By Susie Stageberg
Recently I had an encounter with a nurse who insisted on asking my husband if I could use the rest room on my own. I try to keep my cool in such situations, but this time I’d had enough and snapped, “I can take care of myself.” It seems I have been saying this, in one form or another, to people all my life. It’s almost automatic. I can cook and do laundry and cross the street and read my own e-mail and knit and take care of my kids and dress myself. So leave me alone, oversolicitous sighted person: I can take care of myself.
But wait a minute. Sometimes I do need help with some of these things. I can read my own e-mail and operate the computer, but sometimes the computer gives me the Blue Screen of Death and I need someone to come and read the error message. I call it “needing a working pair of eyes.” The working pair of eyes is attached, of course, to somebody whom I trust to help me without overdoing it. Just read me the error message; I’ll take it from there.
Getting dressed is one of those things where sometimes you need a working pair of eyes. Is there a stain on this blouse? Are these tights my black ones or my navy ones? Does this navy patterned sweater go with these navy pants, or are they two different shades of navy? Even the most meticulous labeling and organization scheme sometimes fails and you need a working pair of eyes. Does that mean we can’t say “I can take care of myself” and mean it? If we occasionally ask for guidance when choosing a garment in the store, or putting together an ensemble, does that make us—horror of horrors!–needy, dependent, clinging, helpless blind people?
No, it does not. Everybody needs help with something sometime. My husband needs help remembering where he put his car keys. I remember where they are; he doesn’t. My daughter needs help writing an essay for her English class. Once she gets it started, she can go from there. Everybody I know, blind or sighted, needs help with something sometime, and nobody thinks any less of them for needing the help.
But for blind people, needing and getting help can be huge issues. Somehow some of us have gotten the idea that we should be able to do everything on our own. And some of us have gotten the idea that we can’t do anything on our own. These notions probably have come from the people around us, but they have also come from inside us. I heard somebody say once that changing the world’s attitude toward the blind has to start with the blind themselves; sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
So what does this have to do with fashion, you are asking. Just this: if we admit that we are going to need help with wardrobe, hair, makeup, etc.–with our “style,”–we can minimize the well-meaning but infuriating kind of help by being clear in our minds what help we need, and then graciously insisting on it.
Let’s say you have special event coming up and you decide you need a new suit. You will probably have some idea what sort of suit you want. I am suggesting that you decide ahead of time on a rough outline of what you need, and decide how much help and what sort of help you will need to get your new suit from the store into your closet. Let’s say that you decide you need a red pantsuit. It’s an occasion where red would be desirable—Christmas or Valentine’s Day, and you don’t currently own a red pantsuit. Do you need help with transportation to get to the store that has pantsuits? Will you need somebody to point you toward the suits once you get to the store? Somebody to help you find your size? Somebody to point you toward the dressing room so you can try on the three red pantsuits that are on the rack in the store?
Now decide who you want to give you the help you need. Sales clerks can be very helpful, if you can find one, and if the one you find isn’t one of those overeager types who want to follow you into the dressing room and undress you. Your mother-in-law might help, unless she thinks you spend too much of her son’s money on clothes, and that red is immodest. So think about who will give you the help you need without smothering you to death with “help” you don’t need.
Suppose you say to your chosen assistant: “I need a red pantsuit. Can you show me the rack where suits in my size are displayed?” And then, “Which way is the dressing room?” And then, “How much does this suit cost? Can you point me toward the checkout counter?”
If you are specific, and politely insistent on what you need and what you don’t need, eventually most people will get the message. There are some who never will; don’t take them shopping next time. I’m suggesting that you stay in charge of the situation, rather than relinquishing control to the sighted helper just because he or she is sighted. If your sighted helper says, “No red pantsuits, but here’s a pretty charcoal gray one,” you can still choose whether or not to consider charcoal gray. It’s your choice, not your helper’s choice. You don’t want to be in the situation where you get home with a gray suit and realize you really didn’t want gray, but your helper talked you into it.
There’s no need to be rude in any of this. Sighted people just want to help–most of them anyway—and hard as it is sometimes, your mother was right: you’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar. If you treat the sales clerk with respect and politeness, she should be more willing to help you next time you come into the store. And if you thank your mother-in-law for her advice but decide against the gray suit, maybe she’ll take a hint.
If you stay in charge and stay polite but firm, you can take your new suit home and feel good about the purchase. Then put on that new suit and strut your stylish stuff.