Stronger (and Clumsier) Together

Many people have been working from home for a long time, and are used to doing everything by phone or video chat. The novelty has worn off for them, and they know how to conduct themselves gracefully, more or less. But for the rest of us, the last couple of months of teleconference meetings and online group chats have been, well, an adjustment. Managing group chats and teleconferences is an art, and we are not yet artists.

I’m not a phone or video chat person at the very best of times, and these are not the best of times. Much of that aversion is due to my general preference for written communication, and fierce discomfort with awkward situations.

It turns out some of it is a new understanding of how much the average person depends on nonverbal communication. It’s a cliché at this point, and blind people are frequently taken down a peg via sketchy statistics about exactly how much communication is unspoken, but it’s never been slammed home quite like this for me before. Physical distancing has meant no one can see each other well, or at all, and boy, does that change things.

I don’t know about you folks, but all my phone and video chat meetings have felt infinitely more confusing, and much less satisfying, than in-person gatherings. The flow of conversation is stilted, even when audio quality is high. People interrupt each other constantly, and it’s clearly accidental. Audio and video delays make it harder for people to follow group conversations, since what they hear does not line up with what they see. Larger meetings have lost their effortless interactivity, because people can’t read a room when there’s no room to read. A lot of the visual cues sighted people use to make sense of complex group dynamics have vanished, and they’re all tripping over each other as a result.

Me? I’m just my ordinary clumsy self, no worse off than usual, but I’m suddenly contending with everyone else’s confusion, which makes for awkward times.

And so, once again, I am reminded that I should be a tiny bit kinder to myself when I’m out in the world, mingling with people who have a distinct social advantage. COVID-19 has encouraged me to acknowledge how much effort and skill I bring to all my social interactions, and to admit that, hey, I’m actually pretty good at navigating social situations while missing the majority of cues on which everyone else relies.

All these years, I, as well as sighted people around me, have been hard on me for the cues I miss, the delicate social dynamics I’m oblivious to, the times I interrupt people because it’s apparently not my turn to speak. I have sat through hundreds of fast-moving group conversations, frantically filtering the chaos, opting not to speak at all in many cases to avoid the awkward social dance.

Is someone about to speak? Is it time yet? Are people looking elsewhere? How have people reacted to what I’ve just said? Everyone is quiet. Whyyyyy are they so quiet? Are they processing? Waiting for more? Was it okay? Am I doing okay?

It’s obvious, I know. Of course this was happening because a hell of a lot goes on in silence, where I can’t perceive it, in ways I can’t possibly interpret. Of course I should expect to struggle more and feel clumsier; I’m working with less than half of the information everyone else has! Shouldn’t a person who has been blind for a quarter-century know that without visual input, everyone else is just as clumsy as me?

Well, yes. And I did know it, intellectually. Watching it play out firsthand, however, has been interesting and, dare I say it, validating?

Watching socially adept sighted people make ‘blind person mistakes’–getting confused, losing track, interrupting, addressing people who have already left the conversation, going quiet because it’s all too much–well, it’s been helpful. I take no pleasure in it, and I have no doubt we’ll all find our groove soon. But it’s been an excellent opportunity for me to realize, all the way down, that I’m doing pretty okay out here.

If you’re a fellow blind person who has gotten down on yourself for missing cues and failing to interpret the impossible, I invite you to chill. I also invite you to extend that chill to other blind people as they flounder through this visual world. And let’s be patient with sighted people wrapping their heads around this new way of communicating, just as they have been (mostly) patient with us.

We’re all in this together. We’re all clumsy, and awkward, and out of our depth. Together.

Talking to (Disabled) Strangers: A Handy Demonstration

The driver who picked me up from work today was a stranger, so I prepared myself for the typical onslaught of questions, well-meant but awkward and unbearably personal:
Are you totally blind or only somewhat blind? What happened to you? Were you born that way? Do you live on your own? Is that safe? Do you have a job? That’s so nice that they hired you! Do you have a helper? Does the government pay for your groceries? By the way, where’s your dog?
He introduced himself as my driver—no grabbing, no assumptions about how to get me from point A to point B—and gave me full control over how he guided me. He explained that he’d had to park in a tricky spot, describing obstacles so well that I found my way into the vehicle with perfect efficiency. That was the last time disability was mentioned.
On the way home, he asked me scores of questions, just as I’d expected. There was a slight twist, however:
Do you work in that beautiful building? Is it that gorgeous inside as well? How’d you become a speechwriter—that’s really impressive! What kind of education do you need for that? Who’s the best speaker you’ve worked with? Did you study historical speeches? What do you think of Churchill?
To my immense delight, he interspersed these novel, engaging questions with amusing anecdotes. He described his attempts at improvised dinner theatre. He told me about the time he channeled his inner Basil Fawlty, to hilarious effect. He asked me what “extemporize” meant. He mused about turning his many exploits into a book.
“I’m a great storyteller, but I can’t write. My punctuation sucks.”
“Eh, that’s what editors are for. You bring the stories. We bring the punctuation.”
As he dropped me off, he casually assumed I’d know the best way to find my building’s entrance, seeing as I live there and all. Sounds inconsequential, I know, but most drivers argue, at least a little.
Accompanying me to my door, he told me it had been wonderful to meet me, slipped in one last excited comment about how cool it was to chat with a speechwriter (guys, I’m really not very important, for serious), and he was off.
It was only as I was unlocking my apartment door that I realized it: I had had an effortless conversation with a complete stranger, and it had happened without my usual redirections.
At this point, I’m very skilled at turning a conversation away from topics I find uncomfortable, but this perfect interaction had happened out in the wild, so to speak, where conversations with strangers tend to derail without my intervention. There was no contextual framework, like a business mixer or conference space, to set the tone and subject matter. I hadn’t been the one to initiate, and I had not once felt the need to steer. I was free to sit back and forget, for a few minutes at least, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. I happened to meet a person with natural tact and a sociable, curious nature. For once, that had been enough, all by itself, to set the interaction on a course we could both enjoy. More extroverted disabled folks might find this process easier, but connecting in this way has always been a chore for me.
I let this sink in for a moment, surprised at the power of such a small mercy. We had talked about writing and theatre and editing and Sir Winston freakin’ Churchill, but we had not talked about my cane, or my broken eyes, or the weird bruising on my face left by dozens of severe migraines. We hadn’t even discussed my tragic lack of a service dog. Disability had only come up when it was relevant, and the things that made me interesting stole centre stage from the things that made me strange.
Lest you get the impression my social life is even more stunted than you first thought, let me assure you I have animated, fascinating conversations all the time. But they almost never take place when the slate is clean. With unknown quantities, I’m usually back at square one, digging for common ground while the other party focuses on whatever makes us different.
But not today. Today, I got to be Meagan the speechwriter; Meagan the dinner theatre enthusiast; Meagan the Fawlty Towers fan.
Tell me: if we’d stayed on the topic of what the stick is for and how I use computers and why I have those bruise things on my face, how would we ever have gotten to the fun stuff?
So that, friends, is how you talk to a disabled stranger—with the kind of curiosity that would rather ask, “What do you do?” than “What happened to you?”

Age, Sex, Location, … Eye Condition?

“So…what have you got?”
“How…how did it happen?”
“Have you always been blind, or…?”
“So, what’s your eye condition? Mine’s ___.”

These are common icebreakers, coming from sighted and blind people alike. They are sometimes probing questions—people love a tragic story—but they’re usually well-meant attempts to start a conversation. It helps them start somewhere, especially if blindness is a novelty for them. It’s perfectly understandable that blind people would also ask these questions. They’re looking for solidarity and common ground. It makes sense.

Increasingly, however, I’ve grown weary of answering the questions. People have posed them before they’ve even bothered to ask my name, as though my blindness is the only immediately relevant detail. Others zip through the usual pleasantries, then lean forward in a confidential way and ask, in hushed tones, how it happened. In all these cases, I’m left feeling just a tiny bit miffed. While I’m happy enough to answer general questions, my eye condition is the least interesting fact about me, in my opinion, anyway. I’d much rather spend time chatting about my career aspirations, musical interests, and even the weather. Discussing these points makes me feel less like a novelty and more like an ordinary human. Worse, focusing on my eye condition gives me less to work with when I try to get to know you, especially if you are sighted. Throw me a rope, if you can, because discussing a disability you don’t have doesn’t give me much of a springboard.

I’ve noticed another variation of this tendency, wherein I mention a new blind person my sighted friends or family have never heard of. Almost invariably, the first thing out of their mouths is “Oh, what’s their eye condition?” I’ve seen people become annoyed and even frustrated when I draw a blank.
“Do you know…I don’t think I even asked.”
“You’ve known them for how long and you don’t even know that? Isn’t that sort of a basic thing to know?”
“It just…never came up.”

Yes, I have friends I’ve known for years whose eye conditions I either never knew, or forgot somewhere along the way. While I can usually tell you how much vision they have, if any, it’s a challenge for me to remember the exact details.

Why am I incurious? I don’t really know, but I do know I’m not the only one who isn’t very curious and who doesn’t really think it’s an important thing to know about a person. A friend was venting recently about her family’s obsession with eye conditions, after which she guiltily remarked that she could no longer recall mine.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I doubt I even told you.”

Is it a sin to break the ice this way? No, of course it isn’t. Are there better, more tactful ways to get to know someone? Absolutely. While many blind people are amenable to discussing their eye conditions, you might have a more enjoyable conversation if you investigate their personalities and interests rather than the specifics of their blindness. Just a tip.

So, friends, I challenge you to go forth, break thou some ice, avoid mentioning eye conditions, and see what you discover.