Blind Bargains

Editorial: A Few Thoughts on Name Tags

The following is a guest editorial by Chancey Fleet. We look forward to your reactions in the comments.
I went to a place yesterday to take part in an event organized by sighted people but advertised as for blind people. It does not matter to this story what particular place it was. It does matter to me that the feedback we give to our friends and colleagues who are sighted — to use the parlance of the moment — be delivered, where possible, without the public calling-out, the "gotcha" element if you will, that is perilously attractive to most of us when something goes wrong and we have the Internet to tell about it. "Gotcha" is always an option when restrained feedback isn't catalyzing change. When I left this place, though, I felt hopeful that change, or at least real conversation, is possible.
So, just a place.

I walked in with a blind friend. Another blind acquaintance was already in the lobby and, hearing my friend and I explain the physics of dog tails and revolving doors to a concerned security guard, greeted us and was found. Coming into an establishment of the sort that dedicates staff to the lobby, if one travels with a guide dog or cane, is rarely a thing done softly. The inevitable hubbub can be fatiguing but, where blind people are gathering and want to find and be found by more blind people, the fuss is—weirdly—a help. And so another blind person came in, and we found her, and we introduced ourselves and told her what we had gleaned about the space where we were waiting. The crowd grew denser. I stood to the side a little with an ear out for entrances. Someone usually steps up on these occasions to make sure people connect. If you're in a gathering group of blind people and no one is doing this yet, you can do it. It's easy and fun and passes the time while you wait.

We found the local librarian. We found a lady with a barking dog who talked to us about the struggle for "immediacy of the reflexive response" to barking and who became, in about half a sentence, the poised and articulate lady rather than the lady with the barking dog. We even found a few sighted people and, not gonna lie, asked them where the restrooms were. Interdependence—it's fine.

Then the sighted staff in charge of the event showed up with stickers and pens. One young lady asked my name, which I thought was a lot like what I had been doing for the past twenty minutes until she asked me to spell it. That pretty feeling of something organic functioning well; and that wistful feeling that this isn't a convention but it's something strong and easy and unself-conscious; and that feeling of not owning the space but owning part of the experience inside the space; all got chased away by dumb, predictable, inappropriate-to-the-occasion, kind of ungracious political irritation. Of course I said something borderline jerky, as I do: I'll go ahead and print it and we can all pause to consider the lead balloon that this staffer and I created together. I said "Wow, I feel like there's a power imbalance here. Don't you?" And she joined me in this doomed exchange: "I'm just trying to be cordial."

I hope that I was able to walk back my prickly and unhelpful comment and the first impression I must have made by wearing my name-tag, and doing my best to clear my head of pain and be present to enjoy the event, and asking for the opportunity to give feedback at a later time. Here's that feedback.

Dear place and dear staff: Thank you for inviting us to your event. We enjoyed it and we are glad that you thought of us as a particular group to invite. You must know that we have particular ways of experiencing the world. After all, you arranged this exclusive opportunity for us. You gave us excellent nonvisual directions, and you were energetic and precise describers of the visual elements of the event. It's clear that you take pride in your work and that you are sincere in welcoming us to be part of it.

I get why you like name tags. They help you identify the people you are with so that those people won't be strangers. Nametags help you, as a person who is sighted, manage groups and help groups of people who are sighted become more cohesive.

But you invited us into your space and when we are gathered together explicitly because we are all blind, the game changes a little. It is not OK that, during an event inspired by the particularities of blindness, only the people who are sighted in the room have full access to the social landscape. It belongs to the same genre of not OK as showing up with meatloaf to the PETA potluck. Even if you organized the potluck, and it's at your house, and you spent days making everything perfect for your PETA friends who know that you respect them, meatloaf is off the table.

"What's your name?" is an option. "Lady in the blue shirt"—is also an option. Don't worry: we do know what we're wearing and we will meet you halfway by responding if you want to go that route. Providing a few minutes right before the event for folks to introduce themselves is a great option. We'll all get to hear names and match those names to faces and voices. It's not perfect, I know, but it works better than anything else I've found in the land of the nametag-impaired. It also helps, in a large group or one where many people don't know one another well, to ask that everyone precede their remarks with their own name. This way, the face-voice-name connection gets reinforced and we can all know who is speaking.

It's not that nametags are offensive. I'm happy to wear one at events that do not exist solely because blindness exists. But you asked us to come because of who we are and we came, not just for your event, but to do something together in the way that we do things when we are together. Please put away your pen, and instead, let's talk.

Chancey Fleet is an assistive technology specialist and disability studies student working in New York City. She can be contacted via Twitter at @chanceyfleet.

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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