One of the most common is what I call the “state the obvious” encounter. You’re on a bench waiting for a bus, in a cafeteria, at an office, in a classroom, at a coffeeshop, riding a subway or a ferryboat and a complete stranger comes along and states the obvious. “You’re reading really close up.” “Your eyes look weird.” “Wow, your glasses are really thick.” “You’re blind!” “Is that a blind dog?” (to which some people, hearing this over and over, learn to reply, “I sure hope not!”).
Or there are the oddball questions. One time I was reading a quote on a small piece of paper, close up, and some stranger asked me, “Oh whoa, are you listening to the paper? That’s so interesting.” What?!
And you can answer these declarations by explaining that you’re blind and you need to look closely at something (or read Braille, or have a dog or a cane, or have eyes that move, or whatever flavor it is that the stranger is exclaiming about), and you’ll never cease to be surprised that not all, maybe not even most, but some will argue with you, tell you that what you’re doing is wrong or bad for your eyes (even things you couldn’t possibly have any control over). Or they’ll keep telling you that you need to go to an eye doctor, get contacts, get better glasses and so forth.
These things get said and asked with varying degrees of genuine interest vs. hostility. Sometimes, depending on the mood and each individual blind person’s history, even the more well-meaning remarks can be irritating. You start to feel like an exhibit at the zoo or something, like that’s all anyone will ever notice about you, like you’ll never be seen as an individual with unique looks, personality traits, flaws and dreams. The zoo exhibit feeling was almost oppressive a few months ago when I was walking around my college campus with a friend and a stranger came up to me and asked, “Are you albino?!” I replied that yes, I am. “I’ve never seen one of those before!” That’s exactly what we all want, to be “one of those.”
On the other hand, sometimes the random encounters are positive, especially when there’s curiosity involved, when people talk to you instead of at or about you. One time, I was at some bus stop and the conversation started the same way, “Are you albino?” but this guy turned out to know a lot about albinism and it was a really interesting discussion. Sometimes you run into people who are familiar with blindness or people who don’t know much but are genuinely curious and open-minded. It can go either way, but a lot of it is in the approach.
Then there are the overly pitying encounters, or the “babying” ones. Not so much that strangers will baby you but that they’ll assume you’re dependent. I can’t count how many times random people have asked me if I live with my parents even though that’s pretty rare for people my age. It started to bug me in my early twenties and definitely bugs me even more now. When I say that no, I don’t live with my parents, the next questions are always, oh, well a brother or sister then? A husband? A friend? A dog? A cat? A plant? Do you at least have some living thing better equipped to handle life than you are that can take care of you?
Of course, those last few are jokes. The truth is that lots of blind people live independently. Sometimes there are adjustments to be made like accessibility equipment or devices, appliance labeling and braille labels on clothes, but it’s really not that hard. Of course you get to know your own place really well and with practice you end up doing all the normal things everyone else does. We travel around the country and the world, have all kinds of different jobs in all types of employment sectors (incl. medicine, law, science, technology, education, government, the arts, fashion design, finance, publishing, construction, and on and on and on), go on dates, party (if that’s your thing), have kids, play sports, watch TV and movies and pursue any number of interests that the uneducated public might not initially think a blind person can do.
Personally, I like using my power drill when needed and I love assembling furniture, which surprises people. A few years ago, when I first moved to go back to school, I ordered this couch online. When it arrived, I opened the boxes. One was full of cushions and covers. The other had 45 flat pieces of wood, workman’s gloves and a sander. It was fun.
Unfortunately the living situation is not the only thing people tend to assume you can’t possibly do. Something that I’ve seen and heard about happening to several blind people I know, and that has happened to me as well, is that people will ask you if you need help going to the bathroom. Really? Wouldn’t you kind of assume that through however many years of life a blind person had mastered the art of wiping his or her own ass?
And then there are the really odd reactions. Upon realizing your blindness mid-conversation, a person might start talking really, really loud or really, really slow. I’m not entirely sure why but it’s a common enough occurrence.
It can be exhausting. I think most people are well-intentioned, or just don’t know much about blindness or haven’t encountered it much before. And these encounters can be used as teachable moments. Sometimes, though, you just want to walk around with a sign that says something like, “We’re just like everyone else, we just happen to also be blind.”
- Writing Sample: Blind Conventions
- Writing Sample: Seeing and Not Seeing
- Writing Sample: Seeing and Not Seeing 2
- Writing Sample: My Face