While on a camping trip one summer, my cousin came over to my chair, plopped her infant son into my lap, handed me some grapes to feed him, and headed off to do something or other with her hands. I sat frozen for a moment, taking this in. For the first time ever, someone automatically assumed I’d be able to look after their child while they were busy. I felt so normal and useful and…human. Never had I been allowed to cuddle a child without some concerned sighted person hovering anxiously at my elbow, offering to take them back after half a minute. Never had anyone trusted me to babysit. Never had anyone asked me to so much as change a diaper. Here I was, at long last, snuggling a baby like I was a normal person or something.
Disability is a package deal, and there’s no point denying it. Along with all the obvious stuff, like the inability to accomplish certain tasks, there is the dynamic in which you are receiving help and support more often than you give it. With notable exceptions, blind people are all struggling with that dynamic with varying degrees of success. I’m sad to say I’m one of the not-so-successful ones, though I’m trying mightily hard.
All relationships require interdependence—healthy ones usually mean the ratio is equal—and that’s okay. Humans should need each other; we’re social animals and supporting one another is what social animals do (when we’re not tearing each other to pieces over competition for resources, that is). This raises an important question, though: how much is too much? At what point does an imbalance of dependence in any relationship become unhealthy for both parties? I’m not sure that question has a definitive answer, but what I do know is that most blind people seem to have at least one relationship that is slightly unhealthy simply because of increased dependence.
Worse than this, though, is the common perception that we need more help than we actually do. Many people assume I need help with just about everything, but this is simply not the case. What does this misconception lead to? Well, many things, but the one I’m zeroing in on is the fear of “burdening” us by asking us to help out. Whether we’re talking about household contributions, childcare, or party planning, it comes to the same thing: people are loath to need us in any way…and we desperately want to be needed. Being depended upon is excellent for confidence and general mental health, so it’s imperative that we find a place of usefulness within our relationships.
The main issue is circular reasoning: we’re incapable because we’re never allowed to learn new skills, and we can’t learn new skills because we’re incapable. It’s a tough cycle to break, and can involve growing pains on both sides. We require a degree of trust from sighted people. We’re asking them to overcome their anxiety and trust us with difficult tasks. They hate to give us responsibility, thinking we either don’t want it or can’t possibly manage it on our own.
To add icing to this distressing little cake, (I’m hungry, and hunger always justifies bad metaphors), we end up proving people right because we are awkward and inefficient while learning something new. Instead of treating this as normal and letting us get on with it, people jump in and finish tasks for us because it’s quicker and easier. So, we never get to learn, and they never get to lean on us.
It saddens me that I have so few memories of being trusted with complex and vital tasks, and I’m sadder still that those few memories stand out in my mind with such clarity. I should not be ecstatic over being allowed to hold and feed an infant without anyone hovering over my shoulder. That should not be an aberration, and it definitely should not be as fulfilling as it was. Times like that make me realize how starved I am for the feeling of usefulness. I want to matter to people beyond, say, my ability to sing them a pretty song or act as a sounding board for their problems. I’m sick of being given busywork, or being ignored by other students because they think I can’t do the same work they do. I’m sick of being passed over because of the mythology surrounding blindness. I’m sick, most of all, of feeling helpless.
At the moment, I do feel appreciated for being a good friend and a good writer, but my friends don’t call on me when they need babysitting done, or when they need house-sitting done, or even when they need food to be brought to a gathering. More than once, I was told not to bring any food to a party, only to discover that everyone else had been asked to bring something. I am capable of cooking, even if my repertoire isn’t huge, and I’m more than able to just go out and buy something. The Martha Stewarts of the world might clutch their pearls in consternation, but most people wouldn’t care.
The only remedy I’ve found is to be pushy about what I can do, and to be honest about what I can’t. I barge my way into a situation where I think help might be needed, insisting I would like to pitch in and not leaving people any room to protest. I’m adamant about assisting where I can, and also more insistent when it comes to learning a new skill. After numerous discussions with blind people from all walks of life, I have concluded that this is the only way forward for us. I hope that, in time, things will get better. Until then, I ask only that sighted people open their minds and allow me a way in. I can be useful, too.