Being blind (or visually impaired) seems to engender the kindness and politeness of the general public. But would you be surprised to find that many things that the public view as kindness are actually awkward at best or offensive at worst to the recipient? I am not saying this to be ungrateful, vicious or mean; simply to point out that we receive some of the most patronizing – or the most gracious – acts and comments that you can imagine.
Let’s start with the word “blind”, which seems to have fallen out of favor due to avoiding hurt feelings. The term “blind” seems to offend some people, as though I will break into tears if someone acknowledges my lack of sight. I live with it every day, so am quite OK with someone else making note of it by simply calling it what it is. But in their effort to avoid using the dreaded “b” word, strangers have stumbled over “sightless,” “visually challenged”, “sight impaired,” and more awkward or inaccurate descriptors. I know a couple of totally blind people who take the term “blind” literally, so they will very rudely point out that they are not partially sighted, they are BLIND; conversely, I know some that have some vision who seem to be offended that someone dared to use the “b” word to them. No wonder people try so hard to be inoffensive that they stumble all over themselves! FYI, just speak naturally to me or anyone else who can’t see; a very very very very small minority of us get hung up on the language, or get offended at words like “blind,” “see” and “look.”
The general public seems to have a fascination with blindness and how we live our lives, so much so that we get asked quite rude questions. Perhaps this is a way of making us feel like we belong, but in fact the opposite is true. Several years ago, I was shopping for produce, and an employee was offering me assistance around the store (it takes less time and is more hygienic than groping all the produce to identify it). We were on our way from the sweet potatoes toward the cucumbers when the employee – not unkindly, but rather suddenly – asked, “So, were you blinded in an accident?” I was so surprised that I honestly couldn’t figure out how to best answer his question whilst picking my jaw up off the floor. I assure you that questions regarding the cause of my blindness are not uncommon occurrences; I keep wanting to make up this terribly tragic story about a nasty chemical explosion that also gave me super powers, but I couldn’t do it with a straight face.
On the flip side, I often get told of advances in science that will restore sight (“Isn’t that awesome?”) or that I should get an operation so that my eyes will look normal (someone has actually told me this). I suppose that since blindness is feared more than premature death, I suppose the general public assumes that anyone without sight would jump at these chances…. but I would not. My life is too settled now to undergo such a risky procedure – and a risk is all it would be.
I have occasionally had well-meaning strangers shove money in my hand – this happened to my parents when I was a child, and only rarely to me personally as an adult. I know that in some cultures the blind are unable to work, and in our own western culture the blind are woefully under- or unemployed. Thankfully I do work full-time, and have not recently had someone put me in the awkward position of accepting a cash handout (though a while ago someone offered to pay for my lunch at a local diner, which I did accept).
But what happens when someone does something well-meaning and you have no way to decline and, frankly, you don’t wish to decline such an outrageous form of generosity? I was faced with this several months ago when ten or twelve of us from our goalball team went out to eat for dinner after a practice. We had ordered our food and drinks, and the staff was starting to bring our meals to the table, when the waitress came up to us and said that the gentleman at the table behind us wanted to pay for our meals, so our bill up to that point had been taken care of – appetizers, entrees, drinks, tip… This was just so astounding to us – 10-12 visually impaired people (not all of whose visual impairment was obvious. To this day I doubt I will ever forget it. But I am not alone in receiving this kind of generous act; someone else put it better than I ever could, so I will let her speak for herself.
All this to say that I doubt we as blind – or visually impaired – people will completely eliminate the seeming awkwardness that surrounds our “otherness”. But I think the more comfortable I am with myself, perhaps the more comfortable others will be around me. But perhaps that has nothing to do with my blindness. Perhaps it’s simply the way all people should try and live – with head high, saying things as they are but tempered with grace, a sense of humour, and the occasional funny story at the end of the day… chemical explosion, anyone?