So far, 2020 has been the year of losing so many things: The ability to gather guiltlessly, the security of jobs and livelihoods, the assurance that the healthy people you love will probably not fall prey to an unknown virus. Like everyone I know, I’ve struggled with the loss of routine, of connection, of the gift of nonchalance when I wake with a scratchy throat.
Most acutely of all, I feel the loss of touch. By this I don’t merely mean the obvious, near-universal longing for human contact. I’m not talking so much about warm, fearless hugs and handshakes that don’t involve hand sanitizer or the furtive acknowledgement that we’re not really supposed to be doing this, are we? I’m a warm-and-fuzzy, touch-oriented person, and have been known to find touch from strangers, under the right (consensual!) circumstances, to be bracing and beautiful.
But as a blind person, I have lost more than these. I have lost my ability to move through the world with the elegance and precision I once enjoyed, if you can call anything I do elegant. You don’t realize how often you touch things until you are required to wipe them down afterward. In my shared workspace, for instance, I have given up tea, coffee, and even water I don’t bring from home, because it’s just too hard to navigate a common kitchen as a blind person without putting my hands all over everything. When things stay in one place, as they do in my home kitchen, I can pretty much plop my hand down on exactly what I need, no groping required. The rest of the world doesn’t operate with the same dedication to putting things precisely where they found them.
I’m a scrupulously clean-handed person, partially because of all the touching I need to do to find things, but I still feel self-conscious as hell touching anything at all in the time of COVID-19. After many tense conversations with blind friends all over the world, I know I’m far from the only one.
I search for the wipes, which move ten times a day as people use them, only to encounter someone’s discarded mug, a basket of sugar packets, a roll of paper towels, somebody’s oatmeal bowl. These I must now sanitize.
I fumble and wave experimentally into the ether, searching for the hands-free door-opening mechanism I know is there but can’t quite find without making contact with it. Before March 2020, I’d have simply opened the door manually, because that’s far more precise when you can’t see. But now there’s a policy about these things, no touching doors please, so now I’m flailing.
I trail my hand along a row of seats on a bus to find an empty one. I press buttons just to cross the street. I touch a door handle, then my cane, then a railing, then my cane again, then a length of wall to orient myself, then my cane again, and so on, because who has time to stop and sanitize every few feet?
I ask for help figuring out the buttons on a pin pad. I instinctively default to hand-over-hand exploration when someone tries to teach me something new, because touch transcends language barriers and clumsy directions better than any medium I know. I automatically reach out to touch when someone wants to show me their new haircut or cozy sweater or nifty pair of shoes, because that’s a small but meaningful part of how I appreciate the world around me. Then I pull back and blush hard with embarrassment, feeling empty and off balance for a moment.
I ask for an elbow each time I must be guided, and for the first time in my life, this feels like an unspeakable favour to ask, a brazenly selfish and risky request.
“Hi there, may I, a stranger, put my hand on you in the year of plague and terror? Hate to ask, sorry, but my mobility skills aren’t great and this area is totally unfamiliar to me and I can’t keep up with you otherwise. Really sorry about this. Want some sanitizer for your elbow?”
Besides the impact on other people, and the self-consciousness that comes with using high-touch surfaces to orient oneself in an era where the word ‘high-touch’ gives people nightmares, I’m also dealing with the logistical puzzle of keeping myself safe without sacrificing independence. Just how often should I sanitize? How often do I need to wipe down my cane? Is there a hands-free way to do the things I’ve always done by touch, and if so, how safe is it? How can I follow social distancing guidelines when they’re shown using arrows and signage and other things I can’t perceive? If I accidentally bump someone, will they behave aggressively toward me, even if there was no way for me to prevent it? Should I walk around with Ziplocs on my hands? Really lean in to it?
Then there are additional concerns my friends with service dogs deal with, like how do they keep their dogs from getting covered in a bunch of COVID particles? How well will their dogs adapt to social distancing conventions? What if their dogs get infected, which doesn’t seem common but has been known to happen to both cats and dogs? What if someone decides to pet, feed, or otherwise mess with their guide in the middle of a pandemic? Heaven knows propriety, safety, courtesy and basic respect haven’t been adequate deterrents before now. Why would a novel coronavirus change that?
Time and experience will provide me with more answers than I have now. If nothing else, the self-conscious shame I feel each time I so much as brush a counter or chair-back with a fingertip will fade, because I can’t sustain that level of anxiety indefinitely, thank goodness. Many guide dog handlers and fellow cane users have told me they’re feeling more comfortable all the time, and I will, too. One day soon, I’ll memorize the locations of all the hands-free door-openers and no doubt be brave enough to pour myself a coffee at my workplace. Maybe I’ll even convince people to stop moving the wipes, dang it.
Until then, I’ll trot out my favourite refrain since this whole mess began, as much for myself as for you, dear reader. Stretch yourself, even as you feel fear and self-protection, to be extravagantly, abundantly, excessively kind to each other. If you’re disabled and annoyed with this new normal that seems designed, unintentionally but maddeningly, to shut you out and strip you of your confidence, assume there are ways to make things better, and help others implement them. If you’re sighted and feeling icky watching a blind/disabled person interacting with their environment in a way that seems too hands-on for comfort, be helpful and patient, because we’re all confused and none of us has this figured out just yet.
Wash your hands, wear your masks if you can, and stay healthy, friends. And most of all, be good to one another. We’re going through a major global upheaval whether or not we choose to be the best of ourselves through it. We may as well lead with grace.