“So…what have you got?”
“How…how did it happen?”
“Have you always been blind, or…?”
“So, what’s your eye condition? Mine’s ___.”
These are common icebreakers, coming from sighted and blind people alike. They are sometimes probing questions—people love a tragic story—but they’re usually well-meant attempts to start a conversation. It helps them start somewhere, especially if blindness is a novelty for them. It’s perfectly understandable that blind people would also ask these questions. They’re looking for solidarity and common ground. It makes sense.
Increasingly, however, I’ve grown weary of answering the questions. People have posed them before they’ve even bothered to ask my name, as though my blindness is the only immediately relevant detail. Others zip through the usual pleasantries, then lean forward in a confidential way and ask, in hushed tones, how it happened. In all these cases, I’m left feeling just a tiny bit miffed. While I’m happy enough to answer general questions, my eye condition is the least interesting fact about me, in my opinion, anyway. I’d much rather spend time chatting about my career aspirations, musical interests, and even the weather. Discussing these points makes me feel less like a novelty and more like an ordinary human. Worse, focusing on my eye condition gives me less to work with when I try to get to know you, especially if you are sighted. Throw me a rope, if you can, because discussing a disability you don’t have doesn’t give me much of a springboard.
I’ve noticed another variation of this tendency, wherein I mention a new blind person my sighted friends or family have never heard of. Almost invariably, the first thing out of their mouths is “Oh, what’s their eye condition?” I’ve seen people become annoyed and even frustrated when I draw a blank.
“Do you know…I don’t think I even asked.”
“You’ve known them for how long and you don’t even know that? Isn’t that sort of a basic thing to know?”
“It just…never came up.”
Yes, I have friends I’ve known for years whose eye conditions I either never knew, or forgot somewhere along the way. While I can usually tell you how much vision they have, if any, it’s a challenge for me to remember the exact details.
Why am I incurious? I don’t really know, but I do know I’m not the only one who isn’t very curious and who doesn’t really think it’s an important thing to know about a person. A friend was venting recently about her family’s obsession with eye conditions, after which she guiltily remarked that she could no longer recall mine.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I doubt I even told you.”
Is it a sin to break the ice this way? No, of course it isn’t. Are there better, more tactful ways to get to know someone? Absolutely. While many blind people are amenable to discussing their eye conditions, you might have a more enjoyable conversation if you investigate their personalities and interests rather than the specifics of their blindness. Just a tip.
So, friends, I challenge you to go forth, break thou some ice, avoid mentioning eye conditions, and see what you discover.
I hate to say it, but things like this really bother me. The idea that a person can be reduced to his or her eye condition goes against the most basic of ethical principles.
I was just recently in the hospital for the first time in my life with newly diagnosed diabetes. No, please do not tell me you’re sorry about that, pretty please? Anyhow, in the name of making small talk and scaring away the spooky silence, I was asked many times by many people how long I had been blind, if my wife was blind, where I worked and what I did there, and that’s where it stopped. Now, very few folks asked after my eye condition, but nobody seemed interested in things that actually interested me like good coffee, bad movies and weird music, which I could possibly talk people’s ears off about. My work does take a good portion of my week up but it’s not the most interesting thing about me or my life. What a silly social convention, to be so interested in a person’s job but not what they do for fun.
an interesting post Meagan! Although, when it comes to ice breakers I’m never sure except the weather and some other small talk but I spend a lot of time questioning what’s okay to ask and what’s not okay to ask because what’s appropriate for an ice breaker may vary between people. I was at a cousin’s wedding recently and I sat next to a young lady who has a cousin who is blind so she understands about blindness however I never asked about eye conditions. I spend more time saying that blindness doesn’t stop me from doing a lot and I often go around as if I’m not even blind but each to their own I suppose. I have had people ask me how long I’ve been blind and if my eye condition comes up it has only ever come up when I’ve had to sign forms and such but that’s about it. I was however having kidney dialysis once many years ago at a city hospital and I was asked if I had diabetes as vision impairment and kidney disease can often be as a result of diabetes and I said I didn’t have diabetes.