From a young age, my parents taught me that my blindness wasn’t something I needed to hide. Even if accommodating me meant taking more time, doing things differently or making a bit of a fuss, I could and would experience the same things they did. Still, it wasn’t always easy to put into practice.
When I was little, I didn’t often carry my cane, and no one looked twice at the pink sunglasses I wore around the clock. Whether I was running wild at the park, making a mess in the toy store or pestering my older sister, I was often able to pass as just another wound-up kid. But in other ways, my family began to stand out with my constant questions and curiosity and their steadfast refusal to curb the inquisitive, impetuous reach of my hands.
Crowds, long lines and the endless waiting that goes hand in hand with being blind in a visual world tended to make me irritable and overwhelmed. Listening to music and audiobooks on my Walkman was the obvious solution, but my favorite escape involved wriggling into the center of a clothes rack with a Braille book. I could read in quiet comfort, startling unwitting shoppers who happened to part the clothes nearest me.
Though these fixes meant a peaceful afternoon at the mall for my family, they came at a price. Carting around bulky Braille tomes and countless cassette tapes while simultaneously guiding me, often singlehandedly, through the mall’s inherent chaos, wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. And, in the background, dubious fellow shoppers stared, mystified by the little girl who seemed apathetic about where she walked and impervious to the brightly-colored displays begging her attention.
As I grew older, my blindness became more readily apparent to onlookers. I used my cane, and later a guide dog, when I wasn’t walking with a sighted guide. Braille was never far from my fingertips, and since I avoided wearing sunglasses, the involuntary, erratic movements of my eyes were easily visible. But adolescence made me self-conscious, leery of asking questions and touching my way through experiences the way I had as a child. I was uncomfortable being seen in a world which I myself could not see.
Passers-by, behaving as if I couldn’t hear, often asked my parents and friends about my blindness, promised to pray for a “miracle,” cut the prices of the things we were buying and patted me condescendingly on the head. Even without my cane or my Braille, even when I was simply standing still, people always seemed to know. I wondered what I was or wasn’t doing which set me apart so drastically. Perhaps worse were the people who commented that I didn’t even look blind, that you could “hardly tell,” that I was “absolutely beautiful.” It was impossible for me not to believe that they were voicing the polar opposite of what they felt — of what they were truly seeing — just to make me feel better.
* * *
Typically, ignorance, not rudeness, breeds staring. Now that I’m an adult, I appreciate people with the courage to approach me and ask questions. Our interaction, most likely, began with staring, whether or not I was aware of it.
Staring is a conversation which has not yet found its voice, and, luckily, voice is something I have in spades and am more than happy to share.
* * *
Once, as a friend and I walked together, my hand in his, our laughter over some silly story making both our gaits uneven, a man shouted across the San Francisco street, “You two are so cute!”
Once, a friend and I, flushed after a long walk in the summer heat and giddy after a successful choir performance, were scarfing down ice cream and laughing together when an older man came up to our table. He told us we’d made his day, that our happiness was contagious, that he loved how much fun we were having.
Once, seeing a friend holding my hand as we struggled along the sidewalk, weighed down by grocery bags, a man eagerly asked if we were married.
Once, as I sat alone on a bench — cane folded, sunglasses on, Braille notetaker tucked away, doing absolutely nothing — a woman told me she loved my smile.
Sometimes, when people stare at me, they only see blindness. Sometimes they see other parts of me, too: joy, insecurity, excitement, uncertainty. Sometimes they see the whole picture: a person who happens to be blind. But what they see isn’t nearly as important as what they take away. Most days, I’m simply grateful to them for noticing, for seeing beyond their own world in the first place.