by Elizabeth L. Sammons and Empish J. Thomas
Every reader of this post has surely experienced forgetting names or failing to recognize someone. However, many sighted people can say, “But I never forget a face.” Since our blindness community doesn’t share this ability, we wanted to discuss issues around recognizing friends or identifying strangers.
Elizabeth: Besides my inability to drive, the most inconvenient factor in my life as a blind person is my powerlessness to scope a room for friends and strangers at a party, work meeting, or in a congregation. Well into adulthood, my greatest embarrassments usually surrounded mistaking someone’s identity or worse, holding a full conversation while trying desperately to pick up hints like places, other names or topics mentioned to tie me in with someone chattering on; all this with someone who has absolutely no idea I was playing this guessing game. While human voices contain a great deal of identifying information, (pitch, tone, accent, laughter, etc.), when it comes down to it, a lot of people sound relatively similar. Or perhaps better stated, not everybody has that Vivian Lee drawl, that Sydney Poitier inflection, or that Julio Iglesias charm. Put bluntly, a lot of us just don’t sound very distinctive. I know a handful of blind people who seem to have radar detection for vocal identity, but they’re the exception.
A Matter of Safety
Sometimes identifying a speaker is more than a social convenience; it can be a matter of safety. There are no cut-and-dry methods to assure absolute compliance with our wishes, however, my friend and fellow writer, Empish Thomas has some safety tips to share.
Empish: Like Elizabeth, I struggle with identifying people. Work events, social gatherings or loud places make it even worse because of the noise and sensory overload. But my biggest concern is dealing with my transportation.
I often ride paratransit (a service providing rides for travelers with disabilities). Over the years I’ve noticed how often drivers fail to identify themselves when picking me up. I can’t see the driver’s uniform, making that person’s self-identification critical to my safety and security. I have especially noticed this when the bus arrives at my home and I step outside. Sometimes there is a driver standing and waiting in my driveway to assist me to the bus. But, if they say nothing, I have no idea they are there. This has resulted in me being startled and even frightened. I have used my self-advocacy skills to speak up and voice my concerns, yet the issue persists.
At other times, when I’m waiting at the grocery store, doctor’s office or out on an errand, the driver will approach me and ask, “Are you Ms. Thomas?” Although I appreciate the question, in many places I frequent, people know me; so, it could be anyone asking my identity. I don’t want to assume it is the driver coming to pick me up. So, to resolve this issue I ask clarifying questions, such as “Are you with the transportation company?” Then I let them know for future reference to please identify themselves, because I can’t see their uniform.
I experience this problem so consistently because people assume that I am legally blind or have low vision. That I can see “something.” That I am not totally blind. But when interacting with people who are blind or have low vision that assumption should not be made. You never know the levels of someone’s eyesight. So, to be on the safe side, it’s best to identify yourself.
Elizabeth: I have occasionally requested my driver or escort to use a verbal password when first speaking to me. This could be any word or phrase easy to remember but not common in an introduction. If I continue to have concerns, I can call the dispatcher to confirm.
The most difficult identity cases usually involve unexpected meetings, in a store, on the street, or at a concert, for example.
Elizabeth: In my husband’s family there are dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.; and sometimes my strings get tangled, particularly since we rarely see each other. In the family case, my solution is relatively (no pun intended) straight-forward. I request my husband deliberately to use a person’s name when greeting said person. This helps a lot, letting me employ a kind of mental landmarking; that “Aunt Emma” is the one with clacky high heels, “Uncle Charley” wears that strong aftershave, and “Cousin Penney” has a scratch in her throat, for example.
Work and other social situations are a bit trickier. At my former workplace of hundreds of staff, it was common for me to take several minutes to figure out a speaker’s identity. Occasionally, if I was with someone I trusted, I would ask “Who was that?”, after the unfamiliar speaker was out of ear shot. This didn’t help during what could have been a relaxed talk or a useful professional exchange, but most of the time it was what I lived with and settled for.
It almost took an act of congress for me to handle things differently. Better said, it took my recognition of an unwritten, yet important social rule in the statehouse where I worked. It’s the staff or lobbyists who are expected to greet any legislator first, almost never the law maker who initiates. As a professional dealing with men and women whose good will was essential for approving our agency budget, as well as recognizing the value of our work, I had to address the problem of identification head on. At the start of each new term, I visited the office of every new legislator to introduce our programs. At the end of such get-to-know-you meetings, I began lightly mentioning that unwritten piece of statehouse etiquette. “I don’t want you to think I’m rude if I don’t recognize you right away, but I want to know you’re there.”
As a result, many legislators began greeting me by name and saying who they were as we passed in the hall or shared an elevator. The greetings were even more conspicuous at public events. To my amusement, I noticed the confusion among other lobbyists, wondering why I was being approached by a bunch of law makers from different parties, areas of the state, and political ideologies. I found it one of the most empowering and humorous aspects of my career.
Once you’ve told politicians what to do and they do it, I guess it’s a lot easier telling the rest of the world. I started making similar friendly requests of neighbors, congregation members, and colleagues. How quickly my social world shifted from a jigsaw of guessing and covering up my ignorance, to smiles and thanks to those who identified themselves. In the old days, which most of these friends remembered, telephones didn’t show caller ID, so it was normal to say one’s name.
Looking back, I’m not sure why it was so hard for me to admit not knowing who was speaking to me in the first place. Perhaps the older I get, the easier it is for me to laugh at myself if I create my own social mess. Few people are likely to judge me harshly. And hey, even if they do, at least I still have a few politicians on my side!