I am working in a summer program for blind and visually-impaired teens. We teach a class of about twenty students, each so full of personality and wit. I watch them learn to master resume-writing, typing, cooking, and other skills as they prepare for adult life. Many of them attend the same school, and I imagine that they’ve grown up together. As I observe, I remember how I completed this program – at least eight years ago — with only four other classmates.
The instructor tells the students that they can stop their work and socialize, and I move around the room, catching snippets of their conversations. I smile to myself as I overhear an exchange between a garrulous, affectionate boy and a reserved, tentative girl. They are both cane and braille users and attend the same school. He calls her by nicknames that are warm with frequent use, gently chides her for not believing in her own worth, and says loudly as they exit the room, “Come on, blind woman!”
As I observe their convivial exchange, I succumb to an unexpected rush of envy. I am jealous of their closeness, how each is comfortable with the other, and how both are comfortable with their disabilities. For these two, there was no awkward explaining of all the terms, what the white cane signifies, or why one wears dark glasses. Yes, they probably quizzed each other on their ocular conditions – as most blindies are wont to do: certainly, their shared use of braille and canes does not mean their sensory experience is identical.
Knowing all this, I am still envious. I ruminate on the warmth of the “blind woman” applied with casual affection by someone on the inside – the feeling that someone is using the term with respect and affection.
Normally, I don’t separate the people I know along the Blind/Not-Blind Divide, but, when I watch these two friends, I cannot help longing for a blind friend of my own, someone who would understand the silly half-jokes and unconventional sensory observations. Perhaps it isn’t really the blindness that I envy, but the sharing of it – the comfort, the naturalness of it. Maybe I must access this envy through the lens of shared disability because I did not grow up with blind friends. I see in these two what I never experienced at their age – the ease of blind empathy.
But empathy needs no qualifier. I have plenty of friends who understand me. Doesn’t asking specifically for blind friends suggest that I value some medical construction (blindness) more than I value the people who appear to fall under that label?
I keep coming back to the warmth of their exchange, the affection, and the nicknames. I think what I envy is their use of a semi-private language. He teases her and calls her “blind woman,” using the term blind without the jostling edge, without the hint of Other-ness that sometimes occurs when a sighted person uses these words. He calls her “blind” – what he would call himself. The expression is performative: it rewrites her as part of his world.