Seeing the Whole Picture—Reflections from a Facilitator Who’s Also Blind

I was recently told a story of a five year old blind girl, whose parents engaged the community to donate the $25K she needed for an assistance dog. When asked why she needed the dog, the parents remarked, “It picks up her clothes and puts them in the laundry basket. The dog turns on the light for her. As a blind person, she can’t do these things.”

Jeremy facilitates the Bike Austin summit-you are able to see a large room of participants working together and Jeremy talking with the whole group from the front.

Photo credit to Todd Savage, Austin TX


I do recognize that each person’s situation is different; however, as a blind person who’s been turning lights on for 38 years, I was frustrated by the lack of independence being taught in this situation. It made me realize that I should do a better job of talking about my story. And, it made me wonder, are their tips that I use as a blind person when I facilitate that could help my peers, both not sighted and sighted, as they lead collaborative change.

For over 14 years, I have facilitated meetings. Whether working with clients to design collaborative meetings or working on long-term, engaging, change journeys, I have worked with the sighted public and have used a collaborative change process that could be seen as challenging for a blind person.

  • Our process results in written flip charts, which I don’t have the ability to read when on the wall.
  • As our process divides people into small groups, I do not have the ability to hear every conversation and every idea in the room.
  • The room is always buzzing with conversation, making it challenging to easily navigate the room.
  • Knowing everyone’s name can also be a challenge, as most of our events have more than 100 people in the room.

In short, the room is a constant buzz of conversations and is always changing and developing right before my “eyes”.

Though the challenges exist, they’ve never even occurred to me as problems until recently, when someone pointed out these challenges and asked how I deal with them.

I listen…

When I learned how to work with large groups to create actionable and collaborative change, I experienced a lot of initial challenges. I remember, when frustrated about a client issue, one of my instructors saying, “Jeremy, are you listening to them?”

By walking around the room and listening (or observing) what happens in the small groups, I can focus on each group’s dynamics, on what small group is having the focused conversation, and identify ideas that are bubbling up.

By listening, I can hear a frustrated sigh, when someone has a problem with what the group is doing, and I can then help to bring them into the conversation.

When we do small group work, we always debrief that work with participants. We design the debrief of activities intentionally, so that it helps participants self-identify common and unique themes from their smaller group discussions. Then, smaller groups report these themes to the whole room–and to me as well. In a sense, by listening to the debrief, I’m able to have the room bubble up the common themes and I tap into those to facilitate further conversation.

I’ll also call your attention to the fact that this is the longest part of the post. It’s because, to me, it is the most critical to my success with my clients.

I’m engaged…

My job as the facilitator is to control the experience of the room. This means that I get there first, I design the setup (with help from the planning team of course), I know who’s in the room, and I know where everything is.

As a result, I can better navigate the room, I can appropriately direct people, I know where we are going to hang flip charts on the wall (so I can point to them in a discussion), and in short, I know the room.

I own it…

When I kick off a meeting, part of my opening is to say: “Some of you may see my Seeing Eye dog; yep I’m blind. So, please don’t raise your hand and expect me to call on you.” I usually add the following as I chuckle, “You’ll just keep waving your hand, and I will go on”.

I know…it calls out me not being able to see. But, by owning the opportunity, and showing the participants that I’m comfortable with “me,” it makes it OK and doesn’t become a focus for the group. They, instead, can engage in the interactive dialog around their purpose.

How do people get to chime in? I set that tone of conversation as a group. Even with 100 people in the room, I rarely have to institute a role of raising your hand because I help the group come to agreement to take care of each other. The purpose of a large group discussion becomes focused on the group’s desires as a whole; partly do also to the process presenting opportunities for all to engage throughout the discussion.

And, when conversations get heated and hands go up? Because I’m listening—see above—I’m able to recognize that situation and I empower a design team member to call on people. It also helps to create ownership of the outcomes of what’s happening at the meeting, by engaging the design team to lead. I empowered design team members to scribe as well when needed, since nobody really would want to read my handwriting.

I ask…

I pay close attention to engaging both the sited and the blind participants that are in the room, but it should be noted that this is more of a concern for the whole group, and the individual perspectives within the group as a whole. A key to our success is intentionally designing meetings to have a variety of activities that reflect all learning styles.

The visual perspective is important, especially when it allows people in the room to see the ideas discussed in another small group, shares a perspective about data that is more easily digested in visual form, or even helps people think creatively or present their viewpoint in a more creative way.

When in larger meetings with lots of ideas on paper all around the room, I ask the questions I need to ask to ensure I’m able to understand the information being presented in a visual form: I’m not afraid to ask.

In addition to asking, another technique I use is to empower the participant to not only tell me, but to audibly share their picture with the group. This also has the added benefit of helping those in the room who learn more verbally, and even helps other participants viscerally experience the impact of the picture.

There are also times, especially for the larger meetings, when a logistics coordinator will help me in running such a meeting (something that would still be true if I could see). And, don’t forget, the design team can also be great people to debrief flipchart work, creating opportunities for the leaders to own the actions that result from the participants’ dialog.

Listen | Engage | own | Ask

Though they help me as a blind person that facilitates, the concepts are so applicable to every facilitator, whether they can see or not.

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