Chill Out, People: I Am Not Contagious

I take the bus, and there are several empty seats around me, conveniently placed right up front. Someone embarks via the front door, and walks quickly past me to take a seat waaaay at the back. I sit down for a lecture, noticing that most students are clumped together, while others have gone out of their way to give me a wide berth. I flop down in a seat in a study lounge, only to have the person next to me gather their belongings and sidle over to a seat across the room. Anyone seeing a pattern here? Anyone? Anyone?

I’m not even sure if people are conscious of this, but I am beginning to think they’re convinced that blindness is contagious. Unless you have an eye infection and enjoy swapping mascara with strangers,, you’re probably not a threat to anyone else’s eyes, but I’m often treated like a leper. Some people undoubtedly move away because society puts a premium on personal space. Others, however, do so because I make them uncomfortable, which I understand is a common experience for many disabled people. Mothers drag their children away from the oncoming blind lady, while students shift restlessly when I sit down near them. It’s common enough for people to leave space between each other; Canadians aren’t really used to tight quarters unless they live in Vancouver or Toronto. Even so, people’s attitude toward me seems a bit too blatantly fearful to be blamed on a desire to avoid human contact.

There are a litany of reasons to avoid sitting near someone: I wouldn’t blame you a bit for avoiding the person sniffling noisily in the corner. Nobody likes icky cold germs, but unless I have ominous substances pouring from my red nose, there is no logical reason to steer clear.

I usually just shake my head and move on—what else can I do? I’d be lying if I claimed it didn’t hurt a little, though. I’m a nice person who is reasonably friendly. At the least, I’d never encroach upon another person’s space, and I might even provide good conversation if they only gave me a try. Students are especially prone to engaging strangers on campus, but they tend to ignore me unless they think I need help. I want to say to them, “I cannot give you blindness, okay? Mine is a genetic condition, so unless you’re my secret half-brother, please relax. You’re fine.”

Social exclusion and general discomfort are the order of the day for a lot of visibly disabled people, and all one can do is bridge the gaps as best one can. Sometimes, though, my snarky side prevails, and I feel the urge to shout, “Come sit near the freak, why don’t you? I don’t bite (hard)!”

So, friends all, take a seat by me. It’s okay. You’ll leave as healthy and sighted as ever–I guarantee it.

On The Outside Looking In: Why Facebook Is A Terrible Friend

I remember a glorious time, back in, say, 2009, when Facebook was a legitimate way to keep up with people I cared about. Most of the content was generated by real-life experiences my friends and family were enjoying (or enduring as the case may be) so I was able to participate quite easily. And then…

After a couple of years of relative contentment, a new trend emerged: personal, original content was largely replaced by external content (usually photos). Every time I scroll through my news feed, I encounter shared posts about well-loved photography, inaccessible articles, and random pictures of, I dunno, cats. Sheepish as it makes me, I must admit that I feel more and more isolated. I can no longer participate as fully as before. I can no longer keep in touch in any meaningful way.

I’ve discussed how to make posts more accessible on Facebook, and reassured sighted users that they don’t have to describe every single photo, whether personal or shared from an external source, in expansive detail. It’s way too much bother for limited reward. I can’t pretend it doesn’t make me feel like I’m being excluded, though. Instead of hearing about the antics of my friends’ cats, I miss out entirely because photos tell a better story. Instead of enjoying a new recipe a friend posted, I get to scroll right by because the text is inaccessible. Instead of laughing along with my friends’ favourite image-based jokes, I get to hope that the accompanying comments will give me enough context to go on. Most of the time, they don’t, and while I occasionally ask for explanations if I’m really intrigued, I hate to do it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I thought perhaps my feelings were exaggerated. How much of my feed was genuinely hidden from me? I wanted to find out, so I performed an informal experiment. I scrolled through the last hundred posts in my news feed (yes, it took ages), “hiding” all the posts that featured only photos shared from external sources. Eighty-six percent of the posts were eliminated. It was even worse than I’d thought. While I can comfort myself with how clean and clutter-free my news feed is, that comfort is awfully cold.

I’m probably not missing much in the grand scheme, I know. Considering all the other consequences of inaccessibility, this is really small potatoes. Even so, a lot of my friends and family spend so much time appreciating other people’s image-based posts (some spend hours on Facebook per day) while I spend five minutes, tops, because there’s nothing to see. (Yes, it does wonders for my productivity, but still!)

I’ll get over it, I really will. Most days I don’t even think about it; but I admit to moments of weakness when I let it bug me. Social media can make people very lonely, and this is a special type of loneliness that won’t ever go away, not really. Facebook is implementing groundbreaking image recognition technology to help blind people figure out what’s in an image, but there’s no telling how accurate or useful it will be.

Like I said, most days it’s no biggie. Just for now, though, I’ll have a bit of a wallow. Indulge me.