Esther SmithI have learned through the school of hard knocks that speaking up for oneself is not only a right but a necessity—for me, for others with vision loss, and for the general public. When I first started to lose my vision, I felt very uncomfortable about disclosing in any situation that I could not recognize faces or needed assistance with a menu or finding an item in a store. I soon learned that I had to get over these feelings and speak up for myself. Let me explain.

Eating out: Most of us have had the bad experience of having a waiter or waitress ask the person with whom you are dining—”what does she want to order?” I am tired of having this happen. When I frequent restaurants now, I always explain upfront that I have a vision problem and ask the wait staff to read the menu to me. This normally works like a charm and I have had no problems. At one restaurant that I frequent regularly, the staff go ahead and set up a table for me, using a contrasting placemat, napkin, and plate—all without me having to say a word!

Social or religious occasions: Going places where you are supposed to be able to meet, greet, and recognize people can be especially difficult. You do not want your new or old acquaintances to think you are snubbing them because you don't see them, are not looking at them directly, or do not recognize them. Not long ago, I was attending a social gathering. I kept hearing my name called but could not locate the person. Finally I did discover who was talking to me and quickly explained that I could not see her. She told me really appreciated the explanation; she thought I was deliberately ignoring her! Now, when I meet and greet, I take the initiative and explain right away. This adds to everyone's comfort level.

Shopping: I have always enjoyed shopping. Since I started to have vision problems, I have learned to ask the manager or customer service store for help. I explain why I need assistance. I try to avoid busy times in a store if possible and may call ahead. I always explain my vision loss to the person assigned to help me. I also tell them what I am looking for and the type of assistance that I need.

Do these suggestions always work? No. Recently I had the unfortunate experience of shopping for a recording device. I arrived at a store with my driver, who went in with me. I told the clerk that I have vision loss and explained what I wanted to buy. She brought out two items and proceeded to talk to my driver, rather than myself. I spoke up and explained that she needed to discuss the items with me, that I was the one who needed the item and would be paying for it. She ignored me and continued to talk to the driver. I explained again. She never caught on. Exasperated, I told her that we were leaving and would not purchase the item from that store. We left and I purchased the item elsewhere. At all times, I was very polite, but also assertive.

I plan to call the store chain and recommend that the sales force receive training on how to assist a person with vision loss, or any disability.

So use your common sense, swallow your pride, and screw up your courage. Speak out for yourself. Don't be embarrassed to talk about your vision problems. Be polite but be a self-advocate! You will be helping yourself as well as others with vision loss!