When I was a kid, my classmates thought it was the best thing ever to come up to me and ask, “Do you know who I am? Do you recognize my voice? Guess who?” It was especially awesome, I think, because they didn’t even have to cover my eyes. They could just ask and, depending on my answer, either be impressed that I remembered their voice or scornful that I didn’t. Wasn’t I supposed to be exceptional in my voice recognition skills? In all honesty, I’m pretty sure my recognition was about 50 50. I’m not Daredevil, or any other “inspirational” blind fictional character, and I can’t remember a voice I’ve only heard a few times or haven’t heard in years.
This might seem like a little kid harmless thing, and mostly, it was, though it persisted well into high school. By then, the “guess who?” among my friends came accompanied by poking, tickling, and other physical contact as code. Code for, “We’re teenagers, and this is what we do.” Looking back now, I’m sure it was just a form of nonvisual communication and, likely, affection. This was what replaced eye contact, or a smile across a crowded room, or a mouthed greeting in class. Instead of those things, I got anonymous hugs from behind, pokes in the ribs, tickles under my chin. And, always, “Do you know who I am? Guess who?”
I’ve been thinking about this lately because it has happened a few times in the last weeks. As an adult, I am still being asked to play “guess who” and frankly, I think it’s ridiculous. There’s a twist, though: this has also morphed into, “guess where?” “Let’s see if you remember where this is,” someone will say. “Let’s test you and see if you can do this.”
I have a lot to say about these “tests” of my memory and ability to be Blind Superperson. Mostly, though, I just want to say, “Stop it. Like, immediately.” This is not fun any more. I am not a child any more. Poking and prodding and tickling isn’t cute any more.
I’ve been trying to think about WHY it seems acceptable to some sighted people to engage this way with blind people. I’ve come up with one theory, that it’s a way to communicate for people who are awkward around blindness. They can’t make eye contact with me, or smile with recognition, and they also can’t think much past Blind and Sighted, so they try to find humor and connection in those feelings of insecurity by putting me through a “test.” Instead of just asking a question: “How would you like me to let you know who I am? Should I remind you of my name?” Specific asking takes away the guesswork; the sighted person doesn’t have to assume the other person knows who they are, and also doesn’t have to keep identifying themselves over and over if it’s unnecessary and just annoying.
Yet, outright asking seems to be one of the hardest things to do. Outright asking is acknowledging difference, having to talk about it openly, and admitting that you don’t know what the best way forward should be. That’s a vulnerable place to be in, I suppose, and for me, it explains why even some adults revert to the elementary school “guess who” when they are reacquainted with me. I’d much rather just be told and not tested.
The other part of “guess who”, of course, is the being touched. I don’t mind being touched by people who know me well, and I don’t even mind being touched by strangers too much. What I do mind is the assumption that because I am blind and that, in some people’s minds, makes me vulnerable, it is ok to touch me without consent. When someone comes out of the blue and hugs or pokes or tickles me, it could be a complete stranger or someone I know, but I have no way of knowing which. Since I’ve become a city dweller and am on the streets every day, I’m much more wary of this than I was as a kid or a teenager. So, I’d rather not be touched without knowing who is touching me.
Of course, as with everything, different blind people have different feelings on this. But these are mine and, as ever, only mine. I’d love to hope that “guess who” will soon be part of a bygone era of my life.