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.”
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.