I’m Not Sorry, And You Shouldn’t Be, Either

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.

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Humble Pie, Anyone?

I certainly never pretended to be an expert on all disabilities, or indeed even on blindness in general. Still, if you’re going to write a blog about how to treat people with disabilities, you might want to practice what you preach. Most of the time, I do: I do my best to be sensitive. I try not to ask intrusive questions (unless I have permission) and I try to do my own research so that I’m not wandering around in a state of complete ignorance. This isn’t perfect insurance, though.

I interact with an awful lot of people who are blind. I know many of them personally, but I also follow a lot of them on social media. I don’t go out of my way to befriend them, but it’s good to know what everyone is up to. We can be a remarkably helpful community when we’re not busy judging each other. But I confess my knowledge of other disabilities is extremely limited. I have almost no experience with those who are hearing impaired. I only know a handful of people in wheelchairs. I’ve known a couple of people with mild autism, but not well. My experience with developmental disabilities is even more scant. So, I occasionally make the same types of mistakes sighted people make when getting to know blind people. And it dismays me every time.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend of mine who has cerebral palsy and who is also blind. He uses a wheelchair for longer distances, and I found myself asking, “Oh, how does that work when you can’t see? Do you have to be led?” Of course, it was an honest question, and I meant no offence at all. Like so many well-intentioned questions, though, it was a careless one. He responded with, “Led? What am I, a dog?” he then said, “I can usually follow voices.” He was gracious enough to let us both laugh it off, but it was an awkward moment, for me especially. In this area, I realized, I was as clueless as the average sighted person asking silly questions on the street. Yes, he is a friend, and yes, I meant well, but I didn’t even consider the possibility that it might have been better to either rephrase my question or just google it later and ask him how much of the information applied to him. It’s always a shock when you realize that you’re doing to others what you don’t want done to yourself.

I’ve had some equally awkward moments when physically interacting with people. A few years ago, at a university orientation, there was a student in a wheelchair. I don’t know her at all, so I have no idea whether it was temporary confinement or whether she had a permanent disability. Either way, I remember being upset because none of the other students was bothering to talk to her. She was sitting by herself, while everyone flowed around her like current around an obstacle. I’m sure they weren’t trying to be exclusive or malicious. They probably didn’t think anything of it, or, if they did notice her, they probably felt shy. It’s difficult enough to approach strangers as a nervous young student, and harder still if you feel like you might make an idiot of yourself. I’m sad to say that, while I wanted to go and speak to her, I felt stuck. Should I go over and stand beside her? Say hi? Would it be more appropriate to kneel down beside the chair so we’re at the same level? Should I just leave her alone? And on and on.

This is difficult for me to admit, because I find it really shameful. I thought I was above this sort of thing, but I’m beginning to think that few of us are. After the recent incident with my blind friend, I promised myself that I would get better at this. I will educate myself as much as I can, as sensitively as I can. Others will probably think I’m being unreasonably careful, but treading softly seems in order here, at least in some cases. Until I have legions of friends with diverse disabilities whom I can pester with questions, I will have to rely on whatever research I can do on my own. I never want to put myself in a position where I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. At worst I will cause offence, but even at best, I’ll feel woefully uninformed. And there’s just no excuse for that. And the shyness? The refusal to meet new people just because I’m frozen with indecision? That has to go.

I imagine many people with disabilities are far better-informed than I am. It might, however, be a good idea to take stock of your current knowledge and determine whether you might be at risk of committing the same cardinal sins as so many able-bodied people. No, it’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake, and no, you don’t have to go to the lengths I plan to go. But I imagine there’s enough humble pie to go around, at least for most of us. Dig in!