Open for Business and Other Helpful Signs
As a sighted person, I always liked the sign “Open for Business.” It tells the world, “Hello and welcome, I’m here to help you.” When I lost my eyesight in my 30s, I felt like the world hung out a big “Closed” sign. I had no idea how to function. I’d walk into a restaurant, but could never find an empty table. I’d go to a store, but couldn’t locate the front door. I’d walk into a waiting room, but couldn’t tell whether there was an available seat. I’d stand in line at the deli, but never knew when it was my turn. Everywhere I went, I felt like I arrived just a few minutes after closing, just in time to feel the door shut in my face. The world might as well have put out a big “Closed for the Day” sign.
After a few failed attempts at visiting a coffee shop or a clothing boutique or one of any of the many public places I used to frequent, I suddenly noticed that I had hung a big, metaphorical “Closed” sign around my neck as well. I wore dark glasses hiding my eyes even indoors. I kept my head bowed, face expressionless, and immobile. I used my white cane to avoid obstacles, both living and inanimate. I was afraid of knocking into or over things and worse of tripping and falling over whatever lay in my path. I concentrated the lion’s share of my remaining abilities on picking up cues that could help me navigate about rather than attempting to interact with those sentient souls I wandered among. In fact, I spoke to very few people and even fewer people spoke to me. And I never smiled.
One day, during a Pilates class, my trainer was telling me about her 13 year old daughter who just started at a new school. Her teenager was unhappy and having trouble making new friends. It seemed that she had a habit of sitting on her own with a book and wearing a slightly sullen face. Her mom shared with me the advice she gave her daughter.
“I told my daughter,” said my trainer, ”If you want people to like you, you have to let people in, put on a smile, it’s like wearing an ‘Open for Business’ sign. You’ll see. Soon you’ll make all sorts of new friends. But if you walk around with a frown all the time, no one will come near you.”
I realized that my own behavior was not unlike that of my coach’s teenager. I had lost the smile I used to wear so naturally when crossing paths with passers-by; I had, in fact, all but stopped noticing passers-by altogether. How many times had I walked down the street scowling, face lowered, lost in concentration, ignoring comments spoken by nearby parents telling their kids, “she has a white cane because she’s blind, don’t bother her,” or friends whispering in hushed voices “don’t ask the blind woman if she needs help, blind people hate that.” I wondered why people would make these comments. And I thought about my coach’s daughter and asked myself, “What would happen if I were to change? Maybe I should try on one of those “Open for business” smiles.
Soon thereafter, I did just that, I took off my “Closed” sign and put on that internationally recognized “Open for Business” sign called a smile. The change was remarkable and immediate. I heard “Hellos” float around me. Voices spoke out of the air letting me know that the light had changed to green and it was safe to cross the street. Doors would open and I’d hear those friendly words, “Here’s the entrance.” It was great.
However, my smile wasn’t a perfect solution, in fact, there was a downside. I developed the habit of walking about during the day with a smile plastered across my face whether there was someone there or not. I frequently feared I looked like a grinning idiot, but ultimately, it was a risk I was willing to take. So many more doors were open to me and my world had become just a bit bigger and just a bit better, so my smile remained my “Open for Business” sign.
As I continued to learn to navigate the world as a blind person, I found my smile was not only imperfect, but also it wasn’t enough. While more doors were now open to me, I often ran into an “Out for Lunch” sign. I still couldn’t find empty seats in a lobby or pick out pastries in a bakery or manage a dozen other situations. It became time for me to learn yet a few more skills, but I’ll leave that for my next post, “Cues and Signals.”