Age, Sex, Location, … Eye Condition?

“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.

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“Mommy, What’s Wrong With Her?”

So there I am, walking along, just trying to finish my shopping and exit the crowded mall as soon as humanly possible. Suddenly, my animated discussion with a friend about soft vs. hard-bristled toothbrushes (my life is unbearably exciting) is interrupted by an inquisitive little voice: “Mommy, what’s wrong with her?” In my experience, parents and other caretakers have one of three reactions: fear and avoidance, uncertainty and discomfort, or tranquility and patience. I don’t think I need to tell you which one I prefer.

Avoidance And Fear

I encounter this often. Children tend to ask difficult questions, and adults are not all-knowing, even if they’d like to be. Children tend to assume that grownups have the answers to all their burning questions, and at a certain age, especially, they delight in asking “why.” The trouble is that a solid understanding of disability in general and blindness in specific is rarer than I’d like. Rather than trying to grapple with things they don’t understand (or worse, misunderstand), adults remove the source of the curiosity, hoping that “out of sight, out of mind” will apply. Probably it does. Of course, this solves nothing: the child remains uninformed, and the parent does as well. Nothing is gained, and plenty is lost, too. Mothers, especially, react more out of fear than avoidance, and that fear can be passed along to the child. The last thing I want is for anyone to be afraid of or disgusted by me. I dislike being a walking curiosity, but frightening people is far worse. I’m the furthest thing from frightening. Please don’t hide your children from me; I have no plans to eat them. No, I don’t bite. No, blindness is not contagious. No, my parents did not commit grievous sins, and no, I’m not the resultant punishment. And … no, I do not use the stick to hit people (feel free to substitute “set my dog on people I don’t like” here).

Uncertainty And Discomfort

Some parents don’t run the second they see me, but they’re still very uncomfortable with both my presence and the need to answer their children. If I’m lucky, they haltingly explain that my eyes don’t work; if I’m unlucky, they resort to furtive mutterings about God having made a mistake or something. As far as I know, most religions assume that God is perfect, so that one makes little sense even to most religious people. Inquiring minds won’t buy that explanation for long; I know mine didn’t. I sympathize with the inability to put esoteric concepts into words, but blindness is not an esoteric concept (Cue debate about whether the word “esoteric” is itself esoteric.) I carry a white cane, so unless the grownup in question genuinely doesn’t know what white canes symbolize (in which case they’re to be forgiven), it’s not difficult to describe me to a child: she’s blind. Her eyes are broken. Her eyes don’t work. Use whichever phrasing tickles your fancy, but it all amounts to the same thing. It is very possible—and necessary—to explain disability to a child. Children need to know that not all people are like them. It is so important that they learn about disability, especially in a positive or at least neutral sense. Parents often transfer their fear and/or intolerance of difference to their children, and that needs to be counteracted in whichever way suits. Most people don’t have a particular aversion to blindness, so it’s totally okay to tell a child about it. It’s not taboo, shameful, or scary, and it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. My hope is that it will become normal, easy, and comfortable for all involved. People need to be less afraid of disability. We’d all be better off for it. Personally, I see no reason to go into detail about low-vision versus totally blind etc. All of that will come with time; for now, it’s most important that the child has a rudimentary idea of what blindness is.

Tranquility And Patience

Sometimes, and only a very few times, adults respond in a calm, constructive way. Those who know something about blindness will offer patient explanations, employing frankness and respect. Others—and I love them for it—address me directly: “Excuse me, but do you mind talking to my child? She’s very curious and I want her to hear the right answer, not the one I’d come up with on my own.” I’m always so pleased with this latter response. It includes me in the conversation, rather than treating me as though I’m the object of your child’s curiosity; the mall isn’t the zoo and I’m not a giraffe. That response also takes courage: the grownup in question has to address me directly, and ask whether I’m willing to educate a stranger’s child. If a grownup is courteous and brave enough to ask this of me, I always oblige—and I do so with pleasure. Some blind people hate to educate. They resent the fact that they are treated like poster children for blindness and disability. They just want to go about their days without being bothered. I, however, will take being asked to educate a child over being treated like an object of fear, disgust, or condescension. When people address me politely, ask respectful questions, and allow me to enlighten them on whatever they’re curious about, I’m happy to educate all day long! If you do nothing else, please discourage your children from shrinking from me in fear. I’m human, too.