“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.

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Let Me Be Generous

Earlier this week, a particularly trying driver took me to work. Exhausted from too little sleep and running dangerously low on patience, I listened as he prattled on about his “amazing” blind friend, with whom I must be utterly fascinated since all blind people are endlessly interested in each other, right? I explained how my phone’s GPS allowed me to follow along with the route, and indulged him when he asked, at least three times, “Where does it say we are now? … Now? …How about now? … Amazing!”
For this man, in fact, everything about me was amazing, from my university degree (a standard bachelor’s, nothing spectacular), to my full-time job, right down to the fact that I don’t live with my mother. He concluded that, like the afore-mentioned blind friend, I was a winning combination of blessed and, well, amazing. Due to my acute frustration and sleep deprivation, I was unable to appreciate his good nature and kindness, which I would certainly have noticed on an ordinary day.
The last straw came when we pulled up to my destination. As he assisted me with the debit machine, he skipped right past the “Tip Option” screen without asking me if I’d like to tip. Aware that cab drivers often do this instinctively—to the point where it stands out when they don’t try it—I had previously asked that he please stop at the tip screen. Ignoring my explicit instructions, he breezed right past it, and steadfastly refused to cancel and re-enter the transaction. Disregarding direct instructions when I’m letting someone else act as my eyes will inspire pique on the best days, and this was not my best day. By this point, the lack of caffeine and goodwill in my veins signaled that I should let this one slide. So, I let him go on his way, no doubt convinced he’d done me a kindness and blissfully ignorant of my annoyance.
Refusing to allow disabled people to express generosity is dismayingly normalized. Judging by the many conversations I’ve had with other disabled people on the subject, I’m far from the only one to find attempts at everyday generosity being rebuffed, sometimes forcefully, by all kinds of people. Even those asking for money on the street will sometimes push our money away, as though taking funds from disabled people would be a violation of their personal moral codes. Apparently, being homeless is still better than having a disability, and taking money from disadvantaged, less-fortunate souls is practically criminal. Who would accept gifts from such abjectly pitiable people, anyway?
I’m all too familiar with the prevailing narrative on disability in much of the world: anyone with a disability is disadvantaged, pitiful, and even cursed. People break the mould all the time, especially when they are accomplished enough to feature in inspiration-laden news stories, but no matter how successful we become, we are perceived to be worse off than nearly anyone else. The cab driver who laments he does not have enough money to feed his children will resolutely resist my offers of a tip I would otherwise spend on an overpriced latte I certainly don’t need. A person who does not have a place to sleep, food, or even a clean blanket is uncomfortable receiving support from me, even though I have every appearance of someone who is solvent, if not extravagantly wealthy.
There is a tiny nugget of truth in this stereotype, as with so many others. high unemployment rates, coupled with the extortionate costs of assistive devices and technology, mean many disabled people are indeed struggling financially. Some of us have incomes that are supplemented by government benefits, but most of us, myself included, are supporting ourselves without help. At the moment, my full-time job and freelance career are enough to give me a stable home, a nutritious diet, and the ability to afford the occasional luxury without compromising my student loan payments. That’s more than many of my nondisabled peers can say.
As with so many other disability-related issues, the problem runs more deeply than strangers who won’t take my money. I’ve written in the past about friends and family who, whether consciously or otherwise, shy away from allowing me to be generous. Whether they’re telling me not to help with difficult tasks or claiming they don’t want to burden me, even those closest to me are under the impression that I either have nothing to offer them, or at least should not be expected to give what I can. Having been raised in an extraordinarily open-hearted, unstinting community, the inability to participate in all the generosity around me was and continues to be a blow to my pride and spirit. My personality is characterized by a powerful need to give, and give lavishly, so any barrier that keeps me from doing so is emotionally devastating. While I do have people in my life who feel free to lean on me for support and will ask unhesitatingly for assistance whenever it’s needed, many others seem sheepish or even vaguely shocked at the very thought. It’s as though a voice inside them is saying, with not a little surprise, “You mean…*she* might be able to help *me* out? But that’s not how it’s supposed to go!”
I hope that, in time, strangers and friends will realize it’s possible to move beyond the paradigm where I am the helped and never the helper. I envision a society in which a disabled person’s tip or gift is seen as standard generosity and accepted guiltlessly. The world will be a slightly better, kinder place when people are open to the idea of a disabled person as more than a problem waiting to be solved or a good deed waiting to be done. In this, as in all things, I want to be no more and no less than everyone else.
Let me be generous. I have a lot to give.