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!