Writing For The Eye (When Yours Don’t Work)

As a university student, I am continually required to think about (or, more accurately, worry about) proper formatting. Beyond the simple process of following letter templates and adjusting fonts, I have to fiddle with things like tricky citations and nastily precise documentation requirements. My every piece of writing is micromanaged, right down to its one-inch margins, italicized journal titles, and perfectly-indented footnotes. This is a reality every student faces, especially if they do any academic writing. The various documentation styles required for scholarly writing are notorious for their complexity and constant (unnecessary) revisions. Time and time again, new editions of the style books are released, containing the latest “improvements” to the documentation style. Usually, they change one or two things and the rest remains exactly the same. While this does cut down on the learning and relearning a student has to do, it does make buying the new editions a wee bit frustrating, considering that they’re not exactly inexpensive. I have had some instructors who graciously gave me a pass when it came to specific aspects of document formatting I simply couldn’t do. For example, I was not always able to paginate properly, because my screen reader and Microsoft Word had a love hate relationship. I also have trouble spotting things like italics where they shouldn’t be, or improper indenting. Citations and bibliography writing literally take me hours, and I’m never sure I got it right. This can be a big deal when you consider that a few of my instructors knocked off several marks for every formatting error we made. Writing the essay is the easy part: I have to worry about my margins!

 

At least this is just for essay writing, yeah? I won’t have to worry about any of this in the workplace? … Come on now! I’d never be that lucky. Even in business writing, formatting and document design are essential. It seems that in every class I attend, I’m reminded once again that visual elements are as important, if not more so, as the words I write. My websites have to be visually appealing and skimmable. My documents must be consistently and precisely formatted, lest I distract the reader (and boy are they easy to distract). My power point presentations have to include multimedia, pretty pictures, and lots of lovely charts to make everybody care about them. Without these, I’m just going to be boring, unpersuasive, and ineffectual. And, as with fashion, there’s no handbook to guide me; it’s all about knowing what will please the eyes—the eyes I don’t use and don’t really understand.

 

This creates even bigger problems when you consider the types of positions opening up in my field. These days, employers don’t just want a writer or editor. They want a writer who can edit, take pictures, design web content, and make pretty posters to hang on the walls. They essentially want to combine three different roles into one efficient package, and of course I’ll never be able to do that for them. I can’t take pictures—at least, not well—and I can’t do much with images beyond simply placing them where I’m told to. I have wondered seriously about my career prospects if this disturbing trend continues. It’s a sobering thought, indeed.

 

I’ve never tried to deny that we live in a highly visual world. I know and respect this, which means I respect the fact that visual elements will always have the utmost importance in almost any field, communications included. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to adjust to. You see, screen readers (the software I use to navigate on my laptop) can only do so much. I have very little trouble checking that my font is the right colour, size, and style, because the software can describe this to me. I know how to make headings and tables. I can fiddle with paragraph style, and make lists, and even create power point presentations, though it’s a struggle. If you tell me exactly what to do, I can probably figure it out. Herein lies the problem, though: in the “real world”, people probably won’t be telling me what to do. They’ll be expecting me to design my own documents, using all those wonderful skills I picked up in university. Don’t get me wrong, I have as much intuition and creativity as the next person, but how am I supposed to understand on an intrinsic level what is visually appealing and what isn’t? I have never read print, so I have no idea what is “distracting”. I don’t have an innate understanding of why certain things look clean and appealing and why other things look cluttered and inelegant. Give me a braille document and I can critique it all day long. I also have my own opinions about web interfaces and document formatting, but they are only relevant to people using screen readers. I can create excellent content, but to hear some of my instructors talk, I could be writing Shakespearian quotes for all it matters. The visual elements have to be present, and they have to be superb.

 

I’ve definitely had my share of formatting mishaps, most of which I can laugh about because they’re years behind me. In high school, I once sent my teacher an essay that had somehow been written in several different colours. He thanked me for the “rainbow”. I tried to claim I meant to do that, but I don’t think he believed me. On the plus side, the colourful fonts probably helped to offset my research on charming gentlemen like Hitler and Stalin. If you’re going to read about vicious dictators, at least read about them in rainbow colours, right?

 

Another memorable assignment I’d done had been meticulously formatted, right down to the beautiful footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography. It was my first attempt at Chicago style, in my first year of university, and oh my, was I ever proud of it. When I got it back, it had been given an A. One little problem, though: the professor asked whether I’d meant to centre the entire essay, by any chance? Apparently, it was just a tad hard to read that way. Some people really are hard to please, eh?

 

Luckily for blind writers everywhere, times are changing. More and more applications are becoming accessible with screen readers, and the readers themselves have features that help us edit our own work. Still, automated editing features will never replace the human eye and the fundamental intuition that comes with it. I’ll just have to hope that my content is enough to rise above the glaring lack of pretty pictures. I do hope you will all continue to read my ramblings, even in the absence of eye-catching graphics. My heart might just break otherwise…

The Inside Doesn’t Count Unless the Outside is Beautiful

You would have to be quite reclusive (or, perhaps, very lucky) not to have heard of body image as it relates to self-esteem. We’ve all heard the endless platitudes: looks don’t matter, it’s what’s inside that counts, etc. Books, television shows, and even the odd pop song routinely remind us that “inner beauty” is infinitely more meaningful than anything on the outside. And yet…

Pretending that looks don’t matter at all is akin to burying your head in the sand; it’s as unrealistic as the relentless beauty standards thrust upon us by popular media. Women are targeted more often, but more and more, men are falling prey to the same rhetoric: while women are coached to be thin, sexy, and perfect at all times from all angles, men are expected to bulk up and maintain an image of hypermasculinity. As we all should know by now, this standard can only be upheld by a very few people, raising the bar impossibly high for the rest of us.

Even if you’re not pressured to be stick thin, you’ve probably been pressured to look “put together” at all times. Not a hair out of place, perfectly applied makeup, (what do you mean you don’t wear makeup?), and of course the ideal outfit. Looking your best is more than being presentable, clean, and well-groomed; it’s about looking perfect while making it seem effortless. It’s not effortless, of course…and that’s the point.

If you’re feeling edgy, you can branch out; just make sure it’s not too edgy, am I right? You don’t want to stand out for being weird, do you? Being different is only good if it inspires others to adopt your ways. Otherwise, you’re just weird. And not in a fun, cool way.

So, let’s entertain for a moment the blissful fairy tale we’ve been fed: looks don’t matter. As long as you’re smart, funny, and kind, the world will open up for you, promise! Work hard, be yourself, and everything will work itself out. Then…then you enter the real world, and what do you find? You find that a whole host of people have been kidding themselves. You find clothing stores that will only hire employees with a certain look. Abercrombie & Fitch, in particular, was criticized for hiring muscular men and paying them extra to pose shirtless with besotted young women. Other stores have been caught requiring their employees to wear a prescribed amount of makeup and “good” clothes (whatever that even means); God forbid they dare to put on a little weight. A restaurant in Toronto got into trouble because the hiring manager was given strict instructions to only hire thin, busty women with pretty faces; after all, a pretty face sells anything, right? And just in case you think these are all aberrations, there is a website out there with a job recruitment section dedicated solely to “beautiful” candidates.

While it is true that good-looking people are actually discriminated against in fields such as engineering and construction, it is only the women, and only then because good-looking women are presumed to be a bit on the dull side. Most of the time, however, employers will put their attractive workers on display where customers can appreciate their gorgeousness while they shop for jeans or eat their fish and chips. Even though science does not consistently back the claim that attractiveness lures consumers in, employers continue to live by this golden rule. Yes, the practice is illegal, and yes, it is problematic on so many levels, and yes, people still do it. Perhaps you’ve heard of the oft-quoted formula of advertising? It goes thus: “youth = beauty = popularity = happiness”. This ideology has crept into everyday life to the point where we now live in a world where “the ugly need not apply”. Young adolescents have been found to engage in risky and harmful behaviour on the quest to be attractive.

I have personally witnessed sighted people make sweeping judgments about those they’ve never even spoken to—judgments I’d have to know the person to be able to make with any accuracy. “Fat” people, for example, are often assumed to be lazy and lacking in self-control and/or self-respect. I’d have to watch someone in action for quite a while before being able to make such a judgment. This is not to say that blind people are incapable of fat shaming, but my personal experience has shown me that most blind people are far more accepting of them than are sighted people. How on earth does being overweight automatically and irrevocably brand a person in that way? Where is the logic in that? How about the girl not wearing makeup? Is she really clueless, or could it be that she thinks she looks okay without it? Could it be that she dislikes the way makeup feels on her skin? Could it be that she is allergic to most cosmetics? Could it possibly be that it’s none of anyone’s damn business but hers?

Even if you’re lucky enough to be powerful and well-respected, you are always a bad plastic surgery away from scorn and shame. Just look at what people have done to poor Renée Zellweger. She had a choice: either allow herself to age naturally, (a big nono in Hollywood) or “age gracefully”, a euphemism for getting work done. So, she got work done. And the backlash was terrifying, to say the least. Even influential celebrities aren’t immune. Being physically unappealing can ruin your career, get you ousted from your peer group, and even prevent you from being hired. Still think the outside doesn’t count?

You may be thinking that you’ve heard all this before and wondering why I’m blogging about this on a platform dealing with blindness issues. I’ll help you: imagine, for a moment, that you have never seen your own reflection. You have no idea what you “look like”, exactly. You know your weight, and body shape, and how your skin feels etc. … but you have no idea how you might appear to the eye. Maybe people have described you, but that doesn’t really cut it. Now imagine that you have never seen anyone else, and have only your other senses to tell you whether someone is physically attractive or not. Sure, you can find people attractive based on physical attributes, but your understanding of physical beauty is limited. Next, imagine that you have no concept of colour coordination; You don’t know which colours go together on more than an intellectual level (and you only know what you do because someone told you), and you certainly don’t know how they could ever clash. It all seems very arbitrary to you, and all you can do is hope you can keep the facts straight. Finally, imagine that the “facts” change constantly; one day, you’re allowed to zip a sweater all the way to your chin, and the next you’re not, because that looks dorky. One day, you wear a skirt low on your hips, the next you’re told you have to wear it high on your waist. One day, the dress you love looks fantastic; the next, it’s way, way out of style and can’t possibly be worn out in public ever ever again. And by the way? Those hundred-dollar shoes? Yeah, they only go with that pair of leggings, which only goes with that skirt, which only goes with that tank top and that sweater and that scarf. Still with me?

What is more, you may only have your sighted friends or family, ridiculously condescending books written by sighted people, and maybe a few fashion blogs to guide your way, so unless you’re one of the lucky ones who manages to pick out tasteful clothing without even trying, you’re in a sticky situation. Because guess what? You could show the same outfit to five different people, and they could all disagree on whether it looks okay or not. Beyond how something feels, you can’t accurately judge whether you like the “look” of something, so your only choices are to either give into the whimsical world of fashion, or wear whatever the hell you want and hope to get by that way. No matter what you do, it’s tricky.

The blind are already chronically unemployed, severely marginalized both socially and politically, and disadvantaged in just about every arena of life. Sure, we make it work, and there are groups a lot worse off than we are, but living in a visual world that places such stock in physical appearance is daunting even when you can see and understand it. Imagine my frustration, then, when I am forced to conform to the seemingly illogical whims of a population I can’t understand, using standards I can neither perceive nor appreciate. Despite the constant assertions that I don’t have to be pretty, or that I’m fine the way I am, the world keeps negating this over, and over, and over. What if I go to a job interview with an “inappropriate” outfit and don’t even know it? What if someone rejects me socially because they haven’t stopped staring at my cane long enough to look at my face? What if I’m immediately dismissed romantically because I’m not wearing loads of makeup and dressed to kill? What if…what if I lived in a world where people cared more about my intelligence than my breast size? What if I lived in a world where people put more stock in my credibility than in my fashion sense? What if—call me a dreamer if you like—I lived in a world where the laws governing attractiveness were fluid enough that I could actually (gasp!) be myself? And, while I’m dreaming, what if I lived in a world where being a good person was higher on the priority list than being pretty? What if? …

In the end, though, I don’t live in that world; none of us do. What, then, is to be done?

I promised before sitting down to write this that I would not end it on a bleak, nihilistic note. If I offer up a problem, I will also provide solutions, at least as best I can. Make no mistake: I respect the fact that being clean and presentable is important. There’s a difference between agonizing over fashion and striving to be respectable-looking. A blind person who goes to a job interview in soiled, ripped jeans and an old t-shirt (inside out, perhaps?) deserves to be treated as someone who doesn’t respect the venue enough to at least try to dress properly. A blind woman who goes to work in a conservative office wearing a skirt so short and tight she can hardly walk is also showing flagrant disrespect for her work environment. But can’t there be a middle ground? Why, for example, are black jeans so much more acceptable than blue ones? Why is one skirt okay, and another not? Is it absolutely necessary that I wear three layered tops in order to pass this test we all take each day? Do I have to be sexy to get attention? Do I have to be beautiful to earn respect? Do I have to be “put together” on the outside for people to think I’m put together on the inside? Is the outside really as reflective as we like to claim? I’m thinking … maybe not.

So how do I deal with all this? Well, I worry a lot. Ask Gregg, and he’ll tell you of my ongoing struggle with body image. I worry about that extra pound I might have gained because my jeans are a bit tighter than usual today. I get stressed because I worry that I won’t be taken as seriously because being blind is bad enough, but being blind and only average-looking? Fiasco! Despite this, I do my best. I go shopping with people I trust to pick out practical yet reasonably fashionable clothing I can easily figure out how to coordinate. I occasionally pick something for myself if I really, really fall in love with it. I focus, for the most part, on being clean, well-groomed, and respectable; the rest, I hope, takes care of itself. In short, I make it work, just like every other person out there, blind or sighted. All I can say is, I hope that one day, people will admit that the inside doesn’t count. Once we accept that, we can start making it count.

10 Ways To Be a Good blind Person, Part II

As I mentioned last week, the “rules” governing the conduct of blind people are a tangled mass of contrary ideas, making it impossible to get it right. I’ve essentially given up trying, but I still feel it important to illustrate the end of the spectrum I did not cover last week. It is the end I like to call “dependence, abnormality, and extreme expression”. While last week’s rules focused on blending in, emulating the sighted, and feeling subpar, this side of the spectrum focuses on playing up the blindness to levels I consider unhealthy and absurd. While this set of rules is likely observed by far less people than last week’s set, they are doubly significant because they are, if possible, even more damaging than the others. It’s time to call these out for the ridiculous, self-defeating falsehoods that they are.

 

 

  1. A good blind person understands that disability automatically and permanently bars one from competing in this sighted world in any meaningful way. Any attempts to be competitive should be restricted to the Blind Community, for it is only there that one can hope to stand out in a way that matters. If sighted people try to draw a blind person into the wider world, they should be strongly discouraged.
  2. Blindness is an inextricable part of one’s identity, and should be treated as such. Those wishing to suppress their true selves by avoiding blindisms (EG: rocking, head bobbing, hand flapping etc.) are guilty of trying to fit a hopelessly square peg into a round hole. Blindness is all of what we are, and striving to seem normal is both futile and disloyal to oneself and the Community.
  3. A good blind person acknowledges that disability invariably breeds dependence on others. Asking for help—even when one could help oneself—is inadvisable. Because we are so disadvantaged, we should accept that our lives were meant to be made easier by are more capable sighted counterparts. Blind people who devote themselves to becoming more independent than is natural are merely in denial, and will eventually realize that disabled means dependent, no matter who you are. After all: what kind of logic would permit a person to do something for themselves, often with undue hardship, when it can be done for them?
  4. A good blind person will immerse him or herself fully and completely into the Blind Community, especially where blindness-related technology, education, social networking, and other such pursuits are concerned. Championing causes aligned with greater independence, especially in the work force, are unnecessary. There is no point in wasting one’s energy trying to make this world easier for us to live in. It is much wiser to accept the altered (and cloistered) life that blindness affords us.
  5. A good blind person blossoms when surrounded by the unique solidarity, comfort, and support only fellow blind people can offer. Trying to fit in with sighted friends, coworkers, (assuming one bothers to work), and love interests is a disaster waiting to happen. We only fit in with those who are like us, and the sighted should only be interacted with when absolutely necessary. Only with fellow blind people can we truly be ourselves, and being true to what one is is the golden rule. Blind people professing to be at ease with sighted people will be dismissed as arrogant; it is likely that such people have delusions of grandeur in any case.
  6. A good blind person will live a life that adequately displays his or her self-love and self-acceptance. It is perfectly acceptable, therefore, to live off government assistance, avoid working at all costs (no one would hire us anyway), and spend the bulk of one’s time browsing social networks for the blind or associating with blind friends. Longing for a normal life is silly and unproductive; one should instead enjoy what the disabled world has to offer. So go ahead: name your cane; write long and detailed social networking posts about your guide dog (preferably from the dog’s point of view); put “blind” into your every username or alias; wear your mismatched, faded clothing with pride, and don’t be afraid to spin in a circle with your arms in the air; don’t let anyone, sighted or blind, advise you on what looks “normal”, even if your observers’ opinions might matter. Of course, one should be prepared to demonstrate the proper level of indignation should people marginalize a blind person when they behave this way. There is a certain glory in abnormality; learn to embrace it.
  7. Following the above, a good blind person is always totally content with is or her lot. Anyone lamenting the fact that they cannot see for any reason (even for matters of practicality) can only be unable or unwilling to accept his or her true identity. If one seeks a cure, one is turning away from the Community that would otherwise have nurtured and protected them from all outside forces. Being blind is wonderful in its way, and if one is not specifically proud of themselves in the concept of one’s blindness, serious issues will arise. Persistently indulging in such thoughts will result in an outright betrayal of oneself and of one’s Community.
  8. A good blind person should treat the sighted population as the strangers that they are. They are not like us, no matter how much we may want them to be. They are even inferior in some ways—with their groping about in the dark, their constant reliance upon their fallible vision, and their insistence upon worrying about silly things like physical appearance and blending into the landscape. It is perfectly acceptable to mock them with epithets like “sightie” or “sightling”. Sighing over their peculiarities and failings is encouraged. While they are convenient to have around, they are not our peers. Do not ever think otherwise.
  9. A blind person must accept that true competence is beyond them. One does not have to cook, clean, or keep house for oneself. One is not under any obligation to work, or play a productive role in the wider society. All that matters is that one is an active and useful member of the Blind community. Escaping into the sighted world and trying to carve out an existence there is a most grievous offense.
  10. A good blind person remembers that we live in a sighted world, but that there is a separate Community to which we all belong. All that is outside this Community is frightening, hostile, and cold. We will never find happiness or success there. Because we have been severely disadvantaged and are destined to lead diminished lives, we must remember that society owes us the luxury of getting more out of life than we put into it. Even if we mostly dismiss the sighted world at large, we should still recall that accessibility is our right, inclusion our privilege, and admiration our due. Disability sets us apart, and that we must respect; we are not like them, and they are not like us.

10 Ways To Be a Good Blind Person, Part I

Many of the blind people I know have an unspoken code of conduct, consisting of their opinions about how a typical blind person should behave. Most of us don’t expect anyone else to follow them, but we hold ourselves to these standards, determined by nothing more than personal preference. Even so, for as long as I’ve interacted with other blind people, various rules have been passed along to me, determining how a “good” blind person should behave. Besides the fact that it is restrictive and judgmental to try to tell another individual how to live his or her life, these rules are often a mass of contradictions, making it impossible for me to figure out how I’m supposed to reconcile so many conflicting views. To illustrate how ridiculous this can sometimes get, I have written out 10 “commandments” of sorts, which I’ve taken from one of the more extreme ends of the spectrum. You might call this the “independence, normality, and suppression” end of the spectrum. They are quite extreme, but make no mistake: people out there really do believe this stuff, and look down on those who don’t. Next week, I’ll give you 10 more (and completely contradictory) rules from the “dependence, abnormality, and major expression” end of the spectrum. Placing these posts side by side should demonstrate how utterly impossible it is to please the blind community at large. It all comes down to that time-honoured piece of advice: when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. I hope these make you laugh, but I hope they make you think, too; just remember, while you’re giggling over these silly commandments, there are people out there right now trying with all their might to follow them.
1. A good blind person should always be mindful that, first and foremost, life is a competition. Regardless of circumstance, the exemplary blind person will strive to be equal to or better than every other blind person they know. Should another blind person point out that it’s okay to find certain things difficult and that we’re all friends here, be sure to gently remind them that they shouldn’t go giving us all a bad name. We are all ambassadors, and must therefore take responsibility for impression management on behalf of the entire blind population.
2. A good blind person must attempt to be as normal as possible as often as possible. This begins with the relatively simple task of eliminating blindisms (i.e. any behaviour associated with blindness but not typical of the general sighted population), and should culminate in seeming as sighted as one can without actually being able to see. This will mean dressing, acting, speaking, and thinking in normal, generally accepted ways. For example, anyone found to be using “blind” in their internet usernames shall be considered deviant and will be encouraged to change their online handles to something more “sighted”. While one should accept that passing for sighted will never be achieved, one should still expend enormous amounts of time and energy trying. Should a fellow blind person deviate from the general standard of normative behaviour in any way, be sure to express the appropriate amount of scorn, lest they draw attention to their differences and make us all look abnormal.
3. A good blind person shall remain as independent as humanly possible. He/she shall seek to be an island at all times; asking for help is frowned upon, and attempting to be at peace with one’s disability in any sense is strictly prohibited. If one is forced to accept help under dire circumstances, one must display the proper level of embarrassment and despair. Despite the natural human need for interdependence, good blind people will rise above this weakness, showing the world that they don’t need anyone at any time for any reason.
4. A good blind person will be as active as possible in any blindness-related cause, campaign, community, etc. If one is not actively involved in as many blindness-related causes as are available, one shall be considered a detriment to the betterment of one’s own future and the future of others. Exceptions only apply where the cause, campaign, or community encourages dependence and/or self-acceptance. Outright disinterest in the blind Community at large will not be tolerated.
5. That said, a good blind person will take care not to become too close to other blind people beyond the level that is necessary to further the advancement of the blind in general. One shall make as many sighted friends as possible; one shall choose a sighted mate; one shall socialize with sighted groups whenever the opportunity arises. Associating with other blind people strictly for pleasure or support is frowned upon. Anyone actively inclined to surround themselves with other blind people will be considered an embarrassment to the Community as a whole. Sticking to one’s own kind is an affront to the Community’s efforts to assimilate itself into the world at large.
6. A good blind person will take on as many normal pursuits as possible. A good blind person is involved in several clubs, has tons of friends (preferably sighted ones), has a bursting social calendar, at least one college or university degree, a steady (ideally impressive and difficult) career, and of course the requisite marriage and children. Any blind person who finds contentment in a less than hectic lifestyle shall be considered unambitious and will therefore be a stain on the entire blind Community.
7. A good blind person should be unhappy with his/her lot at all times, forever wishing to be sighted, normal, and therefore on par with other humans. Any attempt to accept oneself as one is will be met with disgust and, if the attitude persists, outright exclusion from the Community. If any type of cure (or even a hint at a cure) should become available, one should jump at the chance to try it, and loudly dismiss those who are more hesitant, or who may be content with their current state of being. If necessary, a good blind person will point out that such people are a tragic drain on the system and ought to be purged from this world.
8. A good blind person should worship the sighted with due reverence and respect. They are, after all, our superiors, and ought to be treated as such at all times. One should forever strive to be exactly like them, so much so that any disability all but disappears. If one cannot emulate a sighted person perfectly, one should simply not leave the house ever again, lest they risk inconveniencing the sighted. Any sighted person trying to deny his or her superiority should be dissuaded.
9. A blind person must be perfectly competent in all that he/she does. This competence must be independent of one’s skills, talents, abilities, and knowledge. Regardless of one’s strengths and weaknesses, one must be an excellent cook, an immaculate housekeeper, a highly successful employee/employer, and an exceptional spouse/parent. Good blind people understand that they should hold themselves to a higher standard than do sighted people, meaning that they must settle for nothing less than perfection in every area of their lives.
10. A good blind person remembers that we live in a sighted world, and will, therefore, accept that they have no rights or privileges beyond what the benevolent sighted choose to allow them. Any request or demand for accessibility, if denied, should be immediately retracted with all grace. After all, the sighted world owes us nothing; we merely rent space here, and do not deserve to expect equal treatment, even when that treatment is guaranteed under law. In these cases, we must do what we do best: keep quiet.

Exhibit A: On Getting Past The Novelty Stage

It’s natural to be fascinated by someone new. Our brains love novelty; new things and people tend to seem more interesting and attractive by default. So it’s no surprise that many of my most cherished friendships were founded upon at least a little novelty. People are always curious about the blindness thing: they have questions, concerns, etc. While it’s not the most ideal way to make friends, I don’t mind too much. I might do the same if I made a friend who was deaf, or in a wheelchair; I have no doubt that I would have plenty of questions to ask, and wouldn’t always be successful in curbing my insatiable curiosity. All normal, all healthy, all good. But… (and there’s always a but)…

 

…there are some friendships (and I use the term loosely here) that seem to thrive upon the sheer novelty of disability. People really get into the whole sighted guide adventure. They love coming up with new questions to ask me long after I’ve answered all the usual ones. They want to help me with absolutely everything, just to see how “it all works”. This becomes a little off-putting after awhile, because I’m left wondering whether they’d be my friend at all if not for the blindness. Is that my only selling point? Is that what they’re into? Because if it is, then where exactly does that leave me? What if I eventually lose my intrigue? Will they go off and find some new disability to coo over?

 

I was once invited out for coffee by one of my instructors. I assumed we’d spend the time chatting about the course; I’d done quite well, and had more than a passing interest in it. Instead, it turned out to be an hour’s worth of Q and A. To his credit, once he figured out that there was more to me than spokesperson for all the blindies of the world, our conversations became far more interesting. Still, it was a rather disappointing experience.

 

There are even people who stick around after the novelty wears off because associating with me gives them the warm fuzzies. They think that helping me is the nicest, most Mother Teresa-like thing they could possibly do, and it reassures them that they are good people. (FYI, studies suggest that Mother Teresa was actually a little bit nuts, so maybe find a different role model.) I always appreciate magnanimity, but there’s such a thing as too damn much. People make me into a walking, talking source of validation, if you will. Beyond my need for help, I’m worth very little to them, even if they don’t consciously realize it. The more independent I am, (and I’d like to think I’m reasonably independent as people go), the less I matter to them. If I don’t need something, we don’t see each other, period. My value lies only in what they can do for me; beyond that, I’m not worth their time and energy, because they’re either out with more interesting friends, or busy saving other lost little souls. Invariably, the friendship ends when they become bored, and they move along to the next one. And there is always a next one.

 

Needless to say, I consider this type of friendship highly undesirable. I am fortunate in that I have had this happen to me only a very few times, but each time, it has hurt deeply. I befriend people because I like them; it’s as simple as that. To know that others befriend me because I’m some fascinating superfreak, or because I can help them feel good about themselves, is insulting, damaging, and depressing as all get-out. Friendship is supposed to be grounded in healthy, mutual interest and respect; I don’t want to be someone’s charity case or pet social experiment. I’m not a novelty object, and I’m not a living breathing pity party. If you want to be my friend, please do so because I make you laugh, or because you enjoy my company, or because I make delicious cookies (and I do), or because you think I’m a genuinely interesting person (you know, beyond the eye stuff). Don’t befriend me because you think it’s the “right” thing to do, or because you think you might be able to write a book about the experience later. You certainly shouldn’t befriend me solely because you want to blog about it; Blogging about my broken eyes is my job, damn it! PSA: Blogging/writing about me will not make you much money unless you’re good at embellishment; I’m not that interesting, just as a heads up.

 

In all seriousness, let me be a bit of a broken record and restate what I’ve been saying all along in these posts: disability in no way negates humanity. Treat us like people, not like objects, or circus freaks, or exhibits. We don’t exist for your personal validation. We love it when you help us, and if you are good friends to us we will adore you forever. Even if you’re not really friends with us, but you’re a naturally helpful person, we will still think you’re awesome. Just make sure that the friendship has a lot more to it than that, because on our end, it will be about way, way more than what you can do for us. If that does not prove true for you, find another friend, because no one deserves to be a walking support system.

 

For anyone who fears that a friendship is edging towards the danger zone, here are a few tips to nudge it back towards a healthier direction. I’ve used these for my own friendships, and I find them to be very effective.

 

Analyze the reasons you hang out with each other. If you find that the majority of your hangout time is devoted to helping your disabled friend, you may want to kill that pattern as quickly as you can. Feel free to be helpful to them, but ensure that you’re socializing with them just for the fun of it more often than not. The last thing you want (and probably the last thing your disabled friend wants), is a friendship built mostly upon your ability to be helpful.

 

Let your friend be of assistance to you in whatever ways they can. Everyone has something to offer; find out what your friend can help you with, so that you can break a potential cycle of mild parasitism. I’m not suggesting that you attempt to make your friend feel useful; I’m merely suggesting that you allow them to do for you what you do for them as a matter of course. Friendships in which one friend is of exponentially greater value to the other are destined for disaster, and can be enormously unfulfilling for both parties. Don’t assume that your disabled friend has nothing to bring to the table. I’ve been known to edit my friends’ essays, play counselor when they have profound issues they need to talk through, and make jokes when they’re sad. (You’ll have to check with them on the efficacy of that last, though.) It can’t be denied that I give fabulous hugs, as well, so there’s that. See? I’m positively brimming with perks!

 

Resist bringing disability into every conversation. It’s okay to be open about it, and if it comes up, then it comes up. However, there is such a thing as making it into something bigger than it needs to be. It shouldn’t be an integral part of everything you discuss, and it shouldn’t be the centre of attention at all times. Chances are, your friend is sick to death of talking about it anyway, and would love to chat about almost anything else. I admit that it can be cathartic to vent about my disability to friends sometimes, but it’s definitely not something I’d want to do every day. As an experiment, try spending a whole day with your friend without mentioning it beyond what necessity might dictate. If it’s hard to find things to talk about, you know you’re in trouble. On the flip side, if you catch yourself completely forgetting that your friend has a disability at all, pat yourself on the back: you’re doing just fine.

 

When introducing your friend to others, don’t dwell on the disability; make sure you mention cool stuff about them, like what they’re really good at, or what they’re interested in. Establish common ground, so that the focus can shift away from the novelty of their existence and toward things they might actually want to be known for. If you set the tone, others will follow your lead.

 

Assess your friend’s attitude towards their disability, particularly in the ways that affect your relationship with them. If you find that they are focused only on what you can help them with, not to mention how utterly tragic their lot is, it’s time to say your farewells. As I mentioned earlier, no one deserves to be regarded as little more than a source of help and comfort. Don’t let yourself be used, no matter how guilty you might feel. The majority of us would never do that to you, so don’t let the few of us who would get away with it.

 

Finally, reassure your friend that you appreciate them for more than their disability. I have actually caught myself making blind jokes because I felt like that was all the other person wanted to hear. I even found myself going out of my way to discuss it, because it was guaranteed to peek their interest in a way that nothing else could. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I felt almost self-exploitative, and was ashamed of both myself and the state of the friendship. Never let things get as bad as that, if you can help it. Even if it feels a bit awkward, make sure they know that you value them for themselves most of all. It may seem obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to them. For all you know, they’ve been spending hours trying to think of a delicate way to bring it up. I know I have..