“My Roommate Is Blind! Help!”

A few weeks before I was to move in with a sighted roommate, we met for coffee to discuss logistics. She seemed sanguine about the process, so I allowed myself to relax. Not until the conversation had begun to wind down did she drop this bombshell: her friends knew she was about to accept a blind roommate into her home, and they did not approve.
First came the predictable concerns: could a blind person hold up their end of household maintenance? Could blind people do much of anything at all? When I probed further, I unearthed more degrading questions: Would my sighted friend be capable of “caring for” me while dealing with her own issues, which were numerous at the time? Was she emotionally equipped to take on a disabled person on top of everything else on her plate? Would I take a toll on her mental health?
Stung, I reached out to fellow blind people to find out whether they’d encountered the same barriers. My Twitter mentions came alive, and I heard from people who had dealt with questions ranging from “How will you know if the house is clean?” to “Is it safe for blind people to cook unsupervised?” to “What if you leave the shower on constantly?” (I wish I were making this up.) Landlords, prospective roommates, and concerned hangers-on seemed content to judge blind people with limited evidence, causing embarrassment, anger, and major logistical issues for blind people seeking housing.
With guidance from many contributors, I’ve assembled a general guide for sighted people who are nervous about welcoming a visually impaired roommate. I’m not here to judge or condescend, so I hope you’ll read with an open mind, and share this with people who might need words of encouragement and advice.
Note: I use “blind” and “visually impaired” interchangeably throughout this post.

Don’t Panic

Whether you’re hitchhiking through the galaxy or preparing for a blind roommate, you must not panic, especially if you have little knowledge of the blind person in question. Until you’ve met them, you’ll be no more accurate a judge than if you were trying to guess what a sighted stranger would be like. Evaluate a blind roommate with the same criteria you’d use for a sighted one, and let that information guide your decisions. Never deny someone the opportunity to live with you just because they have a disability that makes you uncomfortable. You might inadvertently exclude stellar candidates!
External pressure from friends and family may be powerful, but don’t let it sway you. Unless they have intimate knowledge of your potential roommate, exercise caution. They may have your best interests at heart, but sound decision-making isn’t rooted in uninformed anxiety and misguided fear.

Ditch the Assumptions

Maybe you know a few blind people, and you assume this means you know what your blind roommate will be like. Perhaps you’ve never met a blind person, but you’ve seen a few on TV, or your friend has a friend whose cousin’s hairdresser’s nephew dated a blind person once, and fancies himself an authority. Whatever your experience with the blind community, remember that your roommate is as much an individual as you, and will have unique preferences, needs, and abilities.
If you take nothing else away from this post, please understand the importance of an assumption-free outlook. The overly-concerned sighted friends I referenced earlier let their assumptions run away with them, and concluded, without ever even meeting me, that I’d endanger my roommate’s mental health. This left me feeling scrutinized and unwelcome whenever they visited our apartment. I identified them as the people who viewed me as a walking, talking burden, which bled into everything I did while they were present. I doubt they were aware that I knew of their misgivings, and probably interpreted my skittish behavior as social awkwardness or unfriendliness.
Skill level, especially when it comes to household and mobility, varies widely among visually impaired people, as does visual acuity and the way that vision is used. One low-vision contributor pointed out that he can see people who are twenty feet away, but will likely run into ten obstacles on his way to that person, because that’s how his vision works. I can see a few colours and have some understanding of shape, but I’ll never read a label or notice visually that you’ve left a knife, blade up, lying in the sink. I’m a competent housekeeper but a hopeless cook; I know other blind people who can cook five-course meals and navigate transit like pros, but struggle to keep things tidy. Speak to your roommate about the specific tasks they can and cannot complete independently. Make sure it’s a respectful but candid conversation.

Make the Space Accessible

Fostering a blind-friendly household is neither complex nor demanding, but its exact form will differ depending on individual preferences. Not all blind people are particularly neurotic about organization, but nearly all of us depend on a reasonable level of predictability to function well in a common area. Keeping the environment consistent is the keystone of an accessible space. You are free to do what you will with your own space, but ensure that common areas are organized in a way you and your roommate consider efficient and manageable. Cooperation and communication are essential here: when one of my sighted roommates had moved my rice cooker for the fifth time in two months, I was reduced to crawling on my hands and knees to check the floor. Eventually, I discovered it tucked way under our kitchen table, in quite literally the last place I would ever have thought to look for it. I’m sure she was tired of receiving increasingly pointed texts asking where she’d placed this or that, but I was equally weary of having to ask at all. So, find a home for shared items, and stick to that system as much as possible. If you do move an object a substantial distance from its designated position, alert your roommate of the change, even if you think it’s insignificant to them. For people with low or no vision, an object moving even a few feet in any direction can throw us off completely, if only for a few moments.
The other adjustment you should anticipate is that some items, especially food packaging and appliances, will need to be made accessible for most visually impaired roommates. In my apartment, you’ll find transparent dots that adhere to the buttons on my microwave, allowing me to use the touch screen unassisted. When I lived in a place with private laundry access, I applied adhesive dots to make the washer and dryer easier to use. My then-roommate, who had far more vision, had to re-enable the singsong chirps the machines made, because these built-in audio cues enhanced accessibility for me. This was by far the largest sacrifice a roommate has ever had to make for me, and my needs are similar to most blind people I know. (Okay, so there was that time my roommate had to tell me I dropped an entire piece of pizza on the floor without noticing, but it was the cat’s fault, I swear.)
Your roommate may want to make similar adaptations, like a personalized labeling system. Usually, these are minor changes that won’t be intrusive or conspicuous, and don’t typically inconvenience sighted people. It’s up to your roommate to put these alterations into place, though they may need some assistance from you initially. In general, you don’t have to worry about an accessible space being an inefficient, complicated, or unlivable one. A blind-friendly household can be just as cozy, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing as you could wish; it just takes a little time, patience, and ingenuity.
Finally, ask your roommate about their level of vision, so that you can understand what they can and can’t perceive in general terms. For example, if you accidentally leave a light on, will your roommate notice? Will excessively loud music or other distracting noises make it difficult for them to navigate safely? Could a plugged-in charging cable become a tripwire? If you combine laundry, can they sort unfamiliar clothing? Devise workarounds collaboratively, and try not to take it personally if your roommate has to remind you they can’t see. Many of us take this as a positive sign, in the sense that you’re not dwelling constantly on our disabilities. That’s definitely a win!

Embrace Job-Sharing

We’ve covered some of the ways you can help your blind roommate feel welcome and secure in your shared space. Now, we turn our focus toward what they can do for you. Should you expect blind roommates to contribute to the household in the same way a sighted roommate would?
Allow me to clamber to the highest available rooftop for this one: Yes! As I said, skill levels do vary, just like in the sighted world, so your roommate might be a great sweeper but awkward with a mop. They might be comfortable cleaning kitchens, but hesitant when cleaning bathrooms, particularly in situations when tactile feedback is limited by gloves and/or abrasive cleaning products. In my household, I avoid tasks like sweeping, because I am spatially clueless and tend to spread the dirt around in my clumsiness. I find scrubbing grimy bathtubs easy and highly tactile, though, so my partner handles the sweeping, and I handle the bathtub. When implemented cooperatively, job-sharing is an elegant solution, and tends to leave roommates feeling more egalitarian and less overwhelmed by household chores. Job-sharing is also an effective way to balance barriers relating to multiple disabilities, so that both roommates can be equally involved in household maintenance.
Oh, and if your potential blind roommate seems content to let you do all the work, that is an appropriate time to walk away, just as you would if the person were sighted.

Let Your Roommate Live

When I moved in with my very first sighted roommate, we were complete strangers to each other, matched by a program that was, in our case at least, woefully unintuitive. We discovered many points of incompatibility, for neither of us was particularly happy with the other, but her attitude toward disability was a constant wedge. Her friends would congregate in our minuscule kitchen nearly every night, quizzing me on my cooking and cleaning skills. I couldn’t put a frozen pizza in the microwave without fielding questions about how I handled every minor task without sight. I encourage questions, but I submit that rapid-fire interrogation should not take place while someone is visibly busy with tasks that require some measure of concentration. Later, when forced to be around a different roommate’s friends—the same ones who had declared me incompetent and troublesome before they’d even met me—I felt like I was trapped beneath a microscope, unable to escape unless I hid in my room for hours. While living with sighted people, I occasionally wished they could just turn off their eyes and give me a break. The feeling persists, even with my enormously respectful, partially-sighted partner. “Are you spying on me again?” has become our inside joke.
Be aware that your roommate may feel a slight imbalance, because you can see them, but they can’t see you. Respect their space as much as possible, leave their belongings alone unless you’ve asked permission to touch them, and reserve questions for times when your roommate is open to hearing them. Sometimes, as much as we may appreciate your curiosity, we just want to put our feet up and zone out. Chances are, we’ve just spent the whole day dealing with disability-related curiosity, and the last thing we feel like doing is walking straight into another question period when we get home.

Learn to Say No

No is your friend. No is not inherently mean or callous. There will be times when your blind roommate needs your help, and mostly, you’ll likely be more than willing to lend a hand. The majority of people I’ve lived with are naturally helpful, and I doubt you’ll have many occasions to deny assistance to your roommate. I applaud the instinct to be kind and say yes often, but never forget that you always have the right to say no.
Picture this: Your roommate is going grocery shopping, and would like you to help them find a few things. You often do your shopping together, but at this moment, you’re feeling ill, or busy studying, or about to head to work. Hell, maybe you’re just reading an engrossing book, and you’ve just gotten to the very best part. All of these scenarios allow you to simply say no. Unless you are deliberately bullying your roommate or breaking a previous commitment, they have no right whatsoever to argue. Presumably, you are both adults, which means you must respect each other’s time. Your roommate is not your charge. You are not their babysitter, and you do not owe them on-demand assistance.
Don’t misunderstand me: it’s healthy and normal to help your blind roommate. Ideally, they also help you when you’re in need. It’s what roommates do. I just want to make you aware that a harmful pattern can develop that places roommates in a hierarchical position where one is “the helped” and the other is “the helper.” That pattern is doubly insidious if you are romantically involved with your roommate. This is generally unsustainable, and a blind roommate who actively facilitates this dynamic is not on your side.
So, yes, you can say no to your disabled roommate now and again. It doesn’t make you a jerk, and living with a blind person is not a babysitting gig or charitable act. Indeed, many blind people would prefer the roommate relationship to be as mutual as possible, meaning the assistance and kindness flow both ways. Who knew?

Feel Better?

I really hope so! Now you know that blind and visually impaired roommates are a lot like sighted ones. They have varying skills and abilities, can ordinarily contribute to any household, and are no more likely to demand your time and energy than a sighted roommate would.
Bonus: they probably won’t destroy your mental health!
So, go ahead: move in with that blind person with confidence. If you enter the relationship with respect and openness, I predict excellent results. If it goes badly, come find me. I promise to say something comforting.
Good luck, and remember: don’t panic! Be curious, be open, be adventurous. Don’t be afraid.


Thank You For The Freedom: Or, Why You Shouldn’t Put Blind Kids In A Bubble

My parents did me a great service: they refused to put me in a bubble. I was rarely told, “I don’t want you doing it, it’s too dangerous.” As a child, I was fearless. I’d try anything, as long as my dad was there to provide assurance of safety. I took risks with very little anxiety. I was so accustomed to freedom that I could not imagine what being sheltered would feel like. I was fortunate indeed. Many blind people are placed in bubbles by overprotective parents, never permitted to engage in even low-risk behaviour. This is detrimental to any child’s development, even for a disabled one.

I was blessed with family and friends who included me in just about every game, even when it meant they’d have to slow down a little. I thought nothing of playing tag, (I hit a post or two at top speed, but I was more inclined to laugh than cry), ran recklessly through bushes to play hide and seek, and dove gleefully off haystacks. I played cops and robbers, sometimes skidding across a sidewalk and sustaining mild injuries. I tumbled from out-buildings that lacked steps, and fell off swings. I even tried my hand at a few sports, and received more than one blow to the head during dodgeball. I had a great time through it all.

I believe this liberty to try and fail, to flirt with just a little danger, shaped my character. It made me into a stronger, more confident person. I am less sheltered and less afraid of the world in general. I had the opportunity to experiment and I remain grateful to this day. I got to have unbridled fun, just like every other child and, while I was sometimes excluded, I enjoyed equal status far more often than I didn’t.

I understand that parents are more safety-conscious than ever before. Safety regulations abound, and if you leave your child in a car for more than about thirty seconds, you might receive a visit from police, courtesy of some concerned citizen. While I’m thankful that kids are safer than they’ve ever been, I deplore the tendency to shelter disabled children to excess. Parents go to extraordinary lengths to keep their children secure, and it stunts their personal growth. These children grow up to be more fearful, anxious adults, unfamiliar with risk and convinced they cannot enjoy many of the same activities as their peers. They’ve never experienced the rush of running full speed ahead, swinging sky high, or chasing a soccer ball. They’ve never done back flips off haystacks or nearly flown off trampolines. To a small extent, they haven’t had the chance to live, play, and grow in the same ways I did.

So, I want to thank my parents for giving me my freedom, and I want to urge other parents to follow their example. Letting children have a little low-risk fun is not neglect. It is, in fact, a form of special care, because you are putting their needs ahead of your fears. You owe it to your children, and they will be better people for it, I promise you. Life as a disabled person demands resilience and the willingness to face fear head on. Give them the best chance you can.

Chill Out, People: I Am Not Contagious

I take the bus, and there are several empty seats around me, conveniently placed right up front. Someone embarks via the front door, and walks quickly past me to take a seat waaaay at the back. I sit down for a lecture, noticing that most students are clumped together, while others have gone out of their way to give me a wide berth. I flop down in a seat in a study lounge, only to have the person next to me gather their belongings and sidle over to a seat across the room. Anyone seeing a pattern here? Anyone? Anyone?

I’m not even sure if people are conscious of this, but I am beginning to think they’re convinced that blindness is contagious. Unless you have an eye infection and enjoy swapping mascara with strangers,, you’re probably not a threat to anyone else’s eyes, but I’m often treated like a leper. Some people undoubtedly move away because society puts a premium on personal space. Others, however, do so because I make them uncomfortable, which I understand is a common experience for many disabled people. Mothers drag their children away from the oncoming blind lady, while students shift restlessly when I sit down near them. It’s common enough for people to leave space between each other; Canadians aren’t really used to tight quarters unless they live in Vancouver or Toronto. Even so, people’s attitude toward me seems a bit too blatantly fearful to be blamed on a desire to avoid human contact.

There are a litany of reasons to avoid sitting near someone: I wouldn’t blame you a bit for avoiding the person sniffling noisily in the corner. Nobody likes icky cold germs, but unless I have ominous substances pouring from my red nose, there is no logical reason to steer clear.

I usually just shake my head and move on—what else can I do? I’d be lying if I claimed it didn’t hurt a little, though. I’m a nice person who is reasonably friendly. At the least, I’d never encroach upon another person’s space, and I might even provide good conversation if they only gave me a try. Students are especially prone to engaging strangers on campus, but they tend to ignore me unless they think I need help. I want to say to them, “I cannot give you blindness, okay? Mine is a genetic condition, so unless you’re my secret half-brother, please relax. You’re fine.”

Social exclusion and general discomfort are the order of the day for a lot of visibly disabled people, and all one can do is bridge the gaps as best one can. Sometimes, though, my snarky side prevails, and I feel the urge to shout, “Come sit near the freak, why don’t you? I don’t bite (hard)!”

So, friends all, take a seat by me. It’s okay. You’ll leave as healthy and sighted as ever–I guarantee it.