Editor’s note: Be sure to register for our webinar on Self-Advocacy and Low Vision on July 26 (ADA’s 31st birthday!)
Have you heard that one before? I bet you have, and I have too! It happened like this. A good friend and I were sitting down to lunch at this wonderful, quaint little place that had received a lot of attention for its great food. I used my white cane to follow my friend to our table as we were seated. The server brought our waters, a bowl of chips, and some salsa. He placed our menus on the table. I should have gotten a clue when he somewhat uncomfortably commented that I didn’t need the menu and he took it away. That was fine; no big deal since I couldn’t see it anyway, and my friend was used to reading the menu to me when we went out. So, we discussed the menu items, and both chose what we would order. A few moments later the server returned to the table and asked my friend what she wanted to order, then asked her, “What is she having?”
How to Self-Advocate Effectively in a Restaurant
At this point I could have responded in a couple of ways. How I responded would definitely shape not only our lunch experience, but also how the server thought about people with low vision. I chose to make it a teaching moment and responded in a way that I felt accomplished my goal of letting the server know that I could speak for myself, and also empowered me.
Before my friend said anything, I promptly turned to the server and said, “Thank you, but I would like to order for myself. My friend read the menu to me and I’m dying to try the black bean sweet potato tacos!” The server apologized. I assured him that everything was fine, and he didn’t know. I went on to explain that even though my eyes didn’t work, my brain and taste buds were just fine!
I tried to keep the mood light. I didn’t want to shame him for his faux pau. I just wanted to educate him so that he would be better informed for the next time when he encountered someone with low vision. Sure, I could have gotten angry and snapped at him, telling him that I could very well order for myself. But what would that have really accomplished? It would have made all three of us extremely uncomfortable. The lunch would have been much less enjoyable, and the next time this person encountered a person who happened to be blind or visually impaired he would likely have run in the other direction. He would have remembered the experience he had with me, and he might have thought that’s how all people with low vision act.
On the other hand, by remaining calm and speaking up for myself in a kind and informative way, I hopefully left the server with a good impression about the experience. My goal was to educate him so that he wouldn’t feel averse to another encounter with someone with low vision and would know what to do.
Learning to Speak Up
It hasn’t always been as easy for me to speak up for myself as that story may imply. Oh no, I have absolutely chosen to remain silent many times in my life. Rather than asserting myself and speaking up in situations when I was being ignored or talked over, I would let someone else talk for me or just not worry that I was being left out. I allowed those things happen because I was ashamed of my visual impairment. I couldn’t really accept it myself, so I tried to hide it. I didn’t understand that I wasn’t fooling anyone. It’s very obvious that I can’t see well. My eyes do not look the same as most other people. I don’t always make typical facial expressions, I’m told; and I walk with a white cane. Who did I think I was kidding?
Support Groups Can Help
Finally in my late twenties, I realized that by trying to hide my low vision I was missing out on a lot of great life experiences. I found a support group for people with vision loss and talked with them about how they handled their feelings about their visual impairment and how they tackled awkward situations. I experienced a lot of growth and support during my time with the group. I gained a ton of empowerment along the way. I’m in a much different place today, twenty plus years later.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t handle every situation perfectly. There are still situations where I just don’t know how to self-advocate effectively; but most of the time I use the opportunity to educate the people around me and demonstrate that I am plenty capable of ordering my own food! I shared my story to illustrate how my choice of how to handle that lunch situation allowed me to self-advocate without negatively affecting my time with my friend. I spoke up for myself, my friend and I just went on about having our lunch; and let me tell you, those tacos were delicious!
Register for the OIB-TAC webinar My Heart Is Not Blind: Voices of Older Blind, on September 13, 2021. The presentation offers compelling accounts of survival, adaptation, and heightened perspective.