After about ten years of interacting with the “blind community”, I’ve discovered that, like most other minority groups, people expect us to represent each other. You know what I’m talking about—“Excuse me, but what do blind people think of…how do blind people manage…what is the blind community’s opinion on…” and so on—and I’ve found that this leads to a disturbing conclusion: people think we’re all the same. We’re always lumping marginalized groups into categories; “women do X” and “black kids do Y” and “deaf people think Z”. So, yes, there are certainly some areas of commonality within these groups. I don’t deny that. The danger is when we (and I’m not exempt here, not by a long shot) expect one member of a group to represent everyone in that group. No woman alive is able to speak authoritatively about “all women”, and no blind person alive is able to speak authoritatively on “all blind people”.
This has led to ideas like “you need to be an ambassador for the blind”; in other words, you need to be the best blind person you can be at all times, in all circumstances, so that people will get the right idea about blind people in general. This means that I, personally, am responsible for people’s opinions on every blind person out there. That, my friends, is a mighty tall order—especially when you consider that no one can agree on what a “good blind person” might be. That said, Chris Swank has taken a satirical crack at it here.
You might be thinking. “So, uh, why should I care?”
The reason you should care is the reason I’m writing this blog: people need to understand that blindness, while being common, is a different experience for all who deal with it. No two blind people will have the exact same coping skills, or management techniques, or observations. Certainly the blind friends I have gotten to know over the years can identify with me on many levels, but not one of them is exactly like me. Not one of them has experienced every single thing I have. Not one of them has the authority to speak for me, and I have no more authority to speak for them. If I’m a clumsy cane traveler, this does not mean every blind person is a clumsy cane traveler. If I can’t cook to save my life, this does not mean no blind person can cook. (In fact, I know quite a few who are brilliant at it. I’m looking at you, CrazyMusician.) If I’m a little rude to someone one morning because they’re offering help I don’t want, or asking intrusive questions, or otherwise getting on my nerves, I might be perceived as ungrateful; this does not mean, however, that all blind people are ungrateful and rude.
This can be a problem for sighted and blind alike; sighted people expect us to be able to answer questions on behalf of all blind people, and the blind expect other blind people to represent them fairly. I am no exception: while reading this fascinating article about a blind mother’s struggles to adapt to her failing vision, my first reaction was irritation, because she didn’t “represent” me accurately. I remember thinking, “She’s giving us a bad name. Not all of us avoid glassware because we’ll break it; not all of us bash into furniture in our own homes; Not all of us need to use adhesive dots on every appliance we own!”. Then, right after I thought these things, I realized how foolish and destructive this line of reasoning was. Why on Earth should she represent me? She isn’t me. She doesn’t even know me. All she knows is what works for her, what she has experienced, and what she needs to feel secure in her environment. Why do I, who know full well that “ambassadors for the blind” should not and do not exist, expect a stranger to accurately portray my personal experiences?
My good friend CrazyMusician points out that asking blind people to be ambassadors is a very heavy burden—one which she, personally, is unwilling to bear. “Perhaps I am more visible because of my cute black guide dog, and am therefore expected to be an ambassador,” she says. “Calling me an ambassador gives me more power than I actually have; I am no more an ambassador for the blind than I am of humankind.”. And, as Chris Swank very aptly points out, “People need to understand that blind people are individuals. It’s not up to each one of us to make sure every sighted person we meet has an accurate idea of what we’re all like.”. I understand that we live in a world where stereotyping and generalization run rampant. None of us are exempt from the habit of assuming everyone in a minority group is exactly the same. Sometimes, it’s tough to see past the cane (or the dog), and recognize that we’re all very different in crucial ways.
So, my sighted friends: the next time you have the urge to ask a blind person to speak for all blind people, stop, and instead ask them how they cope with things as an individual. As for my blind friends, don’t make my mistake: next time you feel the urge to accuse another blind person of “giving us a bad name”, stop, and realize that only you can give yourself a bad name. The myth of ambassadorship needs to disappear, and it needs to do so for all of us.