Take Off the Blindfold

When I was a child, my peers would sometimes make half-hearted attempts to understand what it’s like to be blind. They’d cover their eyes and stagger around a bit, or they’d borrow my cane and wave it carelessly from side to side, effectively clearing a path of about a half mile radius. It was cute, and always done with kindness, so I never bothered to inform them that mucking about with a stick for two minutes wouldn’t offer them the insight they were looking for. Others tried putting on those silly glasses you can get that are intended to demonstrate different visual impairments (one lens is foggy, the other very blurry, etc.). Again, wearing these goofy things for five minutes was not going to show anyone what blindness is like; all it could do was cause them to trip a few times and, worst of all, pity me even more than they already had. After a few attempts, people would usually conclude that blindness must really, really suck (in some ways they’re not wrong) and go back to exclaiming over how unimaginable it is for them. I was okay with that.

Some people don’t outgrow this notion, though, and pursue more serious (though equally fruitless) endeavors on the quest to understand blindness. People will blindfold themselves for a day or two, trying to accomplish everyday tasks by touch—usually neglecting their other senses in the process, of course. Others would play with the screen reader on my phone, since the iPhone has the capacity to activate a “screen curtain”. With this feature active, it’s impossible to see the screen, and the user must rely on Voiceover, the phone’s screen reader, to operate pretty much everything. The purpose of such a feature is increased privacy for blind users, who can’t defend themselves from prying eyes. Naturally, blind and sighted alike thought it would be interesting to use this feature to illustrate what blindly operating a phone would be like. This bizarre idea was dubbed the “screen curtain challenge” … and it made me crazy.

First of all, it’s ludicrous to believe that closing your eyes or blindfolding yourself for a day (or even a week) would give you more than a glimpse into what my life is like. If you have always been able to see, then you won’t have any of the skills or instincts I’ve picked up over twenty years of being without sight. Your brain does not know how to use sound to find doorways, touch to distinguish brailled letters on a page, or smell to navigate a cafeteria. Your senses pick up the same things mine do, but your brain doesn’t know how to attend to all that information. You are so accustomed to leaning on your sight for everything (not a criticism—it’s how you’re wired), that the subtle nuances I rely upon for everyday travel will be utterly lost on you.

Second, even if you could momentarily experience what it’s like to travel as a blind person (or indeed navigate a phone like a blind person), nothing but years of experience will enlighten you as to the nature of the psychological and sociocultural background of someone who has either been blind from birth (as in my case) or lost his or her sight. I won’t go so far as to claim that it’s a different world; my aim is to build bridges between blind and sighted, not isolate us further. I will say, though, that the emotional, mental, and physical experiences we accept as part of our daily lives will be totally unfamiliar to someone who has always been able to see. This is probably true of just about any disability, though I haven’t the authority to say for sure.

By encouraging ideas like the “screen curtain challenge”, we are shortchanging both blind and sighted people. Blind people, because the sighted expect that they know how we feel after a few hours of blindfolding themselves. Sighted people, because they cannot possibly be expected to figure out things like screen readers in just a day or two. After all, blind people had to learn to use their ears, and fingers, and noses; we weren’t born with a handbook in our brains. We had to figure all this stuff out, and sometimes it takes a lot of dedication to master certain skills. So how can we expect sighted people to get an accurate picture of what our lives are like if they don’t have the same advantages (or disadvantages) that we have?

If you want to understand us, talk to us. Ask us questions. Try to see (ha ha) things from our perspective, all the while accepting that you’ll never get a comprehensive picture. Until technology develops to the point where we can experience each other’s thoughts and memories, let the curtain stay where it is, take off your blindfold, and for God’s sake put that cane away before you put someone’s eye out!
P.S. Thank you for trying so hard. We know you mean well, and most of us want to understand you, too. Let’s talk.

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Go Ahead, Laugh!

People can become very twitchy about humour in relation to disability. Laughing at any aspect of it can seem a transgression of the gravest sort. How could anyone with a conscience make fun of the poor little blind girl, right? Barbaric!

Contrary to this belief, I find humour inexpressibly helpful; indeed, sometimes I’m not sure how I’d survive without it. There are many situations in my life that seem to demand tears. When I can’t (or won’t) cry, I can always laugh. Laughing can defend me from the scorn of others; it can shelter me from the humiliation of what has just happened; it can strengthen me in the face of whatever it is I’ve messed up this time; and it can encourage others to laugh the hard stuff off, as well.

Take a simple blunder like this one: during a camping trip many years ago, I was visiting with my sister, a friend of hers (a stranger to me), and a cousin. All evening, my cousin had occupied the same chair. I usually pay attention to where people choose to sit, as it makes it easier to interact with them with a modicum of social grace. Believe me, I need all the grace I can find. Unfortunately, this system isn’t infallible, as I was soon to discover. Assuming that my cousin was still seated where she’d been all night, I went up to her from behind and hugged her, crooning “I loooove you!” for good measure. Without missing a beat, my sister’s friend replied “Aww! I love you too, Meagan!”. I wasn’t about to cry…so I laughed. This wonderful person had the grace to laugh with me.

Social slips like that one are sometimes enough to make a rather shy girl like me recoil in horror, retreating into a ball of humiliation until everyone else has long forgotten the incident. I have, however, learned to use humour as a tool to handle embarrassment with confidence—something that is essential when trying to put others at ease. If you’re planning to pursue a career in communications and public relations, as I am, networking is an unavoidable component of the field. I learned early that if I pretended I was comfortable with my “blindness mistakes”, others would become comfortable with them as well. Getting them to giggle with me over them is even better, so I aim for a laugh almost every time. Of course, if the slip is tiny, it’s sometimes better just to let it rest; chances are whomever I was with didn’t even notice it anyway. No need to draw more attention to myself than I already do. And you know what they say about faking it till you make it…that really works. Since using humour as an instrument of social bonding, I’ve become much more at ease in my own skin, even in the most terrifying of public situations.

I’d like to address something far more important, though, and perhaps far less well-known to people in general. From a very early age, I have acknowledged the benefits of a little gallows humour when things go horribly, horribly wrong. While blindness doesn’t often put me into devastating situations akin to, say, terminal illness, it certainly tests my patience and fortitude at times. I’ve talked about getting hopelessly lost, being denied essential opportunities, and struggling with a minor identity crisis. All these things would have been so much harder to bear had I been unable to laugh at them. Even some of the small stuff—submitting essays with messy fonts, groping strangers on the bus, and tripping that poor guy on crutches (more on that later) seem a little worse than they actually are while they’re happening.

Reactions range from admiration to outright horror when I make light of serious issues surrounding my disability. It’s as though people think I’m degrading myself by laughing at it, even though it’s my issue to laugh at if I please. “Don’t talk about yourself that way!” they exclaim, leaping onto soap boxes that have appeared from thin air. I always respond the same way: “I need to laugh. If I don’t, I’ll cry, and nobody wants to see that.”. While there’s nothing wrong with venting frustration or sorrow in whatever way suits, I generally prefer a good belly laugh to a storm of tears. Besides, I’m far less attractive with a red nose and puffy eyes and, as we all know, unattractiveness is a tragedy!

It is true that the suffering experienced by those with disabilities is no laughing matter in general. It is not to be taken lightly and should be treated with some solemnity and respect. With this in mind, it is perfectly acceptable for both the sufferers and those closest to them to find a little humour in a bad situation, especially if the alternative is to wallow in despair. I realize that this might seem like clichéd advice, but it’s advice that few people actually seem to take. Maybe it feels like crossing an invisible line, over which you might be considered callous or unfeeling. But they don’t keep doling out this advice for nothing. It really works; this pronouncement comes from a veritable flood of experience. I’ve been in just about every hopeless situation a blind person can find themselves in, and humour has helped me out of nearly all of them.

We’ve all heard the wry, brave humour of the desperately ill, bereaved, and endangered. Their ability to laugh at themselves and their various predicaments isn’t just something to be admired; it is something to be imitated. Even if you don’t feel in the least strong, laughing at your problems will make them seem more manageable, even if nothing has changed. Laughter, after all, means that you’ve gained some distance and perspective on the issue, and are able to find whatever silver lining there might be in it. It’s not just about putting on a brave face and displaying the appropriate heroics. It’s also about lightening your burdens as much as you can, and allowing others to lighten theirs as well. You can be sure that if you’re suffering, someone else is suffering with you. Do them a favour: make them laugh.

The Word Is Blind

“So, you’re blind—I’m sorry! I mean…visually impaired—I mean…uh…I’m not sure of the…terminology…”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life (and, yes, most of them were nice). Many of the labels people have placed on me because of my eyes are diplomatic but straightforward: visually impaired, low-vision, visually handicapped, physically handicapped, disabled, etc. These are all accurate, so I have no objection to them (though low-vision perpetuates the misconception that I see far better than I actually can). Of course, I’ve also been called—and heard others being called—more “politically sensitive” terms: differently abled (really?), differently seeing (uh, no…), special (gag me with a spoon, please), and handicapable (I wish I was kidding).

We are currently surrounded by an environment that demands political correctness and unbiased language. Normally, I’m one of the most enthusiastic supporters of bias-free language, because I understand the power of the words we use. Even when we aren’t conscious of it, the words we choose to use carry plenty of potential impact. Language really does matter. In that light, I understand and support society’s efforts to attach meaningful, accurate labels to minorities, particularly labels free of derogatory associations. If I were conducting a business meeting and someone referred to me as a “blink”, I’d be rather offended: that’s not how you treat someone, especially in a professional setting, unless you know them well and have an intimate knowledge of their personal preferences. I would no more call a disabled stranger by a derogatory name—lighthearted as I may feel at the time—than I’d call my lesbian best friend a dyke. Personally, I don’t consider it a polite (or even wise) endeavor, no matter how good my intentions are.

But, as always, there’s another side to this coin. There is such a thing as tiptoeing to such a degree as to invite ridicule, and it is my opinion that some of the terms listed above are just begging to be mocked. I mean, come on—“handicapable”? That sounds like a bad joke, not a “politically sensitive” label to use in official settings. It sounds, in fact, like someone’s terrible idea of a catchy hashtag. Please, leave that condescending nonsense on Twitter where it belongs. Other terms, while being less deserving of derision, commit the grave sin of being totally inaccurate and misleading. Take “differently seeing”, for example: I don’t “see” differently than other human beings. True, I tend to use my other senses more often than sighted people, but as I’ve previously explained, those senses are exactly the same as yours. They’re not heightened or supercharged in any way; I simply know how to use them, and have little choice but to rely on them. Seeing differently would necessitate extra organs (or perhaps extra brain function) and I can assure you that I definitely don’t have any mutated eyes or visual cortices lurking around. I’d tell you if I did—imagine the money I could make from the media buzz alone! (And, no, I am not giving you permission to come and investigate for yourself.) It’s also worth mentioning that I despise platitudes like “you can see with your heart”. I understand the kindness behind such pronouncements, I really do, but we all know it’s gooey, sentimental rhetoric, right?

In general, I believe in calling a spade a spade. Dancing around the simple facts with labels meant to encourage respect and sensitivity does more to annoy me than set me at ease. It’s impossible to keep up with the terminology that is en vogue on any given week. For the longest time, it was my impression that “visually impaired” was considered the acceptable term for official documents and workplace discourse, as determined by the CNIB. When I was working for them a couple of years ago, however, I quickly discovered that I was doing it wrong: the new term was “partially sighted”. Visually impaired, it seemed, was sooo last year. Who knew? I certainly didn’t…

I’m not sure what it is about blindness in particular that makes people so timid, but I’d love to relieve them all of that heavy burden. It’s okay to admit that someone is disabled—yes, disabled, not “differently abled”. Some people have stuff wrong with them, and that’s not a horrible thing. It’s not a sin to openly admit that someone else isn’t a perfect specimen of efficiency. Flaws don’t have to be scary, and disability doesn’t have to be taboo. Set aside your worries about sensitivity and correctness for a moment, and listen: my eyes don’t work. I cannot see. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that I am blind. Not “differently abled”, or “differently seeing”…just “blind”. If you want to get really technical, you can use “visually impaired” for people who have enough vision to read large print and use screen magnification. Otherwise, “blind” is perfectly acceptable, at least to me and the majority of blind people I know. If “blind” scares you, go with “visually impaired”; you’re very unlikely to upset anyone that way. I have met a very few people who were especially sensitive about semantics, but even they were all just fine with “visually impaired”.

It really irks me when people treat “blind” like a curse word—as though the last thing anyone would ever want to admit to being is blind. Believe it or not, I’m rather okay with the fact that my eyes don’t work, and thus I am okay with being called blind. It’s what I am. I’m no more uncomfortable with being referred to as “blind” than I am with being referred to as “female”, or “brunette”, or “human”. These are all natural parts of my being and while I’m not necessarily proud of my disability, I’m at peace with the fact that it exists and that there’s a word for it. So, rather than wasting your valuable time stumbling over the “correct” terminology, just call me “blind”, because that’s what I am. It’s not insulting, or insensitive, or ablest; it’s honest.

Of course, my favourite thing to be called is “Meagan”. I have a name, so please use it. If you know my name, there is no reason whatsoever to refer to me as “the blind girl”, or “the disabled girl”, or anything similar. Names are given for a reason; please do me the courtesy of using mine. After all, more than “blind”, I self-identify as “human”, just like you.

Author’s note: If you are reading this from somewhere other than Earth and do not, therefore, self-identify as human, please forgive the generalization. I wouldn’t want to use improper labeling!

Don’t Just Stand There: On the Disturbing Nature of “Rubbernecking”

This morning, I was reading an article about a legally blind woman who strayed off of a snow-filled sidewalk and into the street, just missing a guard rail that would have kept her on the correct path. She must have slipped and fallen, because she was seen on her hands and knees in the street while cars zoomed by, honking furiously. Evidently, people were taking the time to honk and curse with frustration—not to mention stare at her—but no one seemed to be interested in actually helping her. Finally, a city official noticed her, changed lanes, and offered her his help. I came away with a sour taste in my mouth: I am continually dismayed by people’s ability to gawk openly at someone in distress and fail to help them. Surely if you have time to stare at someone, you have time to help them!

I recognize that if a situation is horrifying or confusing enough, people might not know how to react and will therefore remain frozen with indecision and/or shock. This article, by itself, might be dismissed on the grounds that we weren’t there and we can’t know exactly what people were thinking when they passed this poor woman by. But…

I find it harder and harder to dismiss stories like this, because they crop up often enough to suggest a pattern. As I’ve mentioned before, people are prepared to treat me like a spectacle, but not often willing to actually help me in any way. This proves true for many disabled people of all types; people see us, but they don’t necessarily interact with us the way they would with anyone else. It’s almost like the oft-quoted “it’s like a train wreck…I can’t look away” scenario with a slightly twisted edge. How can otherwise perfectly decent human beings be aware that a person is in need and refuse to lift a finger?

It’s a complicated issue—one which my family and friends have occasionally discussed with me. They claim that, since knowing me, they are far more willing to offer help to disabled strangers, and far less able to stand by and watch those strangers struggle. Indeed, an old acquaintance once told me of a young blind woman struggling to navigate an unfamiliar restaurant. She was having difficulty locating a seat, and was becoming visibly upset. According to this acquaintance of mine, several men in business attire were sitting around watching her, some of them actually daring to laugh a little at her confusion. He was astonished that they’d have the gall to notice her predicament enough to find humour in it, and still refuse to ask her if she needed any help. It reminded him, he said, of cruel children on a playground. Unable to stand by and watch, he rushed over to assist her. He later confessed that knowing and caring about me probably spurred his desire to get involved, and heightened his sense of justice.

The more we see this twisted style of rubbernecking, the more it becomes normalized and, by extension, tolerable. Whether you are disabled or not, you’ve likely been in situations where you could have used some help but were completely ignored by those around you, even though they could all see your plight. I have always asserted that having a disability gifted me with a strong sense of compassion, and I find it heart-rending to bear witness to another’s need without at least considering stepping forward.

Don’t misunderstand me: this does not give a person license to approach any and all disabled people and immediately begin forcefully thrusting help upon them, whether it’s wanted or unwanted. It does mean, though, that we could all be a little better about offering that assistance, and being willing to give it if it’s solicited. This goes for disabled and able alike, by the way. We’re all human, after all, and most of us will require a stranger’s kindness at some point in our lives. That paying it forward thing? Yeah, that’s pretty cool, even if you never get it back.

I understand the helpless, frozen feeling associated with witnessing someone else in danger or need; I’ve even written about a time where I allowed this sensation to paralyze me completely. In my mind, though, there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to help but not being sure how, and sniggering with derision as you gawk away. C’mon, guys; we can do better. I have seen over and over that we are capable of great kindness. Let’s see more of that, okay?

Leaving On a Jet Plane…

Flying is scary for anyone. Even if the thought of relying on complete strangers to ferry you through the sky doesn’t make you a little nervous (I can say it’s never bothered me), airports are intimidating enough for even the most seasoned travelers. Some airports are massive enough to have train systems and moving sidewalks. If you plan to fly internationally, you have to deal with customs and security and all the rest of it. Sighted people can see where they’re going and read detailed maps, but many of them still hate and fear the experience. Given the anxiety this process elicits in sighted people, flying on my own for the first time put a great many butterflies in my stomach…and I can assure you that they were not flying in formation.

I’m rather prone to ranting on this blog, but today I get to rave a little instead. I’ve flown independently several times now (my long-distance relationship forced me to get over my anxieties real quick) and each time has been a breeze. You see, if you have a disability that can make it difficult for you to navigate the airport, you can ask for assistance when you book your flight. Each time I flew, I was greeted by a security agent at the check-in desk, and led through security, then to my gate, then onto the plane before regular passengers boarded. I didn’t have to worry about finding the right gate, or getting onto the plane in time, or even finding my seat and stowing my luggage. Once I boarded the plane, the flight attendants showed me where the emergency exits and bathrooms were located. WestJet, in particular, is always quick to provide you with a brailled copy of the safety information so that you can be given the same information as everyone else. They even showed me where the call button was in case I needed anything during the flight. Because I am absurdly averse to inconveniencing people, I never used it, but at least I knew it was there.

When we landed, a flight attendant escorted me off the plane and handed me to an airport employee who helped me find my luggage and either book a shuttle home or wait for people at the arrivals gate. It was the easiest and most worry-free experience I could possibly have imagined. Travel is stressful enough without having to agonize over finding your way around an unfamiliar place where time is of the essence.

As with anything else, there are a few snags. Guide dog handlers often run into situations where there isn’t much room on the plane for the dog. Some airlines are unwilling to allow the dog onto the plane, even though they are required to do so by law. Still others will insist that blind passengers pay for an extra seat if they want to bring a guide dog along. Even if you’re a cane traveler, you can run into a few issues. More than once, I’ve been offered a wheelchair to carry me through the airport, despite the fact that my legs work just fine, thank you very much. Sometimes they do this because they’re not sure what would be best, but other times they offer this because they can’t be bothered trying to guide me. I have been lucky: I have declined the wheelchair each time and that has been honoured; some are told that they must use the wheelchair if they want assistance. Opinions will vary on this one, but I consider it just a wee bit degrading to be told I am not permitted to walk when I am perfectly capable of doing so.

One of the most disconcerting issues is when you get stuck with a customer service agent who wants very little to do with you. Last week, during a layover in Seattle, my fiancé and I (also blind) were guided by a woman who seemed intent upon getting us to our gate and getting rid of us as quickly as she could. Perhaps she was short on time, or just having a bad day, but her attitude was barely courteous. This stood in sharp contrast to the friendly and solicitous manner of most of the airport employees I have dealt with in the past. I am usually blown away by their sincere concern for my comfort. It’s a kindness rarely found and truly appreciated.

All things considered, air travel is a piece of cake compared to, say, bus travel. When describing the assistance I receive to sighted people, I have seen them express jealousy that they, too, can’t request to be guided step by step through the airport. Getting lost and confused is practically part of the air travel culture—if it can be said to have a culture at all—and avoiding this altogether is a privilege to be treasured.