Beyond my blindness, which is fairly visibly obvious, one of the first things people notice about me is the ring on my left ring finger. Many of them will say something about me being married, and the topic comes around to the fact that my husband is sighted.
“Oh, that’s great!”
Are they happy that I am married, happily, to someone who loves me? That I share my life with someone who carries me through dark times as I try and do for him? That we own a house, laugh at the antics of my guide dog and our three cats, cook, clean, bicker, smile, laugh, share hobbies, misunderstand each other, argue over money or sex or in-laws, smile and nod at little quirks that we just accept about each other?
Or are they happy that he can see?
Thankfully, Ben has told me that we don’t often get people staring at us, unless he is walking me into tables and chairs (something he has struggled with since we started dating). There are no noticeably pitying looks, or no outward looks of admiration…
But it is not uncommon for me (and others with sighted partners) to hear comments about how great it is that their mate is there to “take care of them.” Sure, he cooks a mean lasagna and picks up groceries, but I do laundry and clean the bathroom; if that’s taking care of me, then my contributions to our household are obviously considered “lesser” than his. Often times (though this is not unique to my husband), staff at stores or restaurants will ask what “she” would like. Few things annoy me (and him) more, so often times I will assert myself, or he will direct whoever to speak to me directly. Ben says he often gets questions about how I can read, what I do for work, or if I have a dog – questions that are par for the course when people meet or hear about a blind person. What is incredibly disconcerting is that it is assumed that Ben is my friend, and my blind guy friends are my FRIENDS (my emphasis). It has never been said in Ben’s presence so far as I know, but I have gone for coffee or worked out with blind male friends, and it is assumed that they are the giver of the ring on my finger.
My friend Meagan is engaged to Gregg, who is also blind. I have known them for quite a while now, and find them cute. Not CUTE (“Oh, the little blindie couple!”) but cute (two people who care about each other and still make each other smile despite distance, time and any difficulties that come their way). She says people do think they are adorable in the blind-couple sense, but are alternately upset that Meagan and Gregg (Meagan in particular) don’t have someone to take care of them. It’s a double-edged sword, contingent on the idea that a blind person needs someone to watch over them; it is not a matter of finding someone to love, who happens to be blind (or sighted, in my case). My friend Alicia agrees, going one step further: “First time someone learns I was dating, especially if the curious person was a parent or family member, that was the first question out of their mouths. I used to get angry and ask them why that was their first question, now I just answer it and move on. Usually their second is, what caused his blindness,” she says.
Conversely, I do know other blind people who are resistent to the idea of dating someone sighted, and seem to carry a resentment for those of us who have. On one hand, it appears that blind people with sighted partners enjoy a certain elevated status; on the other, it is assumed that we think we’re too good to “stick with our own kind.”
This conundrum is not unique to the blind, however, though according to one friend we are the only ones who get frustrated by questions about the vision status of our partners. She is deaf-blind, and says “in Deaf or Deafblind culture, it’s very normal to ask. And expected that partner is Deaf or DB. Blind seem to get mad if asked.” She is in a relationship with someone who is deaf; they can both communicate with sign. She says that 90% of “culturally deaf” (people who are either deaf themselves or have a familial connection to deafness, like a child of deaf parents) are in a relationship with others in the same community. I found an interview that seems to bear this out, with a woman named Michele Westfall who has chosen to fully embrace deaf culture with her husband and children. On the other side, Kristen is married to a hearing man, and she says she thinks it is expected that he takes care of her. There is a possibility that any children they have will be born deaf, or they may be born hearing; either way, she hopes to teach them about the value of sign language and the unique nuances in the deaf community.
Ultimately, it puts both deaf and blind in an impossible situation. We are either being taken care of by our sighted/hearing spouse or are too limited or insular to be bothered even trying to break away from the blind/deaf cocoons (real or imagined) that are placed around us by ourselves, our families, or society. Our sighted/hearing mates are treated as heroes for giving up their lives to take care of us or are thought of as lesser beings for dating or marrying someone who isn’t “normal”. If we happen to find a partner with whom we have deafness or blindness in common, there is always the niggling thought that we are perceived to be unable to do any better, so we intermarry out of a desire not to be alone rather than a deep love for one another. More than anything, this thought scares Meagan the most.
The next time you encounter me and Ben walking through a shopping mall, or hear Meagan and Gregg perform in a restaurant, or see Michele Westfall and her husband and family signing while at a sports game, or listen to Kristen and her husband talk over a cup of coffee, just remember that we are all just like you and your partner. Our joys, sorrows, inside jokes and petty grievances are no different from your own. In any healthy relationship, there is care-taking, and some insulation from the outside world; whether one’s partner can see, hear or walk, we all just want to be treated as though being loved is the greatest thing in the world… which, after all, it is!
CORRECTION: Michele Westfall is not married at this time, and was kind enough to correct me for my mistaken perception. In any event, my opinion still stands that a deaf couple still deserves the same happiness, respect and autonomy as a hearing one. 🙂