“Mommy, What’s Wrong With Her?”

So there I am, walking along, just trying to finish my shopping and exit the crowded mall as soon as humanly possible. Suddenly, my animated discussion with a friend about soft vs. hard-bristled toothbrushes (my life is unbearably exciting) is interrupted by an inquisitive little voice: “Mommy, what’s wrong with her?” In my experience, parents and other caretakers have one of three reactions: fear and avoidance, uncertainty and discomfort, or tranquility and patience. I don’t think I need to tell you which one I prefer.

Avoidance And Fear

I encounter this often. Children tend to ask difficult questions, and adults are not all-knowing, even if they’d like to be. Children tend to assume that grownups have the answers to all their burning questions, and at a certain age, especially, they delight in asking “why.” The trouble is that a solid understanding of disability in general and blindness in specific is rarer than I’d like. Rather than trying to grapple with things they don’t understand (or worse, misunderstand), adults remove the source of the curiosity, hoping that “out of sight, out of mind” will apply. Probably it does. Of course, this solves nothing: the child remains uninformed, and the parent does as well. Nothing is gained, and plenty is lost, too. Mothers, especially, react more out of fear than avoidance, and that fear can be passed along to the child. The last thing I want is for anyone to be afraid of or disgusted by me. I dislike being a walking curiosity, but frightening people is far worse. I’m the furthest thing from frightening. Please don’t hide your children from me; I have no plans to eat them. No, I don’t bite. No, blindness is not contagious. No, my parents did not commit grievous sins, and no, I’m not the resultant punishment. And … no, I do not use the stick to hit people (feel free to substitute “set my dog on people I don’t like” here).

Uncertainty And Discomfort

Some parents don’t run the second they see me, but they’re still very uncomfortable with both my presence and the need to answer their children. If I’m lucky, they haltingly explain that my eyes don’t work; if I’m unlucky, they resort to furtive mutterings about God having made a mistake or something. As far as I know, most religions assume that God is perfect, so that one makes little sense even to most religious people. Inquiring minds won’t buy that explanation for long; I know mine didn’t. I sympathize with the inability to put esoteric concepts into words, but blindness is not an esoteric concept (Cue debate about whether the word “esoteric” is itself esoteric.) I carry a white cane, so unless the grownup in question genuinely doesn’t know what white canes symbolize (in which case they’re to be forgiven), it’s not difficult to describe me to a child: she’s blind. Her eyes are broken. Her eyes don’t work. Use whichever phrasing tickles your fancy, but it all amounts to the same thing. It is very possible—and necessary—to explain disability to a child. Children need to know that not all people are like them. It is so important that they learn about disability, especially in a positive or at least neutral sense. Parents often transfer their fear and/or intolerance of difference to their children, and that needs to be counteracted in whichever way suits. Most people don’t have a particular aversion to blindness, so it’s totally okay to tell a child about it. It’s not taboo, shameful, or scary, and it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. My hope is that it will become normal, easy, and comfortable for all involved. People need to be less afraid of disability. We’d all be better off for it. Personally, I see no reason to go into detail about low-vision versus totally blind etc. All of that will come with time; for now, it’s most important that the child has a rudimentary idea of what blindness is.

Tranquility And Patience

Sometimes, and only a very few times, adults respond in a calm, constructive way. Those who know something about blindness will offer patient explanations, employing frankness and respect. Others—and I love them for it—address me directly: “Excuse me, but do you mind talking to my child? She’s very curious and I want her to hear the right answer, not the one I’d come up with on my own.” I’m always so pleased with this latter response. It includes me in the conversation, rather than treating me as though I’m the object of your child’s curiosity; the mall isn’t the zoo and I’m not a giraffe. That response also takes courage: the grownup in question has to address me directly, and ask whether I’m willing to educate a stranger’s child. If a grownup is courteous and brave enough to ask this of me, I always oblige—and I do so with pleasure. Some blind people hate to educate. They resent the fact that they are treated like poster children for blindness and disability. They just want to go about their days without being bothered. I, however, will take being asked to educate a child over being treated like an object of fear, disgust, or condescension. When people address me politely, ask respectful questions, and allow me to enlighten them on whatever they’re curious about, I’m happy to educate all day long! If you do nothing else, please discourage your children from shrinking from me in fear. I’m human, too.

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11 thoughts on ““Mommy, What’s Wrong With Her?”

  1. I love this. Children are a rare exception to the “just let me get on with my day” thought process that goes through my head. If a parent does explain in even basic concepts what my cane or guide dog do, I always wave and thank them, because even if they don’t have all the specifics, they’ve made me less scary to those little inquisitive minds.

    • I’m glad you like. Yes, I think it’s important to emphasize that children are, in some senses, exempt from the “stop bugging me” rule. They are learning, and we need to “get them while they’re young”, so to speak. If their parents and teachers won’t or can’t, then we should.

  2. We went into a store and one of the workers was achondroplasiac. My 8 year old son had never met a grownup that was his size, so he was surprised and it showed on his face. The woman said “I think your son has a question, can he ask me the question?” – I said sure, and they talked for about 5 minutes. Then he asked her if he could help her put her carts away. VERY cute, great discussion. Matter-of-fact honesty is the way to go. There’s nothing to be worried about.

    • Oh, excellent! I’m glad she was so helpful, and I’m glad you were willing to let her be so. We need more of both kinds of people in the world.

  3. Now I’m curious as to how the parent reacted in the mall! In my case, it’s not readily apparent that I’m blind (I only use a cane at night and have some functional vision) so I don’t get that response too often, although I’m sure I get funny looks a lot. I gave tours at the American Printing House for the Blind’s museum to little kids, and it was always my favorite when they would ask me about my vision or ask really blunt questions about blind people. Those were always the “teachable moments.” Teach them when they’re young and hopefully their minds will be more open as they grow older.

    • Hi, Marissa,
      I don’t “look blind” either unless I happen to have my cane out and visible. I would occasionally get perplexed looks because I’d do sighted guide without the cane, though not very often.
      I, too, appreciate the bluntness and forthrightness of children.

  4. It’s always a fine line, at least in my experience–with the first or second scenario in particular. On the one hand, the parent is–in his/her own way–trying to educate. But they’re educating based on their own limited information, which may or may not be less helpful than if they’d subscribed to the theory of “out of sight, out of mind”. On the one hand, you want the kid (and, ideally, the parent) to have the right info, but on the other, you don’t want to stand there and tell the parent they’ve got it not quite right in front of the kid, you know? When I can get away with it, I’m all about the education. But more often than not, I’m more likely to extract myself as quietly as possible, let the parent do their thing and carry on with my day. Might not be the ideal reaction, but IMHO it’s better than “by the way, it actually goes like this”.

    • You make a good point I failed to address, actually. This blog post was intended to talk about my ideal situation. Realistically, though, I never have and never will interrupt a parent to correct them, and I certainly wouldn’t follow them to educate. I have my ideas, of course, and a desire to help, but I’m not so rude as to hassle a stranger and their children.

  5. This…so much. I definitely don’t like being bugged by adults who want to force me to cross the street when I really don’t want to…but children are very much exempt. They are very curious and I hope that if their parents explain that I am blind, rather than telling them not to ask then it makes them a little more comfortable around the subject of disability.

  6. I can certainly relate to this post I’ve had young kids pass my mother and I and ask why my eyes were closed and my mother would tell the child “his eyes are broken” one particular afternoon I had reached a railway station to transfer from a train to a road coach or a road coach to the train and a child asked why my eyes were closed the parent turned on their heal and walked in the other direction admonishing their child for being rude feel free to give your opinion on this but I now wear sunglasses which has helped and I don’t get many questions about my eyes being closed anymore but I did have one parent with child in toe ask why my eyes were covered and the mother said because I can’t see too well. I also wear a visually impaired person’s badge whenever I go out but some people see that as wearing a label and consider it offensive but it was something I was encouraged to do. one more senareo I will relate here is this I was once in a target store with my mother and I accidentally bumped into a toddler with my cane for this I duely apologised but the mother called her child an asshole and I yelled that a mother shouldn’t talk to her child like that. my mother’s response was swift she dragged me out of the shop bundled me into the car and we drove home without even doing anything so it is difficult to know what to say or do under the circumstances but each to their own I suppose

  7. Pingback: An Open Letter to Service Dog Fakers | Life Unscripted

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