A few years ago, I performed an informal little social experiment while in the grocery store: I began by walking just behind the cart (I was pushing, my sighted companion steering) with my cane out and plainly visible. After a few minutes, I folded the cane and put it in the cart so that it was out of sight. I have “normal” eyes, so I don’t look conspicuously blind; if the cane isn’t easy to see, people don’t always realize right away that I have any sort of disability at all. Since I was just pushing the cart, the blindness really wasn’t obvious. You may well ask what the point of such an experiment could be. Here is what I discovered: while my blindness was on display, as it were, I got pitying, fascinated, or outright terrified looks. Mothers instinctively pulled their children from my path, even when they were in no danger whatsoever of colliding with me. The elderly and the very young gazed at me as though I were some foreign creature they’d never seen before. It was clear that while everyone was looking at me, they weren’t seeing me, the human woman. They were seeing a blind person, and no more. When the cane was out of sight though, people either didn’t notice me at all, or (in the case of the young male population, anyway) looked at me with interest. (This is not vanity; my sighted companion was the one who told me of this!)
What have I learned from experiments such as these? Well, quite a few things. One is that people are inherently afraid of (or at least fascinated by) what they don’t understand. Another is that people will never be completely comfortable with difference, no matter how hard we work to encourage tolerance. A third thing is that those with disabilities are hypervisible and totally invisible at the same time. We are either the centre of attention (in a zoo-creature kind of way) or we don’t exist at all. We are either being asked to speak on behalf of all disabled people, or we’re being completely overlooked. We’re either being asked if we need help (or other more intrusive questions) or we’re being severely marginalized. Our canes, dogs, wheelchairs, cochlear implants, talking phones and computers…these all ensure that we are very visible to everyone and anyone who is curious, frightened, or hostile. Yet these things also make us totally invisible as human beings. We are not individuals. Instead, we are archetypes, or representatives, or ambassadors. If we’re not any of those things, we’re not anything at all.
These are general observations; do remember that. Before you indignantly point out that not all people treat us this way, please keep in mind that I’m aware of that. I am surrounded by wonderful friends, family, instructors, employers, and total strangers who treat me with dignity, respect, and courtesy. Most of the people I know think of me as an individual and not as a spectacle to be gawked at.
The trouble is, there are also many people who do treat me like a spectacle.
People watch me perform every little minor task, exclaiming over it and pestering me with endless questions. I am hypervisible.
People discuss me well within earshot, sometimes complimenting but often just speculating about what might be wrong with me. I’m invisible.
People stare openly at me while I enjoy a day at the mall, being careful not to actually interact with me in any way. I am hypervisible.
People confuse me with other blind people because they recognize the cane but don’t recognize my face. I am invisible.
My life is not a spectator sport. My identity is not simply made up of disability and the quest to overcome it. As I’ve said time and time again, there is far more to me than what I can’t do. I don’t want to be anyone’s representative. I don’t want to be “special” just because I’m the first person to take a certain course, or work at a certain organization. Many people with disabilities find themselves pioneering and paving the way (more on that in upcoming posts) but we seldom enjoy it. It’s just another reminder that we’re less an individual person and more a symbol.
I understand that you’re curious. I understand that you mean well (mostly). I also find that the open, discourteous way people often stare at me bothers the people who love me far more than it bothers me. Just ask my sister; she’ll tell you what she thinks of people who do that. (She has been known to smile and wave at them until they are shamed into looking away, because she’s gloriously protective. I’m very lucky.) I understand that difference will always be intriguing, and scary, and daunting. I get it. But…
Please don’t watch me eat. Please don’t comment on every little thing I do as though it were the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen. Please don’t observe me with an eagle’s eye, leaping to react to my every movement. Please don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room. Please don’t make fun of other people with disabilities (derisively) when I’m present…
Please try to see past my cane and get to know my face. Please get past the fact of my blindness and get to know me as Meagan—the professional communications student who loves cats and hates mosquitoes.
Can you see me?