I take the bus, and there are several empty seats around me, conveniently placed right up front. Someone embarks via the front door, and walks quickly past me to take a seat waaaay at the back. I sit down for a lecture, noticing that most students are clumped together, while others have gone out of their way to give me a wide berth. I flop down in a seat in a study lounge, only to have the person next to me gather their belongings and sidle over to a seat across the room. Anyone seeing a pattern here? Anyone? Anyone?
I’m not even sure if people are conscious of this, but I am beginning to think they’re convinced that blindness is contagious. Unless you have an eye infection and enjoy swapping mascara with strangers,, you’re probably not a threat to anyone else’s eyes, but I’m often treated like a leper. Some people undoubtedly move away because society puts a premium on personal space. Others, however, do so because I make them uncomfortable, which I understand is a common experience for many disabled people. Mothers drag their children away from the oncoming blind lady, while students shift restlessly when I sit down near them. It’s common enough for people to leave space between each other; Canadians aren’t really used to tight quarters unless they live in Vancouver or Toronto. Even so, people’s attitude toward me seems a bit too blatantly fearful to be blamed on a desire to avoid human contact.
There are a litany of reasons to avoid sitting near someone: I wouldn’t blame you a bit for avoiding the person sniffling noisily in the corner. Nobody likes icky cold germs, but unless I have ominous substances pouring from my red nose, there is no logical reason to steer clear.
I usually just shake my head and move on—what else can I do? I’d be lying if I claimed it didn’t hurt a little, though. I’m a nice person who is reasonably friendly. At the least, I’d never encroach upon another person’s space, and I might even provide good conversation if they only gave me a try. Students are especially prone to engaging strangers on campus, but they tend to ignore me unless they think I need help. I want to say to them, “I cannot give you blindness, okay? Mine is a genetic condition, so unless you’re my secret half-brother, please relax. You’re fine.”
Social exclusion and general discomfort are the order of the day for a lot of visibly disabled people, and all one can do is bridge the gaps as best one can. Sometimes, though, my snarky side prevails, and I feel the urge to shout, “Come sit near the freak, why don’t you? I don’t bite (hard)!”
So, friends all, take a seat by me. It’s okay. You’ll leave as healthy and sighted as ever–I guarantee it.