Talking to (Disabled) Strangers: A Handy Demonstration

The driver who picked me up from work today was a stranger, so I prepared myself for the typical onslaught of questions, well-meant but awkward and unbearably personal:
Are you totally blind or only somewhat blind? What happened to you? Were you born that way? Do you live on your own? Is that safe? Do you have a job? That’s so nice that they hired you! Do you have a helper? Does the government pay for your groceries? By the way, where’s your dog?
He introduced himself as my driver—no grabbing, no assumptions about how to get me from point A to point B—and gave me full control over how he guided me. He explained that he’d had to park in a tricky spot, describing obstacles so well that I found my way into the vehicle with perfect efficiency. That was the last time disability was mentioned.
On the way home, he asked me scores of questions, just as I’d expected. There was a slight twist, however:
Do you work in that beautiful building? Is it that gorgeous inside as well? How’d you become a speechwriter—that’s really impressive! What kind of education do you need for that? Who’s the best speaker you’ve worked with? Did you study historical speeches? What do you think of Churchill?
To my immense delight, he interspersed these novel, engaging questions with amusing anecdotes. He described his attempts at improvised dinner theatre. He told me about the time he channeled his inner Basil Fawlty, to hilarious effect. He asked me what “extemporize” meant. He mused about turning his many exploits into a book.
“I’m a great storyteller, but I can’t write. My punctuation sucks.”
“Eh, that’s what editors are for. You bring the stories. We bring the punctuation.”
As he dropped me off, he casually assumed I’d know the best way to find my building’s entrance, seeing as I live there and all. Sounds inconsequential, I know, but most drivers argue, at least a little.
Accompanying me to my door, he told me it had been wonderful to meet me, slipped in one last excited comment about how cool it was to chat with a speechwriter (guys, I’m really not very important, for serious), and he was off.
It was only as I was unlocking my apartment door that I realized it: I had had an effortless conversation with a complete stranger, and it had happened without my usual redirections.
At this point, I’m very skilled at turning a conversation away from topics I find uncomfortable, but this perfect interaction had happened out in the wild, so to speak, where conversations with strangers tend to derail without my intervention. There was no contextual framework, like a business mixer or conference space, to set the tone and subject matter. I hadn’t been the one to initiate, and I had not once felt the need to steer. I was free to sit back and forget, for a few minutes at least, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. I happened to meet a person with natural tact and a sociable, curious nature. For once, that had been enough, all by itself, to set the interaction on a course we could both enjoy. More extroverted disabled folks might find this process easier, but connecting in this way has always been a chore for me.
I let this sink in for a moment, surprised at the power of such a small mercy. We had talked about writing and theatre and editing and Sir Winston freakin’ Churchill, but we had not talked about my cane, or my broken eyes, or the weird bruising on my face left by dozens of severe migraines. We hadn’t even discussed my tragic lack of a service dog. Disability had only come up when it was relevant, and the things that made me interesting stole centre stage from the things that made me strange.
Lest you get the impression my social life is even more stunted than you first thought, let me assure you I have animated, fascinating conversations all the time. But they almost never take place when the slate is clean. With unknown quantities, I’m usually back at square one, digging for common ground while the other party focuses on whatever makes us different.
But not today. Today, I got to be Meagan the speechwriter; Meagan the dinner theatre enthusiast; Meagan the Fawlty Towers fan.
Tell me: if we’d stayed on the topic of what the stick is for and how I use computers and why I have those bruise things on my face, how would we ever have gotten to the fun stuff?
So that, friends, is how you talk to a disabled stranger—with the kind of curiosity that would rather ask, “What do you do?” than “What happened to you?”

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Cooking My Way Toward Confidence

I’m not much of a cook. I’ll get that out of the way first and foremost. You’ll never catch me humblebragging about my culinary adventures, and my best recipes come from Google. I’m far better at googling than I will ever be at cooking. In fact, part of the reason I fell so immediately, intensely in love with my better half was that the man could cook, and I was in desperate need of a healthier relationship with food. Fiercely independent as I was, I was ready to let someone feed me, and he did so with relish.

I have a tower of excuses for my abysmal cooking abilities. I don’t have the time (I often do), or the spoons (I sometimes do), or the know-how (which I could probably learn if I applied myself, let’s be honest).
The real story is a lot less sympathetic. Simply put, cooking is scary for a blind person who lacks confidence during hands-on tasks, and I’m one of them. I’ll write you a set of speaking notes in less than an hour, for an event I’ve never heard of, on a topic I know nothing about. That’s juuust fine. But please don’t ask me to do anything with my hands other than write, play the piano, and carry your stuff.

“But Meagan,” you insist, “surely you’re overthinking this! It’s not that complicated.” (You’re right. Congratulations.) Special training is not strictly necessary, and the majority of blind cooks I know are at least partially self-taught. It’s tricky, but it’s not arcane.

And yet, the chronic diffidence persists, and it didn’t originate with me. For as long as I can remember, sighted people have been all too happy to enumerate the disasters that might befall me. Knives can’t wait to chop off those precious fingers that help me read and use my cane. Boiling hot liquids are just waiting to terrorize me with much spattering and spilling. Grease fires lurk around every corner, poised to consume unsuspecting paper towels. Measuring is messy. Preparing dishes without visual input is imprecise. Whatever I make probably won’t be perfect. (The horror!)

And so, being someone who fears messes almost as acutely as I fear failure, I stayed out of the kitchen unless compelled to do otherwise. The years I lived alone meant I subsisted on an insipid rotation of frozen dinners, canned soup, and snack foods that lacked nutritional value but quieted my hunger. Every now and again, when I wasn’t busy studying or writing papers in a feverish haze, I’d throw together a salad or heap a random assemblage of ingredients in my slow cooker and hope for the best. My standards were low and I was frequently too ill to eat at all, so this worked for me … for a while.

Once I started working full time and transitioning to “real” adulting, I began longing for more in nearly every facet of my life. I wanted to travel more, socialize more, and acquire the grownup skills I thought I ought to have picked up years ago. My student days were marked by severe migraines and appetite-killing pain, and I was mostly too ill to notice I was living a small, sad existence. Now that I was blossoming, really learning to thrive, I felt I should take the act of cooking more seriously—for my health, if for no other reason. And there they were, my faithful, time-worn excuses.

But this time, there was a new element: my afore-mentioned better half. He didn’t have a lot of time or energy, either, but when he did, he’d prepare delicious meals for me and, eventually, for our friends. Nothing made me prouder than a group of my loved ones sitting at our kitchen table, exclaiming over his prodigious talent. There was immense satisfaction in the act of nurturing people, of bringing them together through the medium of food. An ongoing source of suffering in my life has been the perception that I have nothing to offer. No one needs me, I can’t be counted upon, and I will never make others feel cared and provided for in the ways so many have done for me. It’s a common and heartbreaking reality of disability, which very few of us escape entirely.

But bearing witness to the magic my partner could call forth by simply whipping up a meal and inviting people to our table made me question those long-held assumptions about myself. Perhaps I really was capable of nourishing others as they had so often nourished me. Watching him at work filled me with such an expansive, buzzy feeling of well-being that I decided it was time for me to be brave and turn these one-man meals into a team effort. I wanted to do more than stand on the sidelines of his generosity—a generosity I shared but couldn’t easily express. I wanted to help make it happen.

I’m still a bad cook. (What’s that? You thought this would be a story of radical transformation? Triumph over adversity? Sorry, wrong blog.) I’m not sure that will change, though experience will help me hide it better. What I do have is patience, inspiration, and determination to improve. I also have a partner who appreciates every contribution I make, whether it’s researching recipes or taking care of the food prep he finds unendurably dull. He knows I have a long way to go before I’m satisfied with my skill level, but he is happy to celebrate the baby steps between where I am now and where I want to be. The pure, unbridled joy he takes in those baby steps gives me the space and freedom to celebrate them, too.

With every meal we coordinate together, with every recipe we choose and every cozy conversation that plays out over our cutting boards, I feel my confidence building and, more and more now, a growing closeness not only with the partner I cook with, but the people I cook for. Showing love in words has always been easy, but showing that love with my hands was always an epic struggle. Now, with practice, I am learning to embrace the work of my clumsy, imperfect hands as a pathway to enhanced self-worth and a better relationship—with myself, my partner, and my loved ones.

The cherry on top of the sundae? I haven’t yet managed to chop off any fingers or start any grease fires. (I’ll just have to try harder.)

TLDR: If you’re looking for a way to bring more big buzzy waves of well-being into your life—and really, who isn’t—cook for yourself. Cook for the people you love. If you can, cook right alongside those people, even if the thought of others watching you work is uncomfortable.

Running low on spoons? Don’t have enough time in the day? Scared you’ll mess it up? Do as much or as little as you feel you can. I promise you that whether I do the heavy lifting for a meal or merely slice a carrot or two, the happy buzzy vibes show up either way. It’s the sense of competence and collaboration that matters, not the volume of work done or effort made. The benefits of cooking for yourself and others are endless, and you can’t go wrong with a little extra confidence now and again. I learned that the hard way, so you don’t have to.