"Are you really blind?"
The question comes from out of nowhere. Often it comes from a stranger on the subway, or it may come from someone on the street. I am legally blind and I have been since I was born. Strangers asking me whether I'm playing the role of a blind woman for fun has always irked me -- but there's a much more insidious nature to these questions when they come from new friends.
Like most people, when I was younger I suffered through the same teasing and bullying that you probably did. However, even though we have all left the playground, the teasing hasn't stopped for me. Adults continue to struggle during interactions with their disabled peers. This may be a symptom of many people never having had a disabled classmate (though I was always mainstreamed in school). Even so, perhaps it's an issue of children not being exposed to the issue of disability appropriately.
So -- why? Why is it that my sight disability becomes the issue upon which I am challenged? There are a few factors. For one, the most famous blind woman in America was Helen Keller. Completely deaf and completely blind. The notion of blindness for most sighted people then becomes about the idea of absolutes. Only 18% of all blind people live in the dark; most of us live in shades of grey, shades of color and shades of acuity.
It starts innocently enough -- I'll make a wisecrack about how I cannot find my wine glass because of the lighting in a room, or I'll ask the host of a gathering if we could turn up the lights because I cannot see peoples' faces.
This is the point at which the conversation shifts, from being about the latest movie in theaters that we've all seen to me needing to prove my disability to people who want to be my friends. This is when the tests begin.
"How many fingers am I holding up?" they will ask, standing a few feet away from me in a dark room. "Can you see my face?"
They'll ask what my prescription is. "I'm blind without my glasses," they'll say, "probably just as bad as you are."
Rarely does the point get across that I see very poorly with my glasses on.
I hope they'd never say something like that to a woman using a wheelchair. ("Oh, wow, I can totally sympathize with the phantom pain where your severed leg is!")
These interactions are about more than just seeing if I'm really disabled. It's about the idea of comfort. Not for me, mind you -- for them. These questions are aggressive. I find myself often wondering if they would discount my disability if I were more blind. I also wear a hearing aid because I'm severely deaf in my left ear -- but nobody ever asks me to take a hearing test when we're drinking martinis.
Socially, adults don't really know how to talk to their disabled peers.
I could hide my eye that looks like it has a cataract from view with my scleral shell (an acrylic plastic shell I wear over my left eye to protect it from wind, debris etc.), but I choose to wear my clear eye because the harassment actually gets worse if I wear the eye that people would identify as normal.
I've had to take that eye out at airports in order to prove to security that I'm not faking blindness in order to smuggle things on board my plane. I've had people on the street tell me I'm not blind and that I don't deserve to have the cane. They do not hand canes out so people can have "Blind For a Day" adventures -- I got it because I need it.
The fact is it's scary when people stop me on the street and ask if I'm really blind. I'm afraid they might steal my wallet, or harass me thinking that they can get away with it (and once, someone did get away with molesting me on the street because I couldn't see them -- my fears are not unfounded).
When it comes to the social aspect, it certainly isn't as scary to have someone I've met ask me these questions as it is a random stranger, but it does raise my hackles. They seem to think they're joking around when they ask me how many fingers, or if I can smell them from across the room -- but to me it feels similar to the bullying I experienced on the playground as a child.
Whether it is a power play by my peers to demonstrate dominance, or an attempt at empathy, it always feels like a challenge –- one which I cannot believe I have to rise to. Understanding that I have a disability and that I function very well with it shouldn't mean that I have to prove that I have the disability in the first place. If I have to tell someone that they're "holding all five fingers up" a foot from my face one more time, I'll lose my mind.
I am not a fictional character, either. Just because I have hardships does not make me something out of a Dickens novel. I am a person and I have learned to conquer everything the universe has thrown at me. Having to tell people that I'm real, that I can't see them, and that my sight really is worse than theirs shouldn't be a part of my day-to-day life.
As adults, challenging disability in a social context is bullying, and it harms my own ability to socialize in a real and meaningful way. Can't I just drink my martini in peace?