Caitlin Hernandez's Top Ten (10) Rules That Every Incoming Freshman (Who Happens to Be Blind) Should Most Definitely Know
(Also Known as, What They Don't Tell You at Freshman Orientation)
10. Always have something on hand to fiddle with/entertain you.
Good examples include a cell phone with texting capability, a few e-books, a story you're writing, a Rubik's cube, or (if you're really desperate) a random piece of paper with print on it. This way, when you're caught waiting for something or someone, and you feel like everyone walking past is staring at you, you can at least pretend to have a life and/or to be absorbed/engaged in something.
A: Texting works best for this. Get yourself an arsenal of buddies who'll text you between classes. This way, your phone's constantly ringing, lighting up, vibrating, etc., giving the impression that you're totally popular and not just a geek waiting for the bus, for a friend, or for class to start.
9. Be a smart traveler.
A: If you're a cane user, always bring an extra one folded up in your backpack, especially if you're traveling alone. You never know when some dorky college student will unwittingly come charging past and stomp on your cane, leaving you stranded with a broken cane, wounded pride, and only two minutes to go before a final exam.
B: If you have a guide dog, remember to carry around plenty of pick-up bags. If you don't, your dog just might decide to do his business right in front of your dorm; if you don't pick that up, you yourself are likely to slip on it. That would not be good. Texting your RA begging her to come out and help you find the little surprise once you actually have a bag with which to pick it up is also not good.
Side Note For Guide Dog Users: Whether or not they have a dog of their own, most college kids are not all that willing to help you pick up, even if you're obviously totally missing it. Get ready for a lot of games of "hot and cold" and "a little more to the left ... uh, forward ... um, to the right ... um, no, now back a little" ... etc.
8. When in a crowded lecture hall, it's a good idea to sit as close to the door as possible.
This will save you the excruciating task of wandering around in endless blind circles trying to find the exit while caffeine-deprived students eager to check their text messages and missed calls are buffeting you this way and that in their eagerness to escape the torturous death-chamber that is an hour-and-forty-five-minute lecture.
7. Get used to rattling off your top ten favorite foods.
When you go to the dining hall and get help from the kitchen staff, you will very, very quickly become very, very sick and tired of hearing every single dish listed. If you know what you like, and you can rattle it off immediately, you'll save yourself a lot of "no, thank you-ing", especially if you're an incredibly picky eater.
A: If you don't have any guest meals and need/want to get a friend into the dining hall with you, execute the traditional "sighted-guide" stance, slap on your best "I'm an angelic little blind person" face, and act like your friend is just helping you out and totally doesn't plan on eating with you. Nine times out of ten, no one will even bat an eyelash, and you both can waltz in and pig out: no questions asked. Consider this the dining hall's present to you for putting up with its inherent inaccessibility.
6. Perfect your "Blind Poker Face"
As obnoxious as it is, people are always watching you, particularly if you're one of the only blind students on campus or, even more daunting, the only one. So when you trip over a curb while disembarking the bus, circle a combined desk-and-chair three times to figure out which side you're supposed to sit down on, search futilely for the napkin-holder, soap dispenser, or your drink for what feels like ten years, or crash face-first into a wall while sleep-walking through the bathroom in your pajamas at 3 AM as a half-drunk dormmate looks on, just smile and nod and look like you're thinking, "I'm just so cool and blind and hilarious, and I totally meant to do that. Like, duh, dude."
5. Before charging into your dorm's bathroom stall, hang onto the door with one hand, brace your other hand on the wall, and probe out with one foot (assuming you don't bring your cane into the bathroom with you).
This will enable you to determine whether or not the floor is wet, soapy or covered with vomit. If you detect this beforehand, you'll avoid plunging to your death, concussing yourself on the wall or toilet bowl, and/or doing a face-plant in something nasty.
A: ALWAYS wear shoes in the shower. There's nothing worse than discovering an unidentifiable object floating around in there with you and having your foot come into contact with it repeatedly. If you have a shoe on, you can just kick it aside without fear or too much revulsion.
B: ALWAYS swipe the toilet seat with a huge wad of toilet paper before sitting down. This should be a Blind Commandment.
4. If you insist on pulling an all-nighter to procrastinate on a project due the next morning, set two alarms. Not one, but two.
This way, when you disgustedly punch off the first alarm, the second will prevent you from over-sleeping, missing your ride, and being in danger of failing to turn in the project that was the cause of your all-nighter on time. Tearing madly across campus to class with a well-meaning good samaritan who, through no fault of their own, has never sighted-guided you while running could potentially be hazardous to your health.
3. Be prepared to answer A LOT of "blind questions."
Since you're in college, you'll get some genuinely well thought-out, evocative, unique ones, like "If you could see only one thing, what would it be?" and, ironically, "What's the stupidest `blind question` someone ever asked you?" But you'll still get some ridiculous ones. For your edification, here are a few sarcastic answers that I've tried out on the days when the questions started to drive me around the bend. Feel free to recycle.
Q: How come you're late to class? Doesn't your dog know the way?
A: Well, yes, he usually does. I just forgot to activate his GPS this morning.
Q: Who dresses you? You always match so perfectly!
A: I have a butler who gets me up, hand-dresses and bathes me, and brings me breakfast on a silver platter.
Q: (while you, the blind person, are placidly and comfortably waiting for someone and clearly not attempting to go anywhere): Oh, my gosh! Are you, like, lost? Do you need, like, help?
A: Nah, I'm just looking at the view. (This one works best if you waggle your cane/pet your dog and give an ingratiating but sincere smile.)
In all seriousness, I'm kind of just kidding. Try to be patient and charming at all times when people ask you these kinds of questions.
2. Find your niche.
As a blind person—and I don't mean to label or classify or be rude, but I kind of have to in order to explain this—potential friends tend to fall into a few categories. There's the "Ohmygosh ... that blind kid is so amazing" group; the "Ohmygosh ... that blind kid is so helpless, so I'll constantly run over and try to save them and talk really patronizingly" group; the "Ohmygosh ... a blind kid! I've never seen one of those before! I think I'll stay at least ten feet away from them at all times, like they have the plague. They won't notice" group; the "Ohmygosh ... a blind kid! How scientifically thrilling! I'll ask them a bunch of questions like they're a science project, and as soon as they change the subject, I'll mysteriously disappear" group; the "Ohmygosh ... is that kid really blind? They don't look blind. Maybe I'll just go and wave my hand in their face. Or I could try talking to them really loudly. Or maybe I should be helpful, go up to them without announcing myself, grab their hand, and haul them unceremoniously into a classroom without asking where they want to go in the first place" group; the "Ohmygosh ... that blind kid is so interesting/novel/cool! Let's stand around and gawk! Or, better yet, let's get right up in their face and just gape, because—hey!—they can't see us doing it, anyway" group; and, best of all—seriously—there's the "Ohmygosh ... let's see if, perhaps, that random person over there wants to chat. Oh, what's that? They're blind? Gee, I hardly noticed. It really doesn't matter all that much to me anyway" group. Obviously, you want friends who come from the latter group. Luckily, college is made up of mostly these cool people. But despite their being plentiful in quantity, these people can be really hard to find, and it can become really frustrating dealing with all the other groups. It helps to join a club/group/activity where you're comfortable and happy. That way, people will be theoretically "forced" to interact with you frequently and in fairly controlled conditions. Thus, they'll see you in your best light (pun intended) and will almost certainly want to get to know you as a person instead of just "the blind kid".
1. Be a smart, organized blind person.
- If someone helps you move in initially, encourage them to think logistically. Tubs are great for storing that bulky braille paraphernalia you won't need often; they can squeeze under your bed and be completely unobtrusive. Also, if you happen to be on the short side, get somebody to help you align a sturdy nightstand or desk beneath each high shelf. That way, you can climb on things in order to both store and reach items that won't fit on your already-cluttered surfaces, no matter how hopefully you shift things around. Moving in right is a MUST for blind people because it's rough to shift furniture in an already-crowded, heavily lived-in room. Knickknacks and small items are apt to go flying if you try it by yourself, and then you'll just end up in a very bad mood.
- Even if you don't think you'll want to, you will want some popcorn, tea, hot cocoa, or a TV dinner. And to make any of that, you need a microwave. So either bring your own microwave, bring some Braille-on so you can make labels for one, or hope like heck that you have a friend who'll run over and help you every time you get hungry at 2 AM while writing a paper and begin to suffer an appallingly crippling craving for microwavable food.
- You'll also probably want to run on a treadmill at some point. So either bring more Braille-On, somehow get your own treadmill into your dorm/apartment/housing facility, or hope like heck that you don't accidentally push the wrong buttons and force yourself to run like mad to catch up with the panel and slow yourself down again. Or else hope that that same friend will be there to save you.
- Ditto washing machines.
- Bring a talking dictionary. Seriously. Just do it. When you're frantically writing a paper that's due in ten minutes, and you need a synonym because you've used the same word about twelve times, you will NOT want to wade through the clutter of Dictionary.Com with your screenreader trying to find the thesaurus. Especially when you already have ten other Internet windows open because of all the sources you're required to have and to cite.
- Have an accessible alarm system, planner/organizer, and calculator.
- Know how to work your mini-fridge, if you have one. Having frozen water is NOT fun times. Neither is having curdled milk, though. So you have to be careful and strike a happy balance.
- Assuming you have a cell phone, have ALL emergency numbers in your phonebook. Remember the golden rules: (a) A phonebook that's overflowing is better than one that's verging on empty, (b) It's better to have numbers you don't need than NOT to have the one that you really, really DO need in a pinch, and (c) The more people you can get in touch with fast, the better off you'll be. There will come times when you're lost, late, abandoned/forgotten—"Where the heck is my ride? They said they'd be here ten minutes ago, and I can't be late to this appointment!"—or just need a pair of working eyes to help you find the tiny, evasive key that you dropped, the last of the M&Ms you spilled—"I can't let my dog eat those!"—or a stupid link on a web site that your screenreader refuses to locate, no matter how much you swear and sob and stab ineffectually at your keyboard. People are more than willing to pitch in and help; it's just a matter of getting a living, breathing person on the other end of the line when you need one.
- Know how to open child-proof pill bottles by yourself...or, alternately, transfer said pills into a more practical container. Child-proof pill bottles can easily be opened without sight 99.9% of the time; you just have to know exactly how. Trust me, you will NOT want to be struggling to figure out how to open a bottle of aspirin when your head is throbbing, your eyes are watering, everyone else in your dorm is out partying, and you just want to go to bed, hug your teddy bear and hope like heck that your headache will go away. Also, on a related note, be sure you can tell your pills apart, if you have more than one type. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to take something for headaches, something for allergies,, something for a fever and something for a cold all at once and just hope that one of them will work successfully. They'll probably just make you violently sick.
- Bring safety pins to connect your socks. Really. This is a must. Otherwise, you will most assuredly lose about half of them when you try to do laundry. Also, NEVER leave your laundry unattended. If you do, some sighted person is apt to want your machine the second its cycle is complete. They'll inevitably think, "I'll just unload the laundry! I mean, whoever it belongs to will totally, obviously see it!" Then they'll proceed to heedlessly fling all your clothes onto a super-high shelf that your cane and desperately searching fingers will never, ever have a prayer of finding. And, of course, they will have loaded their own laundry and be long gone and hard to find by the time you come back and start innocently searching for your stuff.
- Fold your money. Seriously. I know it's a pain, but just do it. Few things are more embarrassing than going down the hall, banging on doors and begging some poor, unwitting sighted fool to analyze ten years' worth of bills for you. Have some pride and save yourself a lot of aggravation and fold your money.
- Use your resources. RAs in particular are good for this kind of thing. If you have to go trekking all over creation to get a batch of forms signed, or if you need someone to let your dog out while you go to a mandatory, three-hour performance for a class, or if you're just really hungry and don't want to deal with the aforementioned dining hall staff, however well-meaning, you can enlist the help of your RA and console yourself with the knowledge that they're paid to do ridiculous grunt-work like this. And they probably won't mind too much, either.