When It Happens To You…

It happened on a bus. I was sitting near my boyfriend, who is not fully sighted but whose vision loss is not noticeable to the average passers-by. An older woman began talking to him, and my mind drifted a little. I was jolted back to earth, though, when I heard her say, quite sweetly, that it was “so nice of [him]to take care of [me].”
There it was.
I knew it would happen sometime, I really did. I’d heard so many stories from other blind people who had sighted partners. I’ve commiserated with them, thinking I knew how it felt because people had made abstract statements of that kind to me. I’ve basically heard it all: you need a husband so he can take care of you; you can’t raise kids or manage daily life without a man; you need to choose a sighted partner so he can keep you safe–and on and on.
It turns out that I was wrong about one crucial element: an abstract statement, no matter how offensive, is far less upsetting than a well-meant but deeply personal one–and it wasn’t even directed at me!
I tried to break it down. After all, I knew this was coming. My previous partner had been totally blind, so we never encountered this situation, but as soon as I began dating my current boyfriend, I expected it. So if I knew it would happen, and had helped so many others bounce back after it happened to them, why couldn’t I anticipate exactly how much it would hurt?
In the end, besides the fact that I am an independent person who takes care of people as often as they care for me, the tone and style of her words were my undoing. This woman thought she was being kind. She simply wanted to commend this nice young man for what she considered exceptional strength of character. Her intentions were pure and I’m certain she did not understand that it might be the wrong thing to say–let alone harmful to the girl in question. I know all this, and yet…
I think it comes down to feeling like an object. The conversation did not include me, strictly speaking. I was not being spoken to, but about. This woman’s casual praise concerned me at least as much as it concerned him, but I don’t believe I was really meant to participate at all except to agree emphatically and gaze at him adoringly for the next few minutes. I was merely the tangible, living example of my partner’s essential goodness and compassion.
Now, he really is a wonderful human being, and sometimes having a blind girlfriend does involve offering a little extra assistance. We travel using sighted guide, for example. Other than a few relatively minor adjustments, we function as any other couple would. My blindness isn’t usually on my mind, and I doubt it’s on his either.
I know this–know it down to my bones–but I still feel insecure, hurt, and embarrassed when someone assumes otherwise. I found this particular incident so unsettling that it took me a few minutes to calm down fully, and I regret to say that I did not respond to her comment with as much grace as I should have. True, I tempered my “I take care of me–he really doesn’t…” with a smile, but I don’t know how effective my attempts to cover my shock and indignation really were.
So, okay, it was a difficult experience. It was humbling, because I thought I could handle such a thing with minimal effort. I believed I was near-impervious to this sort of thing, only because so many fellow disabled people had dealt with it first. What’s the big deal?
Ultimately, this is my takeaway: you cannot know how something will feel until you go through it. Guide dog handlers might be sure of their reaction when they experience their first access refusal, hoping their conviction that it’s wrong will carry them past anger or humiliation. Disabled people who are denied a job based on discrimination can’t know just how painful and frustrating it will be before it actually happens. A student cannot predict their emotional response to being barred from a course because they are deemed unemployable and unteachable until the moment it occurs. I know this, because I’ve been through the last two examples and witnessed numerous people go through the first. My experiences mesh with theirs: it’s easy to empathize; it’s much harder to deal with these situations when they’re directed at you, and only you.
So what can I do? What can we all do?
First off, we can avoid assuming we have such a firm handle on our emotions. We can choose not to claim we know how we will feel until we find out the hard way. We can definitely prepare for the eventuality, and do our best to steel ourselves against what we know we’ll face at some point. Even as we do this, we must be mindful that all that preparation might fly out the window when we need it most.
The more important step is to support other disabled people even more wholeheartedly than we have before. It is not enough to stand by and comfort them. We must avoid minimizing their feelings or pretending we can know what they’re struggling with if we genuinely do not. It may seem like we understand a situation intimately, but there’s just no replacement for first-hand experience.
Going forward, I’ll apply the lessons I learned from this encounter, while continuing to embrace the compassionate view I’ve tried to nurture all along. At the end of the day, I know I must not forget that this sweet woman’s only goal was to praise what she considered to be a small pocket of good in an increasingly dark landscape. She actually went on to say that we made a good couple. She wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, and while I know her viewpoint is wrong and even unhealthy, I can’t change it, not for now. All I can do is move on, let it go, and practice resilience. I hope that, next time it happens, I’ll be ready.

Advertisements