Stronger (and Clumsier) Together

Many people have been working from home for a long time, and are used to doing everything by phone or video chat. The novelty has worn off for them, and they know how to conduct themselves gracefully, more or less. But for the rest of us, the last couple of months of teleconference meetings and online group chats have been, well, an adjustment. Managing group chats and teleconferences is an art, and we are not yet artists.

I’m not a phone or video chat person at the very best of times, and these are not the best of times. Much of that aversion is due to my general preference for written communication, and fierce discomfort with awkward situations.

It turns out some of it is a new understanding of how much the average person depends on nonverbal communication. It’s a cliché at this point, and blind people are frequently taken down a peg via sketchy statistics about exactly how much communication is unspoken, but it’s never been slammed home quite like this for me before. Physical distancing has meant no one can see each other well, or at all, and boy, does that change things.

I don’t know about you folks, but all my phone and video chat meetings have felt infinitely more confusing, and much less satisfying, than in-person gatherings. The flow of conversation is stilted, even when audio quality is high. People interrupt each other constantly, and it’s clearly accidental. Audio and video delays make it harder for people to follow group conversations, since what they hear does not line up with what they see. Larger meetings have lost their effortless interactivity, because people can’t read a room when there’s no room to read. A lot of the visual cues sighted people use to make sense of complex group dynamics have vanished, and they’re all tripping over each other as a result.

Me? I’m just my ordinary clumsy self, no worse off than usual, but I’m suddenly contending with everyone else’s confusion, which makes for awkward times.

And so, once again, I am reminded that I should be a tiny bit kinder to myself when I’m out in the world, mingling with people who have a distinct social advantage. COVID-19 has encouraged me to acknowledge how much effort and skill I bring to all my social interactions, and to admit that, hey, I’m actually pretty good at navigating social situations while missing the majority of cues on which everyone else relies.

All these years, I, as well as sighted people around me, have been hard on me for the cues I miss, the delicate social dynamics I’m oblivious to, the times I interrupt people because it’s apparently not my turn to speak. I have sat through hundreds of fast-moving group conversations, frantically filtering the chaos, opting not to speak at all in many cases to avoid the awkward social dance.

Is someone about to speak? Is it time yet? Are people looking elsewhere? How have people reacted to what I’ve just said? Everyone is quiet. Whyyyyy are they so quiet? Are they processing? Waiting for more? Was it okay? Am I doing okay?

It’s obvious, I know. Of course this was happening because a hell of a lot goes on in silence, where I can’t perceive it, in ways I can’t possibly interpret. Of course I should expect to struggle more and feel clumsier; I’m working with less than half of the information everyone else has! Shouldn’t a person who has been blind for a quarter-century know that without visual input, everyone else is just as clumsy as me?

Well, yes. And I did know it, intellectually. Watching it play out firsthand, however, has been interesting and, dare I say it, validating?

Watching socially adept sighted people make ‘blind person mistakes’–getting confused, losing track, interrupting, addressing people who have already left the conversation, going quiet because it’s all too much–well, it’s been helpful. I take no pleasure in it, and I have no doubt we’ll all find our groove soon. But it’s been an excellent opportunity for me to realize, all the way down, that I’m doing pretty okay out here.

If you’re a fellow blind person who has gotten down on yourself for missing cues and failing to interpret the impossible, I invite you to chill. I also invite you to extend that chill to other blind people as they flounder through this visual world. And let’s be patient with sighted people wrapping their heads around this new way of communicating, just as they have been (mostly) patient with us.

We’re all in this together. We’re all clumsy, and awkward, and out of our depth. Together.

Stumbling on Belonging: A Closer Look at Inclusive Spaces

When people visualize an inclusive environment, they often picture a forced, excessively deliberate atmosphere. Certain topics are off limits. Certain jokes are avoided. Inclusion, in some people’s minds, is a pious concept, wherein the vast majority lose out to put a tiny minority at ease.

But when I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon an inclusive environment—my current workplace is an ideal example—it’s never been joyless or contrived. A lucky convergence of factors makes me perfectly comfortable, long before I realize it’s happening. By the time I become aware that I have found that rare sense of belonging, it’s too late to pinpoint precisely why it happened that way. All I can do is sit back and enjoy it, hoping I find it again elsewhere, and knowing there’s little I can do to reawaken the magic.

In my experience, thesimple, understated inclusionI crave simply can’t be planned, designed, or regulated. For example, at my current job I have all the technology I need to perform my duties, and a harassment policy to protect me from discrimination. There is, however, no mandate requiring staff to show me kindness or invite me to lunch or treat me with such implicit respect that I forget, for long stretches, that I’m any different from them. (It helps that a handful of coworkers have disabilities of their own. Seeing how well they were treated was critical.) Among my colleagues, I am taken at face value to such a degree that when some small mistake or accessibility barrier reminds me I’m disabled, it’s jarring. I spend all day being so effortlessly included that when I step outside that bubble and field someone’s intrusive questions or unwanted assistance, I’m brought back to earth with a painful jolt.

Oh, right. Visibly disabled. People are weird about this. Almost forgot.

For me, authentic inclusion naturally accompanies the people and places in my life that make me feel part of something much bigger—without singling me out or confining me to the diversity table. Fellow disabled people I’ve spoken to agree: there is no consistent pattern, and you can’t always predict the spaces that will trigger this elusive magic. I have found belonging in the most unexpected places, failing to find it where I expect it to be. I don’t necessarily feel most at home with people I have the most in common with, or people in my age group, or even in groups of disabled people. Indeed, I sometimes feel least comfortable around other disabled people, where you might hypothesize I should be most comfortable of all. No—there is little rhyme or reason, and I’ve come to accept that try as we might, we can’t guarantee everyone will belong. We can ensure we’re not freezing anyone out, and we can remove barriers, but that warm sense of welcome demands the right group of people, in the right place, at the right time.

In my favourite spaces, we go ahead and make the questionable jokes, and I am free to laugh because I know I am not made powerless. We may be drawn to one another by our interests, our career goals, or even our proximity; but ultimately, we are bonded by our mutual understanding that I, like everyone else in the room, am welcome. Not simply “included,” not merely “tolerated,” but valued. I am a contributor, not a liability. I am helpful, not helpless. I am an asset to be appreciated, not a box to be ticked or a funding source to be tapped or a quota to be met.

Maybe it’s all seeming a little mystical, but whether you’re disabled or nondisabled, there are small steps you can take that might make a huge difference to the disabled people around you:

  • Take people at face value. If they say they can do a thing, assume it’s true until they prove otherwise.
  • Match your expectations to what you observe, not what you assume. If they seem secure and competent, they probably are.
  • Accept their help when it’s offered. Don’t act as if the assistance can only flow one way.
  • Seek their feedback when planning for their participation. When someone asked me recently which board games I liked to play, rather than asking what I was “able” to play, my mind was blown. For the first time outside my family and friend groups, someone was less concerned with what was literally possible, and more concerned with what I’d actually find enjoyable.
  • Chill. Seriously, juuuust chill. Nothing kills inclusion faster than fixating on the things that make people stand out, at the expense of what brings them together.

So, no, you can’t force the magic. Strong values and robust policies are important, but they’re not everything. You can build all the ramps and design all the accessible activities and overthink it all to death. From what I can see, though, if you want to attract the magic, you change your thinking, most of all. It is as simple and as complicated as that.