What Does Blindness Look Like, Anyway?

I was at church a few weeks ago, and a women’s group I’m involved in was doing a bible study led by a woman who happens to be blind. We watched a video series featuring a blind person, and someone made the comment ‘You know, she doesn’t look blind!’ Of course I turned and said ‘What exactly does blind look like? Why doesn’t she look blind?’ While I had a smile in my voice, I silenced the whole table because no one wanted to answer. Their silence was answer enough.

This quote, contributed by one of my blind readers, perfectly illustrates the awkwardness that ensues when sighted people casually observe that someone doesn’t “look blind.” Many mean this quite literally, of course. Canes, guide dogs, and prosthetic eyes are dead giveaways, and they are fairly well-known symbols of blindness. So, when some people say this, they might simply mean that someone’s eyes look to be in working order, and they don’t have a mobility aid in sight. Unfortunately, there are many other sighted people whose comments are more complicated. Upon closer examination, the implications are somewhat troubling. It is rare that these people have given much substantial thought to what blindness is supposed to look like, and are reluctant to analyze their own perceptions when they are challenged.
So, what does blindness look like, really?
Maybe it looks like an anonymous person waving a cane around, or marching along with a dog. Maybe it looks like someone shambling in an ungainly manner like something out of The Walking Dead, arms outstretched, searching carefully for obstacles. Maybe it looks like someone who has half-closed eyes, or milky white eyes, or no eyes at all. This last, at least, makes a kind of sense.
For me, though, blindness looks like a normal person doing ordinary things. For me, blindness looks like anyone you might meet on the street, the only difference being a mobility aid and, in some cases, prosthetic eyes or dark glasses. For me, blindness looks normal—or as normal as any part of the human experience can be. Yes, blindness sets us apart; there’s no denying that. Still, people’s perceptions and the reality look quite different.
Whenever someone tells me that I don’t look blind, it’s meant as a compliment: they mean that I’m competent, graceful, and normal-looking. They mean that my eyes are pleasing to look at and seem natural enough, even though they move about constantly, never really focusing on anything in particular. They mean that I’m far removed from the graceless, clumsy mess they often picture blind people to be, and it surprises and delights them.
While I was trying on wedding dresses, my bridal consultant was apparently blown away by how quickly and easily I could move around in an unfamiliar environment. I don’t consider this of note, really, but she certainly did, and more than once she said things like “I don’t believe your blind!” and “You must be faking it!” For her, ease of movement and grace were not associated with blindness, and in her own strange way, she was trying to praise me.
The thing is, this compliment is backhanded, even when it isn’t meant to be. It is predicated on the assumption that a blind person will be pleased to be singled out from the rest, and happy to be recognized for their ability to participate fully in the wider world. We are expected, it seems, to look down upon other blind people—those people who look conspicuously blind—and be grateful that we’re not among them.
I’m not proud to be blind, per se; pride seems a little absurd to me. Blindness is, at its base, a hardware failure. That said, I’m not ashamed of it, either. I don’t see it as a stigma I am railing against at all times. My life’s mission is not to seem as sighted as possible or to stand out because of sheer normality. My life’s mission is to go out there and be a decent human being; to write and edit for a living; to play a little music in my spare time; and to love, laugh, and enjoy my time here with abandon. Blindness isn’t something that should define me overall, even if it is a significant part of my makeup.
So, what does blindness look like? Well, I think it looks … human.

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Exhibit A: On Getting Past The Novelty Stage

It’s natural to be fascinated by someone new. Our brains love novelty; new things and people tend to seem more interesting and attractive by default. So it’s no surprise that many of my most cherished friendships were founded upon at least a little novelty. People are always curious about the blindness thing: they have questions, concerns, etc. While it’s not the most ideal way to make friends, I don’t mind too much. I might do the same if I made a friend who was deaf, or in a wheelchair; I have no doubt that I would have plenty of questions to ask, and wouldn’t always be successful in curbing my insatiable curiosity. All normal, all healthy, all good. But… (and there’s always a but)…

 

…there are some friendships (and I use the term loosely here) that seem to thrive upon the sheer novelty of disability. People really get into the whole sighted guide adventure. They love coming up with new questions to ask me long after I’ve answered all the usual ones. They want to help me with absolutely everything, just to see how “it all works”. This becomes a little off-putting after awhile, because I’m left wondering whether they’d be my friend at all if not for the blindness. Is that my only selling point? Is that what they’re into? Because if it is, then where exactly does that leave me? What if I eventually lose my intrigue? Will they go off and find some new disability to coo over?

 

I was once invited out for coffee by one of my instructors. I assumed we’d spend the time chatting about the course; I’d done quite well, and had more than a passing interest in it. Instead, it turned out to be an hour’s worth of Q and A. To his credit, once he figured out that there was more to me than spokesperson for all the blindies of the world, our conversations became far more interesting. Still, it was a rather disappointing experience.

 

There are even people who stick around after the novelty wears off because associating with me gives them the warm fuzzies. They think that helping me is the nicest, most Mother Teresa-like thing they could possibly do, and it reassures them that they are good people. (FYI, studies suggest that Mother Teresa was actually a little bit nuts, so maybe find a different role model.) I always appreciate magnanimity, but there’s such a thing as too damn much. People make me into a walking, talking source of validation, if you will. Beyond my need for help, I’m worth very little to them, even if they don’t consciously realize it. The more independent I am, (and I’d like to think I’m reasonably independent as people go), the less I matter to them. If I don’t need something, we don’t see each other, period. My value lies only in what they can do for me; beyond that, I’m not worth their time and energy, because they’re either out with more interesting friends, or busy saving other lost little souls. Invariably, the friendship ends when they become bored, and they move along to the next one. And there is always a next one.

 

Needless to say, I consider this type of friendship highly undesirable. I am fortunate in that I have had this happen to me only a very few times, but each time, it has hurt deeply. I befriend people because I like them; it’s as simple as that. To know that others befriend me because I’m some fascinating superfreak, or because I can help them feel good about themselves, is insulting, damaging, and depressing as all get-out. Friendship is supposed to be grounded in healthy, mutual interest and respect; I don’t want to be someone’s charity case or pet social experiment. I’m not a novelty object, and I’m not a living breathing pity party. If you want to be my friend, please do so because I make you laugh, or because you enjoy my company, or because I make delicious cookies (and I do), or because you think I’m a genuinely interesting person (you know, beyond the eye stuff). Don’t befriend me because you think it’s the “right” thing to do, or because you think you might be able to write a book about the experience later. You certainly shouldn’t befriend me solely because you want to blog about it; Blogging about my broken eyes is my job, damn it! PSA: Blogging/writing about me will not make you much money unless you’re good at embellishment; I’m not that interesting, just as a heads up.

 

In all seriousness, let me be a bit of a broken record and restate what I’ve been saying all along in these posts: disability in no way negates humanity. Treat us like people, not like objects, or circus freaks, or exhibits. We don’t exist for your personal validation. We love it when you help us, and if you are good friends to us we will adore you forever. Even if you’re not really friends with us, but you’re a naturally helpful person, we will still think you’re awesome. Just make sure that the friendship has a lot more to it than that, because on our end, it will be about way, way more than what you can do for us. If that does not prove true for you, find another friend, because no one deserves to be a walking support system.

 

For anyone who fears that a friendship is edging towards the danger zone, here are a few tips to nudge it back towards a healthier direction. I’ve used these for my own friendships, and I find them to be very effective.

 

Analyze the reasons you hang out with each other. If you find that the majority of your hangout time is devoted to helping your disabled friend, you may want to kill that pattern as quickly as you can. Feel free to be helpful to them, but ensure that you’re socializing with them just for the fun of it more often than not. The last thing you want (and probably the last thing your disabled friend wants), is a friendship built mostly upon your ability to be helpful.

 

Let your friend be of assistance to you in whatever ways they can. Everyone has something to offer; find out what your friend can help you with, so that you can break a potential cycle of mild parasitism. I’m not suggesting that you attempt to make your friend feel useful; I’m merely suggesting that you allow them to do for you what you do for them as a matter of course. Friendships in which one friend is of exponentially greater value to the other are destined for disaster, and can be enormously unfulfilling for both parties. Don’t assume that your disabled friend has nothing to bring to the table. I’ve been known to edit my friends’ essays, play counselor when they have profound issues they need to talk through, and make jokes when they’re sad. (You’ll have to check with them on the efficacy of that last, though.) It can’t be denied that I give fabulous hugs, as well, so there’s that. See? I’m positively brimming with perks!

 

Resist bringing disability into every conversation. It’s okay to be open about it, and if it comes up, then it comes up. However, there is such a thing as making it into something bigger than it needs to be. It shouldn’t be an integral part of everything you discuss, and it shouldn’t be the centre of attention at all times. Chances are, your friend is sick to death of talking about it anyway, and would love to chat about almost anything else. I admit that it can be cathartic to vent about my disability to friends sometimes, but it’s definitely not something I’d want to do every day. As an experiment, try spending a whole day with your friend without mentioning it beyond what necessity might dictate. If it’s hard to find things to talk about, you know you’re in trouble. On the flip side, if you catch yourself completely forgetting that your friend has a disability at all, pat yourself on the back: you’re doing just fine.

 

When introducing your friend to others, don’t dwell on the disability; make sure you mention cool stuff about them, like what they’re really good at, or what they’re interested in. Establish common ground, so that the focus can shift away from the novelty of their existence and toward things they might actually want to be known for. If you set the tone, others will follow your lead.

 

Assess your friend’s attitude towards their disability, particularly in the ways that affect your relationship with them. If you find that they are focused only on what you can help them with, not to mention how utterly tragic their lot is, it’s time to say your farewells. As I mentioned earlier, no one deserves to be regarded as little more than a source of help and comfort. Don’t let yourself be used, no matter how guilty you might feel. The majority of us would never do that to you, so don’t let the few of us who would get away with it.

 

Finally, reassure your friend that you appreciate them for more than their disability. I have actually caught myself making blind jokes because I felt like that was all the other person wanted to hear. I even found myself going out of my way to discuss it, because it was guaranteed to peek their interest in a way that nothing else could. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I felt almost self-exploitative, and was ashamed of both myself and the state of the friendship. Never let things get as bad as that, if you can help it. Even if it feels a bit awkward, make sure they know that you value them for themselves most of all. It may seem obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to them. For all you know, they’ve been spending hours trying to think of a delicate way to bring it up. I know I have..