What Is This, Anyway?

I’ve sometimes pondered how much of my waking life I’ve spent simply identifying stuff. Being blind necessitates devising elaborate strategies to keep track of things like canned goods, important paperwork, and even clothing, depending on the complexity of your wardrobe. There are a lot of tools out there to help us, from free apps like CamFind to very costly Pen Friends—devices that allow you to “tag” certain items and have the pen tell you what it is later. The latter is efficient, but not everyone has a couple hundred bucks to shell out for it.

As I’ve said, there are some free (or inexpensive) apps designed to help us out, but they’re often difficult to use properly. I, perhaps more than many blind people, am hopeless at taking good pictures of things; the other day I was going through my tea collection, trying to find a certain bag, and I had to take them all out and sniff them to find what I was looking for. I eventually lost patience (I have a lot of tea), and pulled out my cell phone to use image recognition. One little problem: the pictures were either too blurry, or taken too close up, or taken too far away, or entirely inaccurate because I’d photographed my lap, or the floor, or anything else but the bags I was trying to identify. Generally, you just point and shoot, but I swear there are days when the apps just don’t want to cooperate. In fact, when photographing a particularly stubborn bag, my app cheerfully informed me that the tea was called “tips about relationships”. Gee, thanks.

Lighting and placement are other concerns that I struggle with. I don’t always consider how dark it is, or how many shadows might shield the product in question. I also sometimes accidentally place the product among others, which makes it harder for the app to know what I’m trying to photograph. I get better at it the longer I play with it, but I’m still a long way from perfect.

There are some relatively unusual tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years. I can, for example, identify a can of green beans by shaking the can and listening to the squeak the beans make. No other canned vegetable that I know of makes that particular sound. When I tell sighted people about this, they don’t believe me until they try for themselves. I’m also good at finding minute differences between, say, a matching set of shampoo and conditioner, though I have had some interesting experiences when the bottles are identical.

Despite all the technology, organizational systems, and detail-oriented planning, I’ve definitely gotten myself into some very strange situations. I once found what looked like a candy dish on my living room coffee table. Thinking that my mother had thoughtfully put out candy, I picked up one of the curiously smooth treats and popped it into my mouth. All I tasted was dust: I’d tried to eat a decorative rock. I’ve put conditioner (and body wash) in my hair instead of shampoo; I’ve nearly put frozen berries in a dish instead of peas (luckily the smell tipped me off); I’ve poured instant oatmeal into my travel mug instead of hot chocolate mix. All this, and much more.

Gregg is fond of telling the “bath bead story”. When he was a little boy, he found a strange-looking dish in the bathroom which appeared to be filled with candy. Having disassembled (and failed to reassemble, naturally) a gumball machine the day before, he assumed that his mother had transferred the gumballs to this dish. Undeterred by the fact that people don’t usually store candy in the bathroom, he grabbed a candy and took a big bite. He immediately found his mouth filled with scented foam. he’d eaten one of his mother’s bath beads. He’s also had a hair mishap; he got a shampoo bottle and mayonnaise bottle mixed up, and nearly washed his hair with the latter. I’ve since informed him that mayonnaise is actually good for the hair now and then, but I’m not sure he believes me.

If there are any blind people out there who have good stories of this nature, please share them in the comments; we’d all love to indulge in a little schadenfreud…uh, I mean, we’d all love to share our compassion and sympathy. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Believe Me: There Are Worse Things

I’ve often observed that people react to blindness as though it were the worst fate they could possibly imagine. Of course, for some it probably is (though I do wonder how good their imaginations really are). Sympathy (sometimes misplaced, sometimes welcome) abounds for visible disabilities like deafness, blindness, paralysis and so on. What we lack, though, is compassion for those with invisible disabilities–and they may be the ones who need it the most.

I’ve always been blind, and most of the time my life has still been full and happy. But I carry heavier burdens, too—burdens which aren’t easy to see. Among other issues, I suffer from chronic tension pain, migraines, and mental illness. Unless you come upon me walking out of a psychiatrist’s office or holding my head in pain while I throw up on the sidewalk, you won’t know any of this simply by watching me go about my day. Blindness causes me to suffer in highly visible ways; it’s hard to miss it when I trip over a chair or smash headlong into a wall. At job interviews, employers become immediately nervous as they mentally catalogue all the problems they anticipate. They wonder about how I will keep up with the workload. They wonder how I’ll navigate the building safely. They wonder whether my screen reading software will be supported by their current systems.

They don’t wonder how I’ll attend work regularly. They don’t wonder how I’ll find the emotional, mental, and physical energy to make it through the day without collapsing. They don’t wonder who will drive me home when I’m too weak and sick to walk unaided. They don’t think about the leave I might need if my mental state becomes too precarious.

They can’t wonder these things, because I don’t go out of my way to reveal them. Some stand behind the policy of full disclosure: get it all out of the way now so that awkward questions and explanations aren’t needed later. Really, though, If an employer won’t accept me because of a relatively superficial disability—one that can be easily accommodated—how will they feel when I reveal far more debilitating disabilities? Let’s face it: having malfunctioning eyes has nothing on being in excruciating pain, or feeling so low that you want to die.

Sometimes, I fear that people will judge me harshly if I divulge too much about my “other” disabilities. I worry that they’ll think I’m crazy, or whiny, or simply delusional. Will they label me an attention-seeker? I mean, I’m blind plus six other issues? When does it become suspicious-looking? I’ve been blessed with many compassionate people in my life ranging from friends, to coworkers, to instructors. They’ve done their best to let me know that I’m okay, no matter how many things are wrong with me, and that I don’t have to feel guilty about what I can’t control. Conversely, though, I’ve had people become frustrated and offended when I cancel plans due to a sudden migraine (it’s not like I plan them!) or bow out of an engagement because I’m feeling too down to even get out of bed. Each time this happens, my first instinct is to blame myself, even when I know better. It’s easy to convince people that my broken eyes aren’t my fault; it’s harder to convince them that I don’t choose to be depressed, or lie abed all day in pain. Some of them won’t say it outright, but it’s clear as day that they doubt me. I can’t articulate what it’s like to know that it is only my least debilitating disability that people will feel any empathy for. I don’t need help across the street as much as I need a sympathetic ear and maybe a hug.

The pitying sighs get to me after awhile, partly because I don’t need them (I get along fine, thanks) and partly because they are so misguided. I don’t want a pat on the shoulder because my eyes don’t work; they never have and they probably never will. I don’t need them in order to live contentedly. What I do need, though, is energy, will, and strength. My invisible disabilities strip all of that away on a regular basis, leaving me to struggle along in the wake of emotional and physical suffering.

Now, before I go any further, let me make it clear that I’m not saying that blindness doesn’t have its downsides. I’ve done little but write about them for the past few months. I’m also not trying to run a fishing expedition here: I’m not claiming that everyone should begin pitying me for something other than blindness. Ideally, I don’t want any pity at all. But considering the ample sympathy that is heaped upon those with visible disabilities, it would be nice to distribute some of it to those whose pain is less evident but no less unbearable.

No, you won’t be able to tell who is suffering from what unless you make a habit of asking people intrusive questions (and we all know how I feel about those). But if someone comes to you with a clearly visible disability, don’t automatically assume that it is the only battle they’re fighting. For as John Watson so aptly observed, you should always be kind, for “everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

It took a great deal of personal courage to write this post, humble as it is. As I’ve said, I usually take pains to hide these parts of myself, lest I be misjudged or shunned. But as Gregg has taught me, silence is our worst enemy here. If people like me don’t speak up, then no one can understand. You can’t offer compassion for what you don’t know exists. It’s blogs like these which need to be written. It’s conversations like these which need to take place. We need to know that we can be honest. I live for the day when being frank about what I can’t control will not bring me shame or guilt, but relief and a sense of peace.