“I’m Not Prejudiced! Some of My Best Friends are Blind!”

“I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black!”
“I’m not bigoted! Some of my best friends are LGBT!”

This century-old defence is generally dismissed, especially on the internet. People try to claim that, due to the presence of minorities in their circle of friends, they are above reproach. They can’t possibly be prejudiced. Would a racist have black friends? Would a bigot have gay friends? The general consensus is yes! a thousand times yes! Your best friends don’t shield you from your biases, even if they are willing to ignore or even embrace them.

Several months ago, someone I respect very much (let’s call her Alison) made a stereotypical blind joke: “Shouldn’t ads for blind people be on the radio instead of TV?” or something to that effect. I took no issue with the joke’s complete lack of comedic value; your mileage may vary, perhaps? What I did take issue with was the inherent (and silly) stereotyping in the joke. A lot of people think we don’t enjoy TV or movies simply because we can’t see. Apparently, the dialogue is some trivial, peripheral aspect of the whole experience. As helpful as described video can be, it is still very possible for us to enjoy TV shows (and cringe at the ads). Her joke played on that ridiculous stereotype, and she made it very publicly, reaching a large number of people all over the internet.

I, in my infinite foolishness, wrote to her:
“You do realize that blind people can still watch TV, yeah?”
“Um, hello? Of course. Ever heard of a joke?”
“Well, yes…it’s just that this one plays on some very pervasive stereotypes that we spend much of our time fighting against. Please please try not to perpetuate it.”

After this exchange, some friend of hers chimed in: “Wow, chill, bitch! Some of Alison’s best friends are blind!”

Ah, here we go…the ultimate trap: if my blind friend says it’s okay, then it is. No question. This is immutable, right?

Noooooo! Not even close. Not for one second.

I found this whole conversation distinctly odd. Alison is a well-known and very vocal feminist who supports the rights of minorities. She despises stereotypical jokes about women, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities. She devotes much of her time to dispelling the myths and encouraging truth and inclusiveness. All wonderful stuff, and I like her a great deal.

Why, then, does all this stop applying when dealing with blind people? Suddenly, all the ethics and inclusiveness and open-mindedness disappear. Suddenly, for no discernible reason, it is acceptable to make ridiculous, condescending jokes about us that, if made about a gay or black or transgender person, would be reviled for the bigotry that they are.

Jokes among your friends are different from jokes made in public. I play along with blind jokes made at my personal expense with enthusiasm. Blind people, in fact, are very good at laughing at ourselves. I’ve always written my blog with my sense of humour at the forefront, so it’s not the jokes I have a problem with, not really. Alison’s joke is pretty harmless, at least on the surface.

What I have a problem with is the defence itself. It’s such an empty, futile argument. It appears to lay a steel trap, but is really just so much shrinking from all responsibility. Maybe you have a blind friend who thinks stereotypical jokes are hilarious, and that’s okay. Feel free to make them whenever you’d like … around and about them, that is. Just because your blind friend is okay with something, does not mean that the rest of us are okay with it. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay, period.

There will be a lot of people who assume, judging by this post, that I’m an exceptionally uptight person. I’m not. I am almost too tolerant at times—something my friends never tire of telling me. My issue isn’t with the individuals, like Alison, who tell these jokes and/or excuse behaviour that would be bigotry if directed at any other group. My issue is with the people who allow that argument to stand unchallenged. I could have six hundred gay friends, and they could all actively encourage me to tell prejudicial jokes or otherwise behave in a bigoted manner towards them. That doesn’t change the facts, though: most people, LGBT or otherwise, would find that behaviour generally offensive.

Maybe your blind friend is okay with bad TV jokes. Maybe she thinks it’s funny when you pet her service dog while its in harness. Maybe he erupts into side-splitting mirth when you steal his cane and hide it. (God, I hope I never meet your friend.) None of that matters in the grand scheme. If you tried any of that in the wider world, people would denounce it, and rightly so.

If your best friends are allowing you to go out there and act like a bigot without at least warning you … get some new friends.

Go Ahead, Laugh!

People can become very twitchy about humour in relation to disability. Laughing at any aspect of it can seem a transgression of the gravest sort. How could anyone with a conscience make fun of the poor little blind girl, right? Barbaric!

Contrary to this belief, I find humour inexpressibly helpful; indeed, sometimes I’m not sure how I’d survive without it. There are many situations in my life that seem to demand tears. When I can’t (or won’t) cry, I can always laugh. Laughing can defend me from the scorn of others; it can shelter me from the humiliation of what has just happened; it can strengthen me in the face of whatever it is I’ve messed up this time; and it can encourage others to laugh the hard stuff off, as well.

Take a simple blunder like this one: during a camping trip many years ago, I was visiting with my sister, a friend of hers (a stranger to me), and a cousin. All evening, my cousin had occupied the same chair. I usually pay attention to where people choose to sit, as it makes it easier to interact with them with a modicum of social grace. Believe me, I need all the grace I can find. Unfortunately, this system isn’t infallible, as I was soon to discover. Assuming that my cousin was still seated where she’d been all night, I went up to her from behind and hugged her, crooning “I loooove you!” for good measure. Without missing a beat, my sister’s friend replied “Aww! I love you too, Meagan!”. I wasn’t about to cry…so I laughed. This wonderful person had the grace to laugh with me.

Social slips like that one are sometimes enough to make a rather shy girl like me recoil in horror, retreating into a ball of humiliation until everyone else has long forgotten the incident. I have, however, learned to use humour as a tool to handle embarrassment with confidence—something that is essential when trying to put others at ease. If you’re planning to pursue a career in communications and public relations, as I am, networking is an unavoidable component of the field. I learned early that if I pretended I was comfortable with my “blindness mistakes”, others would become comfortable with them as well. Getting them to giggle with me over them is even better, so I aim for a laugh almost every time. Of course, if the slip is tiny, it’s sometimes better just to let it rest; chances are whomever I was with didn’t even notice it anyway. No need to draw more attention to myself than I already do. And you know what they say about faking it till you make it…that really works. Since using humour as an instrument of social bonding, I’ve become much more at ease in my own skin, even in the most terrifying of public situations.

I’d like to address something far more important, though, and perhaps far less well-known to people in general. From a very early age, I have acknowledged the benefits of a little gallows humour when things go horribly, horribly wrong. While blindness doesn’t often put me into devastating situations akin to, say, terminal illness, it certainly tests my patience and fortitude at times. I’ve talked about getting hopelessly lost, being denied essential opportunities, and struggling with a minor identity crisis. All these things would have been so much harder to bear had I been unable to laugh at them. Even some of the small stuff—submitting essays with messy fonts, groping strangers on the bus, and tripping that poor guy on crutches (more on that later) seem a little worse than they actually are while they’re happening.

Reactions range from admiration to outright horror when I make light of serious issues surrounding my disability. It’s as though people think I’m degrading myself by laughing at it, even though it’s my issue to laugh at if I please. “Don’t talk about yourself that way!” they exclaim, leaping onto soap boxes that have appeared from thin air. I always respond the same way: “I need to laugh. If I don’t, I’ll cry, and nobody wants to see that.”. While there’s nothing wrong with venting frustration or sorrow in whatever way suits, I generally prefer a good belly laugh to a storm of tears. Besides, I’m far less attractive with a red nose and puffy eyes and, as we all know, unattractiveness is a tragedy!

It is true that the suffering experienced by those with disabilities is no laughing matter in general. It is not to be taken lightly and should be treated with some solemnity and respect. With this in mind, it is perfectly acceptable for both the sufferers and those closest to them to find a little humour in a bad situation, especially if the alternative is to wallow in despair. I realize that this might seem like clichéd advice, but it’s advice that few people actually seem to take. Maybe it feels like crossing an invisible line, over which you might be considered callous or unfeeling. But they don’t keep doling out this advice for nothing. It really works; this pronouncement comes from a veritable flood of experience. I’ve been in just about every hopeless situation a blind person can find themselves in, and humour has helped me out of nearly all of them.

We’ve all heard the wry, brave humour of the desperately ill, bereaved, and endangered. Their ability to laugh at themselves and their various predicaments isn’t just something to be admired; it is something to be imitated. Even if you don’t feel in the least strong, laughing at your problems will make them seem more manageable, even if nothing has changed. Laughter, after all, means that you’ve gained some distance and perspective on the issue, and are able to find whatever silver lining there might be in it. It’s not just about putting on a brave face and displaying the appropriate heroics. It’s also about lightening your burdens as much as you can, and allowing others to lighten theirs as well. You can be sure that if you’re suffering, someone else is suffering with you. Do them a favour: make them laugh.