I was chatting with Blindbeader (formerly referred to on this blog as CrazyMusician) and her husband Ben; he was telling us about a person who, upon finding out that his wife was blind, responded with “oh…I’m sorry…” He replied, “I’m not sorry, and neither is she.”
As most things do, this conversation got me thinking. This tendency for people to immediately and instinctively respond with an expression of pity or sympathy is common and widespread. I’d say more people do it than don’t, and it has always put me off a little. I realize the intent is good (isn’t it always?), but there’s something about it that makes me uneasy. You say “I’m sorry” when a loved one dies, or when someone is fired from their job. You don’t send sympathy cards or express pity when you meet someone who is gay, for example. It may make life harder for them, but it’s a natural part of them and they’ve lived with it all their lives. It would be equally absurd to say “oh, I’m sorry” to someone who is, say, an African American woman. African American women, particularly in the United States, face far more discrimination than white women, but few people would dare to pity her very existence.
So why do they do it to us?
I think it’s ultimately a result of people’s idea that blindness is a terrible fate. I’ve talked about this reaction before, but of course people who have always been blind don’t lament what they’ve never had. It’s annoying, sure. It’s frustrating. It puts us in the path of discrimination, stereotyping, and general bigotry. We struggle to find jobs and, as I’ve recently discovered, getting benefits is a monumental struggle for quite a few of us. Still, I would never appreciate someone apologizing for my very life.
The thing is, living with blindness, especially in developed countries, is not a terrible thing. My life is not so horrible that sighted people need pity me. Compassion is desirable; pity is not.
There is something equally odd about apologizing to a blind person’s loved ones, especially those who choose to be in our lives. I can only imagine the response you’d receive if you apologized to my sighted friends for having a blind friend. (I really, really don’t recommend this.) I have personally witnessed strangers say to my friends, “it’s so nice of you to help her.” They usually reply with some variant of “I’m not helping her, I’m hanging out with her. and I don’t do it because I’m nice; I do it because I like her.” I do know that a few of my instructors have also received sympathy, but they have actively enjoyed my presence in their classrooms, and I don’t think they would ever say they deserve pity just for teaching me. I don’t think my family would appreciate it much, either, even if they understand the motivation behind the sentiment. While my parents and sister have had to deal with the help I occasionally need, I don’t think they’ve ever regretted it. I don’t think they’ve ever sought sympathy. I really don’t think any of my family—immediate or extended—is sorry I am who I am. They might have compassion for the pitfalls and struggles I deal with, but I doubt they are sorry for my whole existence. I doubt they perceive my life to be so terrible that they have to feel sorry for me.
Absurdly enough, I’ve always found enormous solace in both animals and children. Some animals, especially dogs, can definitely tell that I can’t see (my cat, bless her, has not picked up on this, and still mews with indignation when I trip over her). They take it in stride, and beyond getting annoyed when I step on them, they don’t perceive me any differently—or love me any less—than sighted humans. My first dog, Buddy, would not allow my five-year-old self to stray anywhere near traffic. He’d actually knock me over in his attempts to herd me away from the road. My aunt’s dog, Peanut, will actually move out of my way when he sees me coming, because he knows I won’t know he’s there. Children always know I’m blind, and they often react with insatiable curiosity. However, once they have asked all their questions, they, too, take it in stride. They are definitely not wasting energy being sorry for me.
I’m not sorry—I’m really not. I like my life. It is full, and rich, and replete with possibility. I have amazing friends and family. My fiancé is more than I could ever have hoped for. I anticipate a lot of joy and fulfillment in my future. The last thing I need is pity.
So if I’m not sorry, then you shouldn’t be, either.