The Compliment

On Friday night, I attended a meet-up of new friends at a coffee shop. There was live acoustic folk music and molasses cookies, and it was raining outside and cozy inside. We’d parked a gazillion blocks from the cafe, and at the end of the evening, Arlie offered to go for the car while I waited in the warmth. I’ve always been slightly afraid of melting in downpours, Wicked Witch of the West style, so I agreed to his suggestion.

This meant that half the group stayed with me to wait, which was very considerate of them. The bad part was that I was running out of things to say. We’d spent the majority of the night between tunes, (and sometimes during for the excitable among us), tripping our way through getting-to-know-you questions and answers in awkward fits of extroversion. This ranged from the banal and overworked, “So, what do you do?” to the even more bland, “So, what are your hobbies?”

Only one person had managed to ask me how much I could see, and how I got blind. I like to play a little game with myself when I’m in a group of new people, to see which ones I think will be the first to comment on my lack of sight. In my experience, it’s usually an older guy, sixties on up, who has a penchant for saying particularly awkward things.

Lucky me, there was one such guy in attendance that night, and I’d had him pegged from the beginning; he was the one who blurted out to everyone during a song break that he’d happily get naked in this very coffee shop if it were socially and lawfully acceptable. Thankfully, on both counts, it wasn’t. Not to knock nudity on a basic level, I, for one, just happened to be grateful to not have to witness his, blind or not.

Anyway, shortly after the nudity comment, this guy innocuously asked me how long I’d been in Seattle, how I liked it, and oh also, how much could I see and how did I become blind. Aha, I thought, I nailed this guy. I was so right. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta, including self-congratulating on something completely stupid.

Anyway, after Arlie left for the car, and I settled in for a good half hour of small-talk and waiting, the blind topic came up again. Someone wanted to know what color Arlie’s car was, so they could watch for it.

“Is it red?”

“Huh. You know, I’m not actually sure, I guess I should find that out.”

“Oh, hahaha, I forgot. You can’t SEE his car. Isn’t that funny? I just didn’t remember you were blind. You should take that as a compliment.”

Should I?

Thing is, that compliment thing is a phrase I hear a lot. I’m so, what? Normal? Talkative? Observant? Engaged? I’m so something that people “forget” I’m blind and ask me questions like what color someone’s car is, or what someone looks like. And then, apparently, when they remember that it’s likely I don’t know, it’s suddenly a huge compliment to me that my blindness just completely slipped their mind. Because, I can only assume, sighted is better than blind.

Being blind is NOT a compliment. When a sighted person can’t find something, like a restroom or an exit, and must enlist the help of another sighted person whom they perceive might be disgusted at their sight lapse, they say, “Sorry, I’m blind.” “Blind” is for self-deprecation; it’s to admit weakness, dare I say, even stupidity. It is not to empower or embolden, it is to embarrass. The other person laughs and says, “It’s ok.” Implying, whether they consciously mean to or not, that it’s ok to be oblivious if it’s laughed off with blindness. What more would they expect from a blind person?

Certainly, you might think I’m overreacting. But, the things we say, the language we use, is relevant and complicit in disparaging disadvantaged people. And I think most people know that; I’ve had people say the “Sorry, I’m blind” thing in front of me, then realize I’m there and quickly add, “No offense.” Because they know better, even if their knowing is an afterthought.

Also, I am complicit. Because I am afraid of being “that angry blind chick”, I didn’t say what I should have said that night, which was, “Actually, I’d consider it a bigger compliment if you respected me while remembering full well that I’m blind.” Certainly, it’s ok, and even healthy, to not fixate on my blindness, or even to forget it. But don’t assume I’ll be flattered by the “compliment” of being perceived as a sighted person. I want to be perceived as me, and, among many other things, I’m blind.

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12 thoughts on “The Compliment

  1. I am kind of struggling with this one because in a way I think it is a compliment. Because it means that people aren’t thinking about your blindness as the first thing they think of when they are with you. Just like if you were with a black person or a Muslim or a gay person and that is not the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of them. Does that make sense?

    1. I do understand what you’re saying… but for me, it’s the “compliment” part that doesn’t sit well. I’ll try to explain.
      I’ll speak to your “gay person” comparison, since I feel comfortable saying my piece about that because I identify as an LGBT person.
      If someone knew I was gay but accidentally said something like: “Do you have a boyfriend?” or “What’s your boyfriend like?”, and then they remembered I was gay, I don’t think they would say, “Oh, I forgot you’re gay. You should take that as a compliment.” At least, I hope they wouldn’t.
      It’s fine, even good, to not be constantly thinking of my blindness. Yet, it is not a compliment to me to forget about it; it’s a slip of the mind by the other person, because their default assumption is that others are like them: i.e. like the majority: straight, sighted, white, etc.
      I’d much rather have someone pose thoughtful, conscientious questions to me that take my blindness and circumstances into consideration, and I try to do that for others. Though I don’t always succeed! We’re all learning, and I’m suggesting that we ask questions and learn as mindfully as we can.

      1. Okay, I get that. I also know a lot of blind people that are so weird that no one can forget they are blind! I hope you understand where I am coming from with that comment because we have talked about it before! And laughed about it.

  2. I totally get this. It is hard to put to words, and I think you did it very well, Lauren. It is a form of prejudice. It’s like making a racial joke and then saying “I forgot you were blank (fill in the race) “. My husband is a chiropractor. Out East, it is treated like any other health care professional. In the Midwest, people will say things like ” People might refuse to see a chiropractor, but I go to one, and they even help me!”….. They wouldn’t say “I went to a medical Dr. and they actually helped me, or an optometrist…” It shouldn’t even warrant a comment. I could go on and on with examples…. “I like your hair” is different than ” I don’t think your hair looks African American at all.” If there was not a prejudice, you wouldn’t qualify the statement. Bugs the crap out of me. (You said it, btw, more eloquently than I just did). Thanks for writing about this topic.

    1. Nodnodnod. Those are great examples, too.
      Incidentally, from where I stand, you are so right about the chiropractor thing. They are EVERYWHERE here in Seattle, and I know several people who go to them as an important part of their health care. At first, it surprised me, coming from the Midwest, where people are skeptical of them for some reason. But definitely, people who use them do benefit, and it should come as no surprise!

  3. At the risk of probably sticking my foot in my mouth, I’d like to comment. I’m a friend of your mom’s from many years ago when we worked at a bank together when you were born.
    I’ve been reading your blogs when she posts them and have been learning how I may have blown it in the past and offended people without meaning to, including your mom and you. I remember asking her recently if you could see shadows or if you were totally blind when she posted about medical advances in vision. She didn’t respond and I’m guessing that was not a welcome question. I honestly didn’t mean to offend anyone. I was just curious as I’m sure lots of people are when they ask questions. For me, it’s because I’ve not encountered someone who is blind very often in my lifetime. I am naturally curious to see how someone “does life” without the ability to see because I’ve never personally experienced that and honestly, I am amazed and inspired by your independence. As a sighted person, it seems impossible that I could do many of the things I do if I couldn’t see. I’m worried I’m probably digging a bigger hole by my comments but I wanted you to know that although there are certainly jerks out there who let anything come out of their mouths without a care for the person (you’ve certainly had to encounter a lot of them), there are also people like me that are simply curious, care about people and their feelings, and maybe are just trying to learn and have a conversation with you. I equate some of the comments you’ve written about in blogs to someone who doesn’t quite know the right words or actions to comfort someone who is mourning something and they end up saying something that doesn’t help at all…it’s unintentional and exactly the opposite of what was intended. So I personally apologize for myself and others who may be in this “well-meaning” category.
    You are a beautiful writer and can express yourself very well. I’ve also learned a lot from your blogs so keep them coming. 🙂

    1. Hi Jodi, thank you so much for reading, and commenting! It’s much appreciated.
      I’m guessing my mom just forgot to respond… I can see light and some shadows, though I can’t actually tell what most things are. they all just look kind of “blobby.” I use context most of the time to tell what they are: i.e. I just heard my dog snore, and looked to where the sound was coming from, and I can see her shadow on the floor. If I hadn’t heard her, I wouldn’t have known what I’m seeing is the dog and not any number of other things that could be cluttering my floor.
      What I try to make clear in my blog is that questions like that are FINE, even welcome, by people I know and who have taken the time to talk to me about other things too. What I don’t like is to be asked those questions right away, by complete strangers who’ve barely said anything else to me.
      Since you know my mom, you’re not a complete stranger, and since you read this blog, I’m certain you would talk to me about other things, too. Therefore, I’m happy to answer your questions.
      I appreciate your caring and your curiosity!

    2. Jodi-I guess I forgot to respond because that is a perfectly fine question. I have another friend that asks lots of things-like how does Lauren iron, how does she know if her toilet is clean, how does she cook etc. I don’t mind answering them at all and I am sure Lauren would answer questions too.

  4. This is a very interesting blog post! Gives your readers a real inside view of your perspective and experiences – and reminds us again of the power of words. I just have to share two “I forgot . . ” stories having to do with cultural identity that you may find interesting. I am not telling these in order to prove any point, but your stories remind me of these incidents of long ago.
    Well, the year was 1989 and I was teaching ESL at the University of Iowa. One of my students was a middle-aged Japanese psychiatrist who was at a beginner’s level of English as well as a beginner’s level of cultural adaptation. For example, he would use the Japanese equivalents of “um, er, well,” and unfortunately came across as very maladjusted in an American setting because those utterances in Japanese sound like something very unfamiliar to any sane English speaker. As his teacher, I used to wonder if I should try to explain this to him very tactfully or not. I didn’t want him to feel depressed or hopeless, yet I also feared he might be having lots of awkward moments out in “the big, bad world outside the ESL classroom.” Over time, I think he started to adjust naturally, fortunately, as I never had that conversation with him.
    Well, so the interesting “I forgot” story was one he told to me after he took his wife and young teenage children to Oktoberfest in some town outside of Iowa City. Apparently they had a blast! The music, the beer, the frivolity of it all swept them up into a delightful immersion experience of a German-Oktoberfest sort! Well, he then happily reported to me on Monday morning that he and his family got so into the festivities that, in his words, “We forgot we were Japanese!” Although it was a German sort of thing, and they of course knew they were still in Iowa, they allowed themselves to truly dive into the experience to such an extent that their usual “I’m a Japanese person in Iowa” contagiousness that they apparently carried around as a burden (and I can certainly relate to that!) . . well, they were able to let go of it and basically take a much-needed break from “being a foreigner.” I found that intriguing and amazing! And ironic that they experienced it at a German-style cultural event!
    The very next year, my daughter and I moved to Japan (quite a surprise to me how it all came about) and I had the chance to experience for myself that “I’m a foreigner” burden. Near the end of our three years there, I had two experiences when I forgot that I was not Japanese! Truly! In each case, the forgetting lasted a very short time and when I snapped out of it, I was quite amazed each time that I had “gone there.” What a great opportunity it was to live as a foreigner and be able to observe myself as if I were an anthropologist!
    Well, now that I have written all this, I will sum up what I think I’m talking about and see if anyone things it has anything to do with your stories.
    Number one: Human beings are amazing adaptable. Yay for us all, for how well we do in many situations, including the situation of meeting strangers and seeing if we can make connections with any of them.
    Number two: Carrying around a label in our minds, or assigning labels to other people in our minds, is tricky business. It is easy to let something about our identities become more of a burden that it has the right to be . . . and it is also easy to say or do the “wrong thing” in the company of someone with some identity that we perceive as “other.” But getting out there and taking the risk of offending can be courageous for people who might rather stay home watching a Net Flix movie. So I like to give people a little credit (actually a lot of credit in most cases) for good intentions even when they let someone down unintentionally.
    Finally (for now), I think moments like those can be teachable moments that can stretch people — and they may be very grateful to be enlightened. The trick is to be respectful while also explaining points they wouldn’t otherwise realize.
    To people who think it should be taken as a compliment that they forget you’re blind, you might say, “Thank you for intending to give me a compliment. I truly appreciate the spirit behind your comment. In fact, however, I don’t think that blindness should necessarily be considered a negative, any more than chubbiness or thinness or lack of musical talent or unwelcome frizzy hair should stigmatize people who live with those aspects of being human. I like to be known and accepted as Lauren, and the fact that I am blind should ideally not detract from nor add to your acceptance of me at the heart of what that means.” Or something similar! I’m sure you could say it better! I may be totally off here as to what you might want to say if you were to attempt to help them learn from the situation in a nonthreatening and nondeflating way.
    But I bet people would appreciate the feedback if you could find a way to do with authenticity.
    Now, if you have read all this, I do in fact commend you! Forgive me for hijacking your blog a bit . . but you did get me thinking and I just had to give my 27 cents worth here!
    And again, I just love your blog posts! Since you haven’t been on Facebook, I haven’t remembered to check here often, but now I will remind myself to do so a lot more often. I always learn something. I did this time!

  5. (Sorry for a few typos I didn’t fix in here! I bet anyone who reads this can figure them out so I won’t point them out. Goes to show that haste makes waste. Let me know if anything is hard to understand as a result of my goofs!

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