It was a Monday night at the Olive Garden, and the question was asked by an incredibly eager busboy. He nodded at my white cane as I swept it in front of me, while he ushered us to our table. I was dining with one of my best friends, Emily, that night. We hadn’t seen each other in such a long time, and I was looking forward to our catching-up. I was already weary from my incredibly busy day as a new social worker with an ever-increasing caseload. And the only question I wanted to be asked by the Olive Garden staff was, “Would you like to sample our wine tonight?”
Instead, I was asked that “What’s it like to be blind?” question. Now, as many times as I get asked that question, or others similar to it, it’s still a tad jolting. Like, I’ve suddenly become this stranger’s proof that “Blind People — They DO Exist!” …and they must ask me every question they’ve ever had.
On that Monday night, my conversation with the busboy sounded a little bit like this: Busboy: So, what’s it like to be blind?
Me: I mean, that’s kind of a broad question. It’s just – it’s my life. There are challenges, certainly, but we all have our challenges in life. Mine just happen to deal with vision loss.
Busboy: So, do you read Braille-ie!?
Me: …*Trying REALLY hard not to chuckle at that mispronunciation. Do you mean “Braille”? No, I don’t because I do have some usable vision, so I never learned. But there are people who still use it, and I just prefer large print materials.
Busboy: So, what, can’t you do?
Me: I can do everything that you do…Except drive. That’s not an option. But I work, and you know, go out to dinner…like tonight.
Busboy: Alright, well, cool stuff! Keep rockin’ life!
And then he left.
As Emily and I reviewed our menus, she asked, “Does this happen to you often…the questions?” I explained to her that it happens all the time, and it’s still jolting every single time. After that initial jolt, though, I explained to her, I immediately launch into my “script”.
It’s a “script” that I have crafted over years of getting these types of questions. Before I “wrote” the script, I would be incredibly emotional about these interactions with strangers. I would always wonder if I answered questions correctly, or if I was kind enough, or patient enough. Or I would feel guilty if I didn’t want to answer their questions… if I didn’t want to be spoken to specifically because I use a white cane and have a visual disability. It was exhausting. But creating a script has been tremendously helpful for me. It allows me to preserve my emotional well-being, and also kindly educates others about what it means to live life with low vision.
For me, the script is simple and precise. I don’t usually want the conversation to linger, especially if the conversation is with a passer-by on the bus or in a store. I try my best to be engaging and kind, but I also set limits. I have come to learn that I am in charge of the information… that someone is allowed to know about my life and my vision. I will acknowledge a person’s questions about my vision, but if I feel they are too invasive or rude in their approach, I will politely decline any further participation in the conversation. I always try end the conversation on a positive note — a compliment towards the person, or simply by wishing that they have a nice day.
I know that I will never fully be comfortable in addressing my blindness with complete strangers. I know that I won’t always be the absolute kindest, or say all of the things that I want to say. I am, however, willing to explore what those interactions mean for my life, and how these experiences can continue to shape the perceptions of what it means to have a visual impairment, and I am excited about that hope.
Are there limitations you set about who can and cannot ask you about your visual impairment?
Does it happen often enough that you have a “script” of what you will say to strangers? Are you often frustrated by the experience? When you’re out with friends and family, do they get questions about your life, too?
Let us know your thoughts with comments!