Battling for My Castle

I’m not a home body, per se, but I do enjoy being home. My home is the one place where I am in my element. I know where everything is, I’m familiar with the obstacles, and nothing dangerous is likely to trip me up. A blind person’s home is often the lone setting in an ever-changing world over which they have any control. They likely don’t need a mobility aid to move around it with ease. They can feel safe, navigate efficiently, and enjoy a space that is adapted for their needs, instead of moulding to everyone else’s. In our homes, generally speaking, we are at liberty to be completely ourselves, with as much independence as possible.
It’s good to trip and run into things sometimes, to learn to orient in unpredictable environments, because the world won’t always be ideally set up in a way that’s safe and simple for blind and other disabled people. Hell, my parents were advised by someone from the Canadian national Institute for the Blind that they should routinely rearrange the furniture without warning me, just to keep me on my toes. They didn’t heed the advice, thank goodness, and only rearranged the furniture when they fancied a change. Like me, they believed it was important that disabled people have one home base where they can put those tools away and rest.
But the blind person’s home as sanctuary can only exist if housemates, partners and/or family members agree. And it can only work if the blind person in question feels they deserve such a home, or at the very least, a smaller space within their home that works well for them.
I didn’t consider this controversial. An alarming social media experience proved me wrong. As it turns out, plenty of disabled people don’t believe either of these things. They don’t think household members have any obligation to a disabled occupant and, more bewildering still, they seemed to think the very concept of being accommodated in one’s own home is unreasonable, untenable, even greedy.
Yes, many of the very people who insist coffee shops, grocery stores, schools, workplaces, and all manner of public spaces be accessible and accommodating don’t think that applies to their own families. Their own spouses. Their own parents and siblings and roommates.
How do I know this? I discovered it the hard way, by posting what I thought was an innocent question on social media, and being totally flabbergasted by the results – so much so I deleted the thread within the hour, convinced no good could come of it.
In the thread, I asked for suggestions to help my now-husband get better about keeping our home safe and blind-friendly for me. Nothing draconian. I wasn’t asking that he label every object in the house, or memorize complex organizational systems. I didn’t require him to arrange everything precisely the way I wanted, or clean to absurd levels, or, I don’t know, walk around with a blindfold so he could experience my suffering. Our shared desire was for him to learn how to be more conscious of things like open cupboard doors, pushed-out chairs and other hazards that are hard for me to anticipate and incredibly painful when bumped at a good clip.
I don’t gallop around my apartment, but I like to walk at a brisk pace, as anyone might in their own houses, without fear of stepping on an expensive tablet or sustaining mild to moderate injury. Piles of laundry on the floor? No big. Cluttered counters? Whatever, I’ll deal. Smashing into a protruding closet door or banging my hip on an open drawer? No thanks. I got so sick of toppling half-full water glasses discarded in precarious places that I began dreading the walk through my own kitchen. I wanted to stop bashing my toes and banging my head, and my partner was tired of watching me get hurt. He felt terrible, he couldn’t understand why he was finding it so hard to accommodate such a simple request, and he thought I might get some good feedback online.
Here is a paraphrased composite of what I got back. Lots of people were lovely and helpful, but those comments aren’t the ones I want to highlight today.

  • “You think it’s hard now? Try having animals and kids around.” (I have neither, so how is this relevant, exactly?)
  • “Are you sure he’s not doing this on purpose? Sounds like domestic violence to me.” (Huh?)
  • “Your expectations are way out of whack here. It’s his home too.” (Right, but I’m getting hurt. Regularly. In my own house. And he wants that to stop as much as I do, so…)
  • “This is normal. You just have to get used to it. I walk slowly and hold my hands out and stuff.” (In your own damn house? All the time? Do you use your cane as well?)
  • “You can’t micromanage a housemate and you shouldn’t try. That’s really controlling.” (But he’s my fiancé. And he wants to be better. He hits his head on his own open doors, you know. No one is having fun here.)
  • “Wow, he sounds like an idiot. Who can’t remember to close a cupboard?” (How understanding of you.)
  • “This is just the reality of blindness. You just deal. I do.” (Good for you?)

Thinly veiled judgment followed well-meaning but mystifying concern, with accusations of controlling behaviour bringing up the rear. All that, and very few good suggestions buried in the mix. I’d been prepared for people to ask why my partner was having such difficulty. I was even ready for the odd comment suggesting it was my own fault, because there ain’t no victim-blaming party like a disability victim-blaming party. I must admit, however, that I had not imagined I’d encounter such a large and diverse group of people for whom no one had ever, it seemed, made a real effort to keep their home environments safe and reasonably blind-friendly.
I’ve never lived in a perfect space myself, and I’ve had a few housemates who made no effort at all, but that didn’t stop me from aspiring to something better one day. That didn’t convince me I’d better give up altogether and shuffle along in a space designed for everyone’s comfort but mine. Did that make me especially entitled? Suddenly I wasn’t sure.
I’ve put off writing about this for something like a year, not because I didn’t have a lot to say, but because I was so confused and afraid to prod the hornet’s nest once again. I was second-guessing myself. Was this a wake-up call that I was being too demanding? Perhaps this philosophy comes from somewhere legitimate and understandable. If someone took the time to explain it to me, I might head some way toward comprehending it. Maybe all this cynicism stems from too many demoralizing conversations with kids and spouses and parents and siblings who just didn’t get it, who wouldn’t or couldn’t make changes, who didn’t see the point. It could well be I am unusually privileged to live with a partner who wants me to be as comfortable in my own house as he is, even if it means making a few adjustments.
But I don’t think I will ever agree that strangers owe me more than those with whom I share my home. I won’t claim to know what these commenters were thinking, but from where I’m standing, it looked like they’d persuaded themselves that it’s better to call someone controlling and unrealistic than to admit they might deserve more – that more might be possible if they ask for what they need, and do the work to make it happen.
Maybe this perspective isn’t strange to anyone else. Maybe I’m in the minority. But I stand by this: If you think your workplace and your local library and your school and your dentist’s office and your government should accommodate your access needs, but you don’t think this also applies at home, that’s a damn shame. The notion that your boss, your professor, your elected representatives are more obligated to you as a disabled person than your own family is inexpressibly upsetting to me. The very thought that you feel more comfortable advocating for your rights as a citizen or employee or voter than as a spouse or a housemate is heartbreaking. The idea that you’d belittle a fellow disabled person for wanting an accessible home, the same way you want accessible public spaces, makes me sad and angry and deeply frustrated.
So, okay, I’ll concede that practice is useful. Expect the unexpected, and all. I should hone my instinct for caution. I should be ready for anything when I’m out and about. But I have the rest of the world to test me that way–at work, at other people’s houses, out on the street. I don’t need or want that at home. When I come back from a long day of working around other people’s idea of well-designed spaces, after a day of dodging distracted texters and avoiding people’s pushed-out chairs, the last thing I want to do is more of the same. I want to sit back, relax, and know that when I get up for another cup of tea, I’m not going to need a cane or hands-out-shuffle-walk to get there safely.
My home is my castle. It is organized in a way that works for me, without unduly inconveniencing the one who shares it (he has since learned to close doors, and I can’t remember the last time I got hurt around here). My home is my one safe place, my retreat when navigating a world that isn’t designed for me becomes too much. I intend to keep it that way, and for that, I will not apologize.

“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.