3 Observations I've Made as I Feel My Way Through a Sighted World
As most people would suppose, there are many challenges to being visually impaired. What they might find surprising, however, is that for me the biggest hurdle is not what I do or don’t see, but the way others view me. The general public seems to be color blind when it comes to people with visual impairments, seeing us as black and white caricatures of what they think we should be. Now, allow me to qualify my statement lest anyone start to think I am shaking my finger at the general public as a whole. I have had the privilege of knowing some of the most big-hearted, understanding and loving people who have embraced me as a complex individual, but this essay is not about them. Instead I want to list some observations I’ve compiled while feeling my way through a sighted world.
1. Going from tragic to inspirational in five minutes or less.
Such a thing may seem inconceivable, but it’s happened to me on a number of occasions. Some years ago I was making my way through security at Orlando airport to catch my flight home to California. I was dressed in jeans and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, because I like to be comfortable when I fly, and because honestly what else do you wear on a trip back from Disney World? As I handed my boarding pass and ID to the TSA agent, she took in my cane and shirt. Then in a voice most people reserve for 3-year-olds and cute puppies she said, “Did you have a fun time visiting Mickey, honey?” Now, I am aware that some people do have multiple disabilities, but when people constantly confuse physical and intellectual disabilities, or treat anyone with condescension, it does get somewhat irksome. Still, I gave the agent my best smile and told her that while Disney World was admittedly superior to Disneyland, I was happy to be going home as I didn’t believe my Californian sensibilities could handle the changeable weather and joked about the humidity and my frizzy hair. We chatted for another minute or two and she handed back my pass and ID. Before I could continue on my way, she shook my hand and remarked on how inspiring I was.
More recently, I was working near the Junior Blind of America with my mobility instructor when a man approached us. He directed his questions about me to my mobility instructor. He wanted to know what we were doing and why I was at the Junior Blind if I was not in fact a junior. Although I was eager to continue my mobility lesson, I decided to answer his questions. After a few more exchanges he began speaking directly to me. He asked me if I was trying for my GED. When I informed him that I had just earned my Bachelor’s and was trying to learn Braille and sharpen my cane skills before entering my graduate program, he was quite literally taken aback. He suddenly found me to be the most inspirational person. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good compliment as much as the next person, but when it is coming from someone who initially didn’t even think I could speak for myself it is a bit hard to swallow. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Hi, I’m standing right here.
There are times when I feel as if I’ve slipped into some sort of alternate universe where the rest of the world is visually impaired. It might be the teller at the bank asking my mother how much I’d like to withdraw from my account, or the waiter at a restaurant asking my friend what I’d like to order. My suspicion is only strengthened by the fact that when I answer for myself they seem surprised, as if I’ve just materialized before their eyes.
I would like to point out that these kinds of things only occur when I have my cane with me. I am half convinced that it acts as some kind of cloaking device. Of course, that still doesn’t explain my next item.
3. Personal boundaries are important — unless you happen to be disabled.
We are taught from a young age to keep our hands to ourselves and to respect each other’s personal space and privacy. Yet I am often treated as an exception to these rules. From the grandmotherly woman who wordlessly yanked me into the empty seat beside her on the bus, to the supermarket employee who took me by the shoulders to turn me in the direction he thought I needed to go, to the random congregation members who invariably flock to me to either bless me with a hug and a kiss or cover my eyes with their hands while they pray for me fervently. Let me qualify again that most of these people are well-intentioned, just not well informed.
These kinds of things are potentially disorienting for even the most outgoing of people, and I happen to be an introvert. As most introverts can attest, social interactions can be draining under the best of circumstances. When strangers invade my space and attempt to wordlessly arrange me the way they might a piece of furniture, it gets a bit overwhelming.
I am not suggesting that no one should ever offer to assist a blind individual. On the contrary, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been desperately trying to orient myself only to have some beautiful soul swoop in and save the day. They unobtrusively offer their help and graciously offer me their arm once I accept their assistance. These people always make my day, and get a big gold star in my book because they treated me like a person instead of handling me like a package. They demonstrate they really see me by asking me what I think, or need and respecting my answer. I always appreciate people offering their assistance. However, I don’t appreciate having people try to force their help on me, and then try to guilt trip me when I refuse it, because that somehow makes me a terrible ingrate in their eyes.
In short, I am neither helpless nor am I a daredevil. I am simply a woman who loves her family, her dog, working with people with disabilities and cranking out the occasional poem or fantasy narrative. Those who know me best will testify that I am not black and white. And, it is my sincerest hope that one day everyone will be able to see me and those like me in all our distinct, screaming colors.
Getty image by Xi Xin Xing.