Before I begin the meat of my post today, I’d like to stress a few things: one is that I understand that not everyone knows how to behave around people with disabilities, so they do whatever they can think of at the time. The second is that generally, people mean well, even if they do things that make me angry or hurt my feelings. Third, despite the somewhat ranty nature of the following, I accept that not everyone gets it right the first time. I’m here to help you get it right in the future. Of course, “getting it right” is subject to my views; other blind people may have opposite opinions. Try and read this with an open mind, and understand that while I feel strongly about this matter, the last thing I mean to do is offend.
I literally cannot count the times I’ve gone into a restaurant, store, or other public place, and been treated more or less like a child. If I’m with a friend, for instance, servers will sometimes ask what “she’d like to order”, as if either I can’t decide for myself, or I can’t hear the conversation at all. Other times, people will talk about me at great length, sometimes when I’m just a few feet away; it’s as if they believe that deafness (or at least lack of awareness) inevitably accompanies blindness. This is, of course, true in some cases, but my ears are in excellent working order, and I hear everything going on around me most of the time. Just recently, I went into a Starbucks with some friends, only to find that the group at the next table were having a loud conversation about how nice it is that people help “the poor blind people of the world”. I chose to laugh the whole thing off, but it bothered me. Why do people insist on talking about me when I’m right there, just because I can’t see them? Do they think I’m deaf, or do they honestly fail to consider that I might overhear (and care about) what they’re saying?
The thing is, I’m a human being—a highly functional one who can hear and understand things. The other common mistake people make is assuming that, while I may be able to hear them, I won’t understand. I have had many people talk to me in excessively loud voices, speaking slowly and clearly as though to one who barely speaks English. Worse still, some people will speak to me in a high-pitched, sickly sweet voice, as though addressing a child. A few years ago, I went into a salon to get my hair cut. The hairdresser, who couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than I was, said “What can I do for you today, sweetie?” in a singsong, overly motherly tone. This would have been okay if she talked to every customer this way, but I soon discovered that she only spoke this way to me. It was infuriating. I have seen people do this to blind people who are much older than them, and I simply don’t get it.
Then there are those who try to speak for me. I’ll go somewhere with them, and when I’m asked what I’d like, they answer for me right away, as if I can’t do it for myself. This is often done by family members who used to do it when I was very young, but who haven’t grown out of the habit over the years. It’s easy, I suppose, to do this without thinking, but it’s really not necessary. You wouldn’t speak for any other nineteen-year-old, so why speak for me? I have command of the English language, and I certainly have the autonomy to decide things for myself.
Don’t believe me? Try watching an elderly person with a walker sometime. They’ll be patronized; they’ll be called “sweetie” by people half their age; they’ll be spoken to in slow, singsong tones; they won’t be taken seriously, or they’ll be treated like children. They’re just old, and they have a walker. This does not automatically transform them into someone completely subhuman (or inhuman). Unless they have some form of serious dementia or similar condition, speak to them as the capable adults that they are.
I can both hear and understand what’s being said to and about me. I am an adult who is capable of speaking for myself, making my own decisions, and having normal conversations with people. There is no need to speak for me, or to speak to me like a child (or worse, act like I’m not even there). While I realize that most of this is entirely unintentional, I want people to realize how it feels, and understand why they should try not to speak this way. It’s patronizing, and even hurtful at times. I’m used to it, so I tend to let it roll off me, but it saddens me that I even have to. There are enough barriers, real or perceived, separating blind people from the “rest of the world”. There is no need to add another one. People with physical disabilities are still people, and they ought to be treated as such.