The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  May 2005

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Ask Miss Whozit 

A place card reads "Miss Whozit" and includes the Whozit logo.
A place card reads “Miss Whozit” and includes the Whozit logo.

From the Editor: Since my invitation in the February issue to send Miss Whozit questions of etiquette and social behavior associated with blindness, she has received several responses with questions. Below are a couple of those letters and her answers. She asks me to remind readers to send questions or comments to her attention care of <> or by mail or fax to the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

Dear Miss Whozit,

Here is a quotation from Barbara Pierce’s February column: "So I will simply say that we can all help each other by maintaining a proper distance and reserving our tactile exploration and observation for inanimate objects."

This is a point well worth making. However, it is also worth pointing out that sighted people can be pathologically disrespectful of our personal space. If you were a woman moving through a crowded subway station in a big city and a strange man suddenly came up behind you, grabbed, touched, or put his arm around some part of your body and started pushing or pulling you in a given direction, a normal reaction might be to scream, right? Unless you're a blind woman, in which case you're expected graciously and gratefully to accept every stranger's unprompted assistance, no matter how uncomfortable or invasive the method. Blind people are routinely touched and handled in a way that sighted people would never permit, and objecting can prompt deep offense or even anger on the part of the would‑be good Samaritan. Lately my pat response has been, "Excuse me. Please don't touch me without asking," said directly but cordially, unless someone has done something particularly outrageous like tried to pull me into a street crossing (at which point, sorry, but I dispense with all pretense of civility, because my life is at risk).

Miss Whozit, might you or your readers have a more effective response to this daily intrusion into our personal space?


Tired of Being Pushed Around


Dear Tired,

Goodness knows Miss Whozit wishes that she could suggest a one-size-fits-all response persuasive to would-be sighted guides so that they would wait for permission before grabbing, patting, or embracing a blind stranger. The truth is that most members of the sighted public have virtually no previous experience of blindness when they meet a blind person. Your strategy of being courteous but firm in requesting not to be touched is the obvious solution.

The single exception that comes to mind is intervening in an emergency. As you say, being pushed into the street is a matter of safety, and the person pushing deserves an adamant response. By the same token a blind person who is stepping into the path of a moving vehicle should be grateful to be stopped, even if by an unsolicited grab. The truth is that human beings do not usually think quickly enough in an emergency to formulate accurate warnings or instructions. Helpful as it would be to receive correct and precise directions from those who wish to assist us, in Miss Whozit's experience it rarely happens.

People are less likely to impose unwanted assistance when a cane user walks with poise and uses his or her white cane confidently. Miss Whozit often takes the opportunity to explain to would-be helpers that when the cane comes in contact with an object or barrier, she gets accurate information that allows her to avoid it. If she continues to move while demonstrating and explaining this technique, she finds people less likely to exhibit distress as they watch.

Miss Whozit regrets to admit that blind people will never be free of the need to educate inexperienced sighted people until they cease to travel or take part in social life, which would defeat everything we stand for. But she urges everyone to remember that practicing courtesy will make the lesson more palatable. And that in turn should make our lives more pleasant and spread civility.


Dear Miss Whozit,

I did not have enough proper blindness training when I was young, so I’m never sure when it is appropriate for me to touch food—when I’m eating food on my own plate or serving myself from a buffet. Can you help?



Dear Apprehensive,

You have asked a good question. Miss Whozit believes that two basic considerations determine appropriate handling of food: sanitation and the rules of etiquette. Some foods are appropriate for touching—fried chicken on the bone, French fries, breads, and most relishes (celery, radishes, olives, carrot sticks, etc.), as well as cookies, candy, and small tarts and quiches.

However, it is Miss Whozit’s firmly held opinion that most other foods should not be touched but maneuvered with knife, fork, or spoon. You should never touch food being passed until you have served yourself. If you’re unsure what is on the platter or in the bowl being passed, quietly ask the person who passed it to you.

Miss Whozit is painfully aware that some blind people have not learned to serve themselves. She suggests that, if you can’t do so confidently, you should ask a person near you to place a serving on your plate rather than skipping the item altogether.

You can eat the food on your own plate quite easily without inordinate touching by using a dinner roll or biscuit to stabilize what you want to slide on to the fork. The same thing can be accomplished using the European method of using the knife in the nondominant hand to cut and stabilize food while wielding the fork in the other hand in the usual way.

Miss Whozit insists that everyone—and she does mean everyone—needs practice in handling table etiquette gracefully and competently. It is a necessary art if one is to be accepted socially, and like all others the skills must be mastered.

Miss Whozit has heard the rumor that the NFB argues that blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance, and she believes that it is a nuisance—nothing more—for a blind person to go through a buffet line. Because it is never acceptable to put your fingers in someone else’s food, the blind person must accept the nuisance and learn how to cope with it.

Miss Whozit finds two ways acceptable: If an attendant is staffing the table, ask that person to assist you by telling you what is in each bowl and on each platter so that you can find the serving piece and serve yourself. Or, alternatively, simply have someone serve your plate for you.

When all is said and done, Miss Whozit dreams of a world in which all blind people are properly trained and graciously accepted by others.

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