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‘Say hello’: B.C. advocate teaches etiquette of interacting with the blind

‘Losing my sight hasn’t changed me, but it’s changed the way I interact with the world’

A simple “hello” goes a long way in kicking off communication with someone whose sight is limited, says Gina Martin, who educates all generations through her Diverse Abilities Programs and Training.

The business is based in her Saanich home, but programming spans primary school classrooms to seniors’ homes across the south Island.

Martin, who is legally blind, is using her communication skills honed over nearly three decades as a server at Paul’s Motor Inn. The goal is to pave an easier path for others.

“It took me 23 years to accept my journey,” said Martin, who began to lose her sight in 1993.

Facing different opportunities and abilities, no two people have the same experience and it comes down to the individual on how they navigate life.

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She herself did not want to use a cane or in any way draw attention to herself. She hit a turning point in 2015 when she met two confident women who had attended a comprehensive program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Inspired, she attended the nine-month program the next year.

“It was absolutely the hardest thing I did in my life,” she said, noting it includes blindfolded rock climbing, white water rafting, bowling and more. But it has a high success rate, with 85 per cent of people who graduate meeting or exceeding expectations, she said.

Martin is among those successes – it taught her in part how to enjoy life differently than when she had her sight.

“Losing my sight hasn’t changed me, but it’s changed the way I interact with the world,” she said.

So she launched her business earlier this year. Martin teaches on apparent and non-apparent disabilities – noting nine of 10 are non-apparent – and universal design.

Hoping to change perspectives for both those with sight loss and without, her key message is communication.

She took that message to social media recently, hoping to end the silence of awkward interactions on the street or in shops.

The seven key points garnered an impressive response – shared more than 4,000 times, with more than 100 comments of appreciation.

Someone who is blind or partially sighted can often be recognized by a white cane, service dog or even sunglasses. While it’s important to not make assumptions on their level of sight, the smiles and nods that sighted folk offer and recognize on the street likely go unseen by someone with sight loss.

So say “hello.”

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“It’s one word that can make somebody feel included,” Martin said. “People are quiet, they don’t know what to say. That’s not helpful for those of us who don’t see well. It can be unsettling.

So say hi. And if you know them, say their name, maybe offer yours and maybe a context of how they know you.

If it appears help might be needed, just ask: “Can I help?” and if yes, “How can I help?”

Don’t be offended by a no.

In person, she also reiterates a few other messages that might seem as obvious as “hello.”

“Always talk to the person, and not the person they’re with,” she said.

“Don’t grab us. That’s a real thing.” Instead of a shout or a grab, verbalize. “Lady with the white cane, there’s a car on your right” is far more informative, helpful and less terrifying.

Oh, and it’s OK to use the words see, look and watch in conversation.

“We see look and watch, just differently,” Martin said, adding the example of “seeing” a pink rose through touch and smell. “I’m enjoying it differently.”

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A simple ‘hello’ goes a long way in kicking off communication with someone whose sight is limited says Gina Martin who educates the region through her Diverse Abilities business. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)


Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

I'm dedicated to serving the community of Oak Bay as a senior journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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