In my own experiences, one of the greatest differences between places when it comes to disability etiquette has probably been how and when people acknowledge the presence of disabilities. One of the most obvious of these differences that I have encountered revolves around the white cane.
In America, I have noticed that many people will step out of my way when I walk towards them with my cane. I can often hear them telling their friends to watch out—probably because their friends were not in a position to see me coming. During my trip to Taiwan for a study abroad program a few years ago however such actions on the streets were rare. I did not notice this at first because while I appreciate the gesture it is not something I expect people to do. It wasn’t until one day when one of the friends I’d made in Taiwan was showing me around and one of the passersby actually stepped aside for me that my own surprise at the move brought it to my attention that such acts didn’t seem to happen much in Taiwan.
The incident reminded me of this other visually impaired student I met while I was there. From my own observations of the way he moved, I believe he may have had less vision than I have, but he refused to use a cane. He reiterated several times that this was because he didn’t need one. That fact appeared to be very important to him. I can only suppose that the act of using a cane struck him somehow as being indicative of being less self sufficient than he was.
Both these incidents left me wondering if it was considered shameful to show you had a disability or if maybe canes were really rare in Taiwan. From talking to one of my Taiwan friends, I found that it wasn’t so much a matter of shame or lack of understanding as a matter of politeness. She explained to me that even though she wants to offer help when she sees someone with a disability, she always finds herself at a loss as to how to do so. What would be appropriate and what would be rude? Would it be offensive to offer aid? After all, some people don’t like being singled out as possibly needing help, especially if they really don’t need it.
So on the one hand there was the legally blind student who didn’t want to be seen as needing a cane, and on the other there was the person who didn’t want to offend by offering help. These patterns of thought made me think that perhaps disability wasn’t a common topic of discussion because it was just politer and more comfortable for all parties involved to pretend it wasn’t there. That way everyone could deal with it his or her own way—those who don’t want to be treated differently wouldn’t be and those who did want help could ask but wouldn’t be bothered otherwise.
I believe that things are changing now though. I heard recently from my sister who is currently in Taiwan that she was using the high speed train and found it incredibly easy because everyone who worked there had apparently been well-trained in regards to how to assist a blind passenger. I have even heard rumors that there are plans for opening a guide dog school right there in Taiwan.