Seeing ourselves as others see us

My interview with Brendan Magill on his workshop to help blind and partially sighted people think about how they present themselves and how these choices affect the way that others see them.

Seeing yourself as others see you

Introduction

As a child, I wasn’t really interested in make-up and dressing up nicely, but I remember having a big basket of things for the bath and little bottles of perfume (my Nan was an Avon lady!)

When I went to High School, things began to change, and I became more interested in what I wore. I had my first venture into make-up and changed my hairstyle dramatically, which was a disaster, but at least I learned what I really didn’t like and could grow it out again!

I’ve always had friends and family who would give me honest feedback about how I look. My boyfriend knows that if I ask “does this look ok?” I’m looking for an honest answer before we leave the house! But what about blind people who don’t have anyone to give this feedback or who genuinely don’t care how they look? How can they get feedback if they want it, and what impact can not caring about their appearance have on them?

I know Brendan Magill because he runs a number of mailing lists for visually impaired people. The one most relevant to me is UKVISE, the list for self-employed visually impaired people.

When I discovered that Brendan had designed a workshop to help blind and partially sighted people understand more about how to present themselves at interviews and in the workplace, I decided to find out more about it. Why did he think this training was necessary? What mistakes had he seen people making?

I did a telephone interview with Brendan and this is what he told me.

1. How important is your own physical appearance and presentation to you as someone with a visual impairment?

I have congenital cataracts, but I’ve always had a useful amount of residual vision. My brother has the same condition and my dad was partially sighted. He could see more than us, but he always presented himself very well.

I can still hear my mum saying things like “head up, chest out, tummy in!” That was just what we did.

As my sight has been getting worse, I have come to understand why a lot of blind people don’t hold their head up high. There’s nothing to focus on. But still, it does look better if you sit up straight, with your head up, and face the person that you’re talking to. Not doing this draws attention to yourself in a negative way, because people wonder why your posture and body language are not the same as those around you.

I never thought about why I do some of these things. I just did them. I turned myself out well.

I went to New College Worcester. Whilst we weren’t pushed very hard to present ourselves well, we got involved in activities locally such as a youth club or dance classes. That was good for us because it helped us to become more social in the wider world, even though we were going to a special school for blind people.

When I got my first job, the first thing my dad did was to take me out to buy some new clothes for work so that I could look my best.

2. Why did you decide to create training to help visually impaired people to present themselves appropriately at work?

Throughout the following few decades I was always decently turned out when I went to work or into town. The result of this was that I seemed to get on very well in the community and people treated me well. I didn’t realise how much of that was happening until much later on when I started doing some IT training at RNC. I hadn’t thought about personal presentation much before then. I was teaching a group of students of various ages. I thought “some of these guys are actually quite scruffy! They won’t get a job looking like that.”

I was teaching them IT, but I said on certain days they had to come dressed as though they were coming to work. Some did and some didn’t.

One guy was in his 40s and he’d been losing his sight for a while. He used to come looking scruffy with a shirt he’d been wearing for a few days and a scruffy jacket. He needed a shower.

I took him into the office and had a chat with him about how he could spruce up his clothes. The following week was an improvement.

A few weeks later he finished his course and came back for speech day. He came to see me and was looking much better. Not only that but he’d got a job.

He probably did know that he wasn’t looking his best, but I think he hadn’t thought about it and how this would affect how other people thought of him.

The other one was harder. It was a girl in her early 20s, fortunately the same age as my own daughters. She used to come in to class dressed as though she were going clubbing with very revealing tops. She would do this even on days when she was supposed to be dressed for work.

I pointed out how revealing the top was. “If I could see more than I can, I would be able to see more than I should. You might want to dress like that on a night out with your friends, but it’s not the way to dress for work or college.”

After that conversation, I really needed to mention it to another member of staff. I talked to one of the female members of staff who was interested in the way people dress and present themselves. She was running a make-up session and said she’d include some tips about how you dress as well.

On speech day, the same girl came to me. She still looked gorgeous, but this time she looked presentable as well. She got a job too.

Those two experiences got me interested in the way people who are visually impaired are turned out. I started thinking about my own experiences, and watching what the blind and partially sighted people around me were doing. That’s when I got the idea for the workshop – seeing ourselves as others see us. This was nearly 20 years ago. I got a lot of advice from the female members of staff, particularly for the girls. I ran the workshop a few times for different organisations. I haven’t run it for a long time now, but I think it’s something that is very important.

It’s all about understanding that you can’t be totally free in the way that you present yourself. You need to fit in with the workplace as it is. If you can’t see how other people are dressing, you might not know what’s appropriate.

When you’re in work, you make friends with people. Blind people shouldn’t be afraid to ask their colleagues what they wear. But first you need the colleagues, and you won’t have those if you don’t pass the interview stage because of the way you look.

3. What would you say are some of the consequences of getting it wrong, and how can inappropriate personal presentation reduce someone’s chance of passing an interview or being fully integrated into the workplace?

If you turn up at an interview and are not presentable, you probably won’t get the job. Personal presentation is so important, particularly in jobs where you have contact with the public.

Regardless of your skills and experience, the interviewer might think “we don’t want someone like that turning up for work.”

If you’re already in employment, It makes you more segregated and you get known for the problem or unusual fashion choices, not for what you bring to the team.

Even if you know what’s appropriate, if you can’t see for yourself, you may need to get advice about what colours and styles can be worn together.

4. In general, have you found that sighted colleagues mention when something does not look appropriate or something is not right?

Most colleagues would be unlikely to tell you. Maybe it’s easier for girls, but first you have to build up trust and a good working relationship with them so that they feel comfortable about pointing things out.
There is a fear that things can be taken the wrong way. Sometimes colleagues don’t like to tell you about things that don’t look good because they don’t like to think they’re criticising someone with a disability. Also, they might not be sure how the blind person will react? Sometimes they even think that blind people don’t care. Sometime they’re right about that.

5. Why do you think that some blind and partially sighted people don’t have access to information about presenting themselves in the best possible way?

I think a lot of it is to do with political correctness. It’s seen to be wrong to criticise disabled people.

Families sometimes don’t know how to deal with it, or they don’t want to address uncomfortable issues.

6. What tips would you give someone who finds it difficult to go shopping for clothes on their own?

Start off by asking your family and sighted friends for help and advice. We need those sort of friends who can give us honest advice, and taking part in mainstream activities is a way to meet sighted people. Find a hobby or an activity that you can share with other people and explain to them what you need, rather than expecting them to know about blindness-related issues.

Sometimes the staff in shops can be really helpful, but the level of help available varies a lot between shops, and it’s hard to tell someone that they really don’t look good, which is why some shop assistants may be reluctant to do this. An honest friend or family member may feel more comfortable suggesting that you try something else.

Also, if you ask for the truth about how you look and the comment isn’t totally positive, take it on the chin and don’t be overly sensitive.

7. Do you ever get questions about make-up? How do you deal with those?

Very rarely. I used to refer them to my wife or my granddaughter. If you don’t know something, it’s better to say “I don’t know about that but I know someone who does.”

8. Where can we find out more about your work?

You can go to my website.

Final thoughts

So, you know that on English with Kirsty I talk a lot about various beauty products. I’m not saying that everyone should take the same interest in make-up etc as I do, not being able to see is not an excuse to not care about how you look because even if you can’t see yourself, the people around you can still see you.

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