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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“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.