Small Injustices

Last summer, while I was riding the bus home from work, an older man with a walker boarded the bus, explained to the exceptionally grumpy driver that he had vision and hearing problems, and asked to have his stop announced. He wanted to be dropped off on 152nd street, I believe. When my stop on 149th street came along, I rose to leave, but was blocked by the man with the walker.
“Is this my stop, driver?” he asked in strongly accented English.
“What?” the driver demanded, sounding irritated.
“My stop? Is this 152nd street?”
“No, this is 149th street. Now move, this lady needs to pass by.”
“But…but I need to get off on 152nd…”
“Look,” the driver snapped, in quite possibly the most discourteous tone I’ve ever heard a bus driver use with anyone, “I announced your stop and you didn’t get off, so it’s your problem, not mine. Now get out of this lady’s way, it’s her stop!”. I was about to interject—I knew for a fact the stop had not been announced at all—but I seemed to be frozen in place. I was shocked at the driver’s rudeness, upset on behalf of this poor, confused passenger, and thus unable to do much other than stand there and gape. I’ve always had great respect for bus drivers, and didn’t feel quite prepared to begin questioning his authority on his own bus. As it turned out, my passivity was a mistake.
“I did not hear you announce it; I told you I have hearing problems. Could you guide me across the street, so I can catch a different bus?”
“No, I can’t, now move!”
“How long will it be till we are at Westmount station?”
“Not for another hour.”
“I can’t wait that long…what should I do…”
“Look, just. Sit. Down. I don’t really care what you do, as long as you stop holding us up. . You’ll just have to wait until we get back to the station; you can figure out your own way from there. Now, get the hell out of this lady’s way.”
The man sat back down with a forlorn sigh, and I moved slowly towards the door of the bus. My head was full of possibilities: should I call the man a cab? Should I offer to guide him across the street myself? No, bad idea. What if I messed up and got us both lost? The blind leading the blind isn’t always the best option, even though I did know the area quite well. So what on earth could I do? And, more importantly, did I dare?

Apparently not. Even if I’d dared to speak out, I was so choked with tears that I couldn’t have said much anyhow. I knew and understood that the driver couldn’t do much to help, but did he have to be so heartless? . I remember standing on the corner, waiting to cross, tears continuing to pour down my cheeks. I’d never felt so helpless, ashamed, and angry all at once. I was angry with the world, for having such harshness in it. I was angry with the bus driver, who’d handled the entire situation so roughly. Most of all, though, I was angry with myself. True, I could have done little more than give the driver the rough side of my tongue, but surely anything would have been better than standing by and watching it all happen right under my nose?

I remain frustrated with my utter powerlessness against small injustices which too often go unnoticed. I am, of course, especially hurt by those injustices which I myself could easily face in place of another. Watching someone with vision problems, among others, being treated so shabbily is beyond description. As separate as we often are from each other, many of the blind people I know feel a small measure of protective solidarity with each other, especially when mistreatment is involved. Watching someone being mistreated the way I have been, (and will be), is painful beyond words.

Sadly, I hear stories like this all the time. Stories like these are not the aberrations we’d like them to be. They are common, widespread, and indiscriminate. Most of the time, I only hear about them after they’ve happened (if I hear about them at all) and am forced to nurse my rage and frustration in silence and impotence. If you have any type of noticeable disability, it’s not if you will be mistreated, but when and how and by whom. Even if your disability is a result of normal aging, you’re very likely to face this kind of treatment at some point, no matter how lucky you are.

People commonly believe—whether they know it or not—that disability is a state of complete otherness. Those who don’t have noticeable disabilities tend to think that they are both separate from and invulnerable to disability of any meaningful sort. Unfortunately, none of us are invulnerable. Many of us have latent disabilities (like chronic pain, or mental illness, for example), and a few of us, like myself, have more noticeable disabilities. This noticeability encourages the idea that disability is some kind of obscure shroud that drapes itself around certain people, (never you, of course). That bus driver was probably thinking of the time he was losing because of that disabled gentleman, but perhaps he should also have been thinking of how he might be when he reaches that passenger’s advanced age. I hope that that bus driver is treated with more kindness than he has given; if he isn’t, it will be a harsh road for him.

When you see these small injustices, (and you will see them), I urge you not to choose the path of least resistance like I did. Do what you can to help, even if it doesn’t seem like you can do much at all. If you don’t do it for me, or for anyone else, at least do it for yourself: you, too, may become disabled someday. Last year, it was an anonymous old man. Today, it’s me. Tomorrow, it could be you. So if altruism isn’t enough, (and it’s okay if it isn’t), fight these small injustices, in the hope that someday, someone will be willing to fight for you.

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The Delicate Art of “Blind Jokes”

We’re all guilty of making the odd insensitive joke, even when we know better. Most of the time, this is perfectly harmless, and the subject of the joke may even join in with relish. I’m one of these people: in general, I’m happy to laugh at (and tell) blind jokes, especially when I know they’ll be well-received. I have unintentionally shocked many an unsuspecting sighted person with the many blind jokes I make. I have heard everything from “Don’t talk about yourself like that!” to “I thought you were serious!”. Last year, a professor asked if anyone had described a particular object to me, and I replied, “No. I live in darkness.”. I, (silly me), thought that it would be obvious that I was kidding around. Apparently, I was just a little too good at the straight-faced thing, and he took me seriously. He seemed shocked that I’d ever joke about myself this way, but I’ve always found the odd joke to be very healthy. After all, the best way to rob hardship of its power is to reduce it to something you can laugh at. It’s how I get through life, most of the time anyway. Sometimes, (like when I run headlong into a wall or nearly get killed crossing the street), it’s a choice between laughing and crying. I’d rather laugh.

 

As with all good things, though, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about making blind jokes—at least if you’re dealing with me. Again, other blind people may not echo my views, so please keep that in mind. Today, I’d like to talk about the types of jokes I consider acceptable, and the ones I consider potentially harmful (with explanations, of course). This is a rough guide, so keep an open mind and a light heart as you read through this post.

 

The practical joke: I’m really, really not a fan of these. I suppose there are some that are relatively harmless, but I haven’t yet found one I found truly funny. These can range from the benign (stealing a plate of food out from under my nose), to the moderately irritating (disguising one’s voice to make me think you’re someone else—it never works, by the way), to the downright dangerous (warning me of obstacles that aren’t really there). Some say that intention is everything, and I subscribe to this when dealing with inappropriate practical jokes. I realize that many of these jokes were meant in fun, with no malice at all behind them. The line between bullying and joking around isn’t all that fine. Still, as I said, few to none of these jokes are really funny, and many of them are potentially dangerous. Think, for example, of what would happen if someone stole my cane and ran off with it: I’d be stuck without the tool which allows me to travel independently and safely, with no real way to get it back without chasing, which is in itself dangerous. Also consider how I feel when people try to disguise their voices to trick me: as I mentioned, this never works, and it’s more irritating than anything else. Amazingly enough, being told to watch out for a hole or tree that isn’t there isn’t what I consider a good laugh. In short, I’d advise against practical jokes, unless you are certain that the blind person you’re dealing with is okay with them. There is a big difference between tolerating them and enjoying them; pay attention to that difference.

 

Wordplay: This usually takes the form of, say, “blind stupidity”, or “See what I did there?” or “Did you *watch* that movie last night?”. These are silly, but not really harmful unless they’re being made constantly. I don’t often make them, (unless I’m deliberately trying to make people groan), but I don’t mind it when they’re made about me. They’re not very effective, but they’re definitely tolerable. Just watch (ha ha) that you don’t use them too often; anyone would get tired of that after a while.

 

Personal barbs: If ever there was a landmine in the world of blind jokes, this would be it. These jokes are usually tailored to the type of person who is their subject. Say, for example, that there is a blind person out there who has a lot of trouble with cooking on the stove; the heat frightens them, and they’re really insecure about it. Joking about this insecurity, especially if you aren’t all that close to this person, might be dangerous at best and downright mean at worst. Chances are that blind person is acutely aware of, and unhappy with, their inability to use a stove properly, so joking about it may only hurt them. Messing with a person’s confidence—sighted or blind—is always risky and seldom funny. If you’re going to make jokes like that, be damn sure that the subject is comfortable with it.

 

So, to sum up, be kind, and be careful when joking around. Jokes are meant to be enjoyable for everyone, not just the one telling them, so as I’ve said in previous posts, always act with respect. Get to know the blind person you’re joking with, and pay attention to their comfort level. Most of us are happy to set you straight if you’re open to that, but it’s always easier to learn first and tell jokes later, rather than extracting your foot from your mouth and apologizing. I’m a lighthearted person with a wicked sense of humour. There is very little that I don’t take well. Don’t feel like you have to tread on eggshells. Just be nice, and you should be fine.

Guest Post: Building Bridges

Today, we’re very lucky to have a guest post by Gregg Chambers. As he’ll explain below, he is covering the very thorny issue of mutual understanding. As blind people, we understand that we’ll never know what it is to be sighted. That said, we must also acknowledge that sighted people (even if they close their eyes and bumble around for a bit bashing into things) will never understand what it is to be blind. As I’ve mentioned, this is a profound and thorny issue, and so Gregg brings you his take on the matter (with far more eloquence than I could). I promised I wouldn’t try to speak for all blind people, and I won’t; however, I’m more than happy to let others speak for themselves, and am proud to give them the venue in which to do it. So without further ado, here’s Gregg.

 

 

We often say that “everyone is different”, and what we usually mean is that difference is not something to be feared or persecuted. Misunderstanding is probably the single largest gulf we need to cross, if we can, and in that light I’d like to offer some insights that might help us narrow the gaps in our understanding of one another.

 

The very first thing I want to do is to clear up one particular misconception. These bridges, as it were, rarely cover their intended distance entirely. There is always a little space across which you must leap or, more often, be carried.

 

Misconception 1: The blind and the sighted can understand one another’s worlds completely if they try hard enough

 

No, they can’t. They can try very very hard, and it will never form a complete picture. We must rely on others to carry us across the gaps we cannot bridge on our own.

 

Having been born without my sense of sight, I will never fully understand what it is like to see unless there comes a time where that sense is somehow given to me. If I listen to what people tell me instead of hearing what I expect to hear, if I absorb information and do my best not to make assumptions, I can learn a great deal, but full understanding will forever be beyond my grasp. If you are reading this with a pair of functioning eyes, then you are in the reverse position. You will never know in full detail what it is like to live in a world without light, without shadow, without colour. You will never know on a gut level what it means not to view almost all of your environment visually. All of this is completely okay, because no two people share precisely the same view of the world. Problems arise only when one person presumes to know more about someone else’s situation, either deliberately or without realizing it.

 

Sight is a very resource-heavy sense. If you have it, then most of your experience contains visual elements. If you don’t have it, then you are largely ignorant of those elements. Restoring someone’s sense of sight after they had been blind since birth would be a traumatic, bewildering experience. Robbing a person of their vision would be devastating in its own right. Such drastic changes lead quite naturally to most people pondering how they would cope if they suddenly found themselves blind and, owing to how much they depend on sight, these thoughts usually tend toward how difficult everything would suddenly become. This makes sense, and no one should be blamed for being afraid of a world they do not know and do not yet understand.

 

Misconception 2: All blind people are struggling mightily just to perform everyday tasks

 

No, we aren’t. While many of us do have trouble with certain aspects of daily life, most of us figure things out rather quickly. We do it because we have to, and mostly we don’t even think about it.

 

While blindness might seem foreign and scary to you, it is nothing more than another facet of life for us. We might be anxious in certain situations, particularly if we’ve never encountered them before, but we are not afraid of being blind, any more than you are afraid of having sight. No matter how daunting the prospect of sightlessness is for you, it is very important that you not assume that we view the world the same way. You must remember that for us, blindness is normal, and not frightening at all. Accepting that we can perceive the same thing from different angles is the first step in the right direction.

 

Misconception 3: Being blind would make life virtually unlivable

 

No, it really doesn’t. Life can be annoying, frustrating, exhausting and sometimes nerve-wracking, but most blind people lead full and happy lives.

 

If you are a sighted person who is terrified by the idea of going blind, and you continue to insist that all blind people must be living a nightmare existence, you are letting your fear trump our experience. Let us show you that our world isn’t as bad as it looks, and while we may never be able to convince you that sightlessness isn’t scary, we may be able to show you how we get along from day to day. If you can’t do this, then whether you intend it or not, you will continue to quietly assert that your view of blindness matters most, and doing so has potentially awful consequences.

 

Misconception 4: These fears and assumptions can’t hurt anyone

 

Yes, they can. They can and they do. Just because they aren’t hurting you doesn’t mean they aren’t harming someone else.

 

Blind people are largely very normal. We wish to be needed, to be loved, to be respected, to carve out our own little niche in life and to be happy there. We don’t wish to be made into something we’re not. As soon as you start behaving in a way that limits or glorifies what a blind person does because they can’t see (barring the more obvious things like stopping a blind child from trying to drive a car, for instance), you’re putting your opinion of blindness above everything else, including the person in question. We’re generally perceptive enough to catch this when it happens, and it hurts. It can make us think that someone’s view of us is polarized by something we can’t help or change. It can also cause us to wonder just how much we’re being perceived as people rather than as inconveniences, necessities and complications. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: let us tell you and show you what we can and can’t do.

 

Misconception 5: Blindness is hard, so it’s amazing when blind people do common tasks

 

No, it’s not. Some blind people have done some pretty incredible things, but by and large, the things we do are pretty unremarkable. We eat, dress, shop, go to school, go to work, travel abroad, maintain social lives, make love and raise families just like the rest of the world.

 

While most everyone likes honest praise for a hard job well done or a little encouragement when things are tough, we probably won’t react favourably if you make a habit of blowing our everyday accomplishments out of proportion and giving us praise we neither want nor deserve. Some of us find it condescending, because there is an assumption buried in every bit of unmerited praise: “I couldn’t have done this, so if I couldn’t do it, then you must have had a hard time.. What’s worse is that this sort of behaviour isn’t present when dealing only with sighted people, so the focus is clearly on the sighted person’s perception of blindness as an unbreakable obstacle rather than on the abilities of the specific blind person. We can’t represent ourselves if you force your opinion of blindness to represent us.

 

Misconception 6: Blindness is hard, so I should give blind people a break wherever possible

 

No, you shouldn’t. We largely don’t want a free lunch, and we’re often just as capable of helping out as anyone else. Let us prove it.

 

If, instead of giving too much praise, you want to make our lives easier by letting us dodge things that you presume will be too much effort or will present too much danger, please bear in mind one thing. Although it is wisest to understand someone’s abilities before setting them a task, you will never know the limitations of blindness as well as a blind person. If you know that your blind friend can cook, and if you know that he can get around his neighbourhood pretty well, then not expecting him to bring food to a family reunion on account of his blindness, particularly if others were expected to do so and if he had asked if he should pitch in, would be an insult. Don’t give us busywork or try to puff us up with a false sense of accomplishment either; instead, try and ignore the blindness outright for a moment and then reconsider the scenario. If a blind person knows they are capable, offers to help and is turned down for no other reason than that someone else believes their blindness will make things too difficult, it can foster feelings of worthlessness and, in some, can compound the issue by making the blind person in question stop trying to offer help. What’s the point in offering to assist if you’re always going to be turned down, after all?

 

If the way I’ve displayed these misconceptions strikes you as obvious to the point of offense, I apologize. They may appear this way because the thoughts which drive them are so simple and direct that they often go unrecognized. I believe that when the above situations do occur, they happen mostly without consideration, and that’s most of the reason I decided to write this post. If I can get one person to stop and think before deferring a task, if I can get one person to ask instead of assuming, then I can safely say that I’ve done something worthwhile.

 

Every one of us has something to learn. There are no exceptions. If all of us can remember this one thing, above all others, then we should be able to bridge the empty spaces in our comprehension of one another. If that happens, the pain caused by ignorance and intolerance will recede, replaced by the curiosity and eagerness of an open mind.

 

The FAQ From Hell: Questions I Hate To Be Asked

I have long encouraged questions; I’m happy to answer most of them if they’re asked with respect and courtesy. I like to educate people—especially when they’re genuinely curious—so if you have questions about *my* blindness (remember, I don’t speak for others), feel free to ask.

That said, sometimes people fail to observe the “respect and courtesy” rule, and while I tend to overlook this, I think this is a good opportunity to talk about some of the questions I wish people wouldn’t ask. Unlike the many similar articles available online, I’m seeking to explain in detail why these questions are objectionable, and offer advice on how to ask better questions in future. Again, these are my opinions and observations; they may not apply to other blind people. So without further waffling, here we go!

Q: Where’s your dog? You should have a dog!
A: I don’t have a dog. Guide dogs, while common, are not essential for independent travel. I prefer cane travel, and don’t find myself *needing* a dog. They are very useful, yes, but I simply don’t want or need one at the moment.
Why I hate this question: This is a legitimate enough question, I suppose, but I find it presumptuous. Unless you are extremely knowledgeable about both cane and guide dog travel (and if you are, you won’t be asking, I imagine), you can’t really know whether or not I should have a dog. I understand that some people simply don’t realize that the white cane is a viable option, but I find it a bit discourteous to assume that you know more about my travel needs than I do. Feel free to ask me why I prefer the cane, if you’d like, but please don’t automatically assume that I need a dog. Methods of travel vary from person to person. This question is equivalent to asking a fellow sighted person, “Where’s your car? You should have a car!” while they walk past you on the street.
A better question: “Why do you prefer the cane over a dog?”

Q: Where’s your caretaker? Shouldn’t someone be helping you?
A: I don’t have a caretaker. If I need help with something specific, I ask friends, family members, customer service agents, etc. to help. Occasionally, I do seek help from strangers when I’m in a real bind, of course. For daily functioning, though, I neither need nor want a caretaker of any sort.
Why I hate this question: Maybe I shouldn’t, but I find this question exceedingly condescending. Again, I understand that not everyone is fully aware of how functional blind people can be, but if you see me walking along, not looking lost and getting along just fine, please don’t assume that I need some kind of watchdog (pun intended)  to help me with everything. Asking whether I need help is fine, but asking me where my caretaker is can seem quite rude, especially if you’re a complete stranger.
A better question: Do you need help with anything?

Q: Do you know who I am? … Come on, guess!
A: If I did, I’d have greeted you by name the moment I recognized your voice. Furthermore, if I don’t know who you are, why on earth would you make me guess? Just tell me!
Why I hate this question: I might be crazy, but my blood boils every time I’m asked this. I find it so unnecessary, and it makes the entire situation much more awkward than it needs to be. It can be embarrassing for anyone, sighted or blind, when they can’t remember someone they feel they ought to. For me, it’s even tougher because remembering a face is sometimes easier than remembering a voice, especially if I haven’t heard yours in several years. When I have admitted that I don’t know who you are, the worst thing you can possibly do is ask me to guess. It’s counterproductive, and will only make me even more uncomfortable. If you’re unsure whether I remember you or not, simply introduce yourself immediately; if I remember you, it won’t matter, and if I don’t, it’ll give me something to work with.
A better question: Do you recognize me? I’m (insert name).

Q: Can you work?
A: Of course! I may not be employed at this very moment, and finding a job is certainly harder for me than it is for the average person, but I can definitely work.
Why I hate this question: Again, this can come across as very condescending. It implies that I may not be capable of doing a job—any job at all—and is a fairly personal question besides. If you want to ask “So, what do you do?” in the same way you’d ask any other person, go right ahead. This is open-ended, and far less intrusive. But would you dream of going up to a random sighted stranger and asking whether they’re capable of useful work?
A better question: “What do you do?”

Q: How do you dress yourself? Groom yourself? Feed yourself? Manage sexual intercourse?
A: Excuse me?
Why I hate this question: All of these (except, perhaps, the last one) are legitimate enough assuming you know me pretty well and can find a polite way to ask them. If you don’t know me, though, you have absolutely no business asking me (or anyone!) about such personal matters.  I assure you that I’ve been asked all of these questions—yes, even the one about sex—and generally those asking were total strangers. At best, you’ll come off sounding very, very rude, and at worst, you’ll seem exceptionally creepy. If you want to find out sensitive information about blind people in general, do some googling, or get to know me quite well first. Otherwise, treat me as you would any other stranger, and respect my personal privacy.
A better question: Are there any daily tasks you have trouble with, and are you comfortable sharing that information?

As I say, asking questions is healthy and encouraged. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. As you seek your answers, though, keep respect in mind: I’m just like you, so treat me the way you’d want to be treated and we’ll get along just fine!
Credit: Thanks to CrazyMusician for providing insight about question 4.