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.