Over the years I have heard now and again that I need to be the best blind person I can be, if for no other reason than I may be the first (if not only) blind person your average Joe or Jane might encounter. Some might say that it is my job to educate others about blindness, humanity, and living life by answering questions or providing demonstrations of my skills or assistive technology on the fly, no matter what kind of day I’ve had or what my plans are. While I do agree that politeness and courtesy go a long way, I personally think I should have the right to enjoy a cup of coffee without being approached and asked a thousand questions about how blind people cope with life, for two very important reasons:
1) I am NOT all blind people. My marital status, education, employment, life circumstances, hopes, dreams, and fears are entirely my own. Just because I have an overwhelming fear of ladders doesn’t mean the next blind chick shares that fear; just because my blind friend that I am hoping to meet for coffee attends university doesn’t mean that further schooling is my goal.
2) You wouldn’t routinely approach an able-bodied stranger at a Tim Hortons and start asking questions, would you? If so, then we’ll talk…
Last year, I contributed to my friend Meagan’s blog post on this very topic, waxing partially eloquent about how that ambassadorship role is just too unrealistic and heavy. Expecting me to be an ambassador for the blind is like expecting one woman to represent them all, or one police officer, doctor, or parent. We all know where that gets us: nowhere!
Sure, I’ve asked REALLY stupid questions of friends who use wheelchairs, are deaf, or live with chronic debilitating medical conditions. These are people I have met either online or in person, and we’ve struck up a conversation, generally about normal everyday things (politics, sports, work), and not random strangers who cross my path. I DO find the random approaches at bus stops or in coffee shops quite disconcerting, because it seems that all person X is interested in is the fact that my eyes don’t work. After whatever conversation we have, right or wrong, that person will take away what blind people are “really” like.
Perhaps the perception of me as a blind woman being an ambassador comes because I, with my cute black lab guide dog, am much more visible than a woman of similar age fitting my general physical discription. A “normal” Millennial having a rough day in a shopping mall doesn’t generally get six offers of assistance in as many paces, but I do, simply because the perception is that because I am blind, I require assistance. I can politely decline said offers of assistance and still be viewed as stubborn and ungrateful; I can be forceful about declining such offers and still be considered stubborn and ungrateful; or I can accept the assistance (whether I need it or not) and feed into a perception that blind people are helpless and always need sighted help. What is the common denominator? Someone else’s perception. People will view me however they choose to. No matter what I do, someone somewhere will form an opinion of me, right or wrong. A comparable sighted millennial will be perceived by the public for having tangled messy hair or ill-fitting jeans, but no one bats an eye at those perceptions either. Why should we as blind people be immune from perception? It’s just human nature; we aren’t so special to avoid it. All I can do is live my life the best way I know how, accept or decline a myriad of offers of assistance as needed and smile and nod about people who only view me as non-working eyeballs with a cute dog.