more than a nuisance.

Asking for assistance, particularly for people who have been able to meet their own needs all their lives until their visual problems occur is often a devastating experience. An effort was made in a church group I belonged to some years ago to force the participants (all young and physically capable) to learn to ask for and accept help from others. Each was required to request some kind of assistance in the next two weeks and report on what happened. For most persons, it was a humbling experience that they had a hard time accepting. How, then, should we approach this difficult necessity? The first task is to decide what help is really necessary. In spite of the fact that some things might be a lot easier with sighted assistance than they are without it, it seems to me that we should do for ourselves all that we can just because we have other areas in which we can't function alone. We need to expend the necessary effort to organize our own clothing, groceries, mail, phone numbers, and other details of life and to develop the necessary mobility skills to travel alone when appropriate, so that we don't need to uselessly bother other people. That means attending orientation centers, classes in daily living skills or chapter meetings of blind persons who have had a variety of experiences; taking courses from a place like the Hadley Correspondence School; and reading books on related subjects. It means familiarizing ourselves with whatever community resources are available such as services for the aging, para-transit opportunities, and programs offered by agencies serving disabled people.

When all these avenues have been accessed, though, we still may need assistance that just isn't available in the area in which we live or in sufficient supply to meet the needs of those who wish to have it. Sources for advertising are local high schools, senior citizens centers, and the bulletin boards at churches, community centers, and YMCAs. If you can offer some monetary incentive, your chances are, of course, enhanced. It is absolutely necessary, in my view, to reimburse for gasoline and tolls charged by bridges and highways.

If the volunteer is coming to your home, especially if you live alone, a fairly extensive telephone interview is a safety necessity. In addition, the presence of a family member or friend at the time of the first visit provides great assurance if it can be accomplished.

Retaining a volunteer once one is found requires consideration. Don't ask him to do something other than the tasks for which he or she volunteered. If shopping is the goal, don't introduce reading the mail. Just stick to the original subject unless you have an opportunity to ask the individual about an added task. Don't exceed the time period for which the individual applied, and have everything in readiness so that maximum use can be made of the time allotted. Have the shopping list at hand and the grocery bags assembled, the mail together in one place and already opened, the directions clearly in mind for reaching the doctor's office, etc.

Lastly, make the occasion as rewarding for the volunteer as possible by taking an interest in that person's life, identifying with his or her problems and joys, remembering occasions of importance to that person, and giving small gifts when that is possible - maybe something you have baked or written, loan of a CD that might be of interest, or a phone call to check on health or the result of an important interview. Too often we are so involved with trying to get our own needs met that we forget those of the people in our lives.

So Utopia is not available to many of us. But there are ways out of our problems that not only solve them but also provide us with opportunities for meeting some wonderful people, thus enriching both our lives and theirs.

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