it’s the second day of class and I am assigning group work. The students must gather in groups of 5-7 and complete a series of definitions. While they work, I sit at my desk (which is much too high for me) and take notes on their work habits. On my paper, I write things like “Group 1 very clever” or “Group 3 answering each other’s questions.” Most of the groups are diligently completing the exercise, except for the students sitting closest to my desk – a small distance of about 3-4 feet away. Their conversation goes something like this:
“So…what’s the deal with our professor? Can she see or what?”
“I guess she can. I mean, she writes on the board and she is taking notes over there.”
“But she uses that stick thing to walk around.”
“So maybe she can see a little bit? She said she couldn’t see our hands in the air.”
“Yeah, maybe she can just see up close.”
I chuckle to myself as I write in my notebook, “Students in Group 5 are trying to figure out my visual circumstances – good use of critical reasoning.” I decide that I will remain in my seat; I won’t approach them or acknowledge that I’ve overheard what they’ve said. Their tones aren’t disrespectful, and their curiosity seems natural enough.
Let’s change the scene.
I am playing bingo with a large group of friends. I have a pad of colored bingo paper and a red dauber in my hand. Because the numbers are written on the paper in large, closely spaced blocky font, I lean very close to the paper (I end up getting red daub marks on my white shirt). As I am searching for N-34, I overhear that I have become the focus of another conversation:
“Oh, I guess she can see.”
“Yes, I guess so. Just a little bit though.”
“I thought she couldn’t see at all.”
Again, the unfamiliar speakers are close at hand, though I’m sure that I’m the only one who can hear them. My dauber falters above the bingo card and I forget which number I’m supposed to mark. I feel self-conscious and instinctively lean away from my bingo tablet. Realizing that I can’t see it if I lean away, I lean over it again, but I am irritated. I feel like I am being examined, scrutinized for signs of success or failure with the bingo card. Before, I had no qualms about needing to lean close to it. Now, I feel awkward and embarrassed, realizing that my posture must make me very obvious among a crowd of eager bingo players who don’t have to lean over their cards.
Why is it acceptable and even humorous for my students to speculate about my vision and irritating to overhear the comments at the bingo event? Why do I smile when I think of one conversation and grimace when I relive the other?
To the students, I want to say, “Well done, kids, but, if you’re trying to figure me out from my behavior, you’re in for a whirlwind of confusion. I’ll write on the board – neatly I might add – and use a cane. I’ll wear hats because of the overhead lights and pass out worksheets, printed in size 12. I’ll know exactly where you are and when you stand up, but I won’t be able to tell when you raise your hand.”
To the spectators at bingo, I want to say, “Of course I can see. Don’t you see the glasses on my face? Do you think I wear these for my health? Haven’t you seen me read? Use my phone? Write things down? Who made you the expert on my vision?”
I’m not comfortable with this lack of consistency among my reactions. I can’t say that the irritation comes from being the subject of others’ conversations, because, in the case of the students, I don’t really mind others talking about me. I did not tell my students that they could ask about my vision, so it seems natural that they will try to figure it out. They’re young, inexperienced. Likely, they’ve never had a blind professor before.
Among friends and acquaintances at bingo, I’m frustrated by this “talk about her, without her” attitude. I’ve made myself accessible to them many times. I’m willing to answer questions, even when they emerge without tact. The tenor of a conversation changes when someone blurts, “Oh you can see,” as I complete an everyday task – like signing a debit receipt, reading a piece of music, or sending a text message. Though this phrase (uttered with a tone of surprise) tends to irk me because it seems to say, “Wow, all my clumsy assumptions about your vision were wrong!” I still use that moment to explain my vision to someone. So hearing people insist on “figuring me out” for themselves when I’ve offered myself (the real expert) with openness and patience just hurts. It hurts. It’s annoying. I want to scream, “ I’m RIGHT HERE! Talk to ME.”
I don’t think of disability as a dirty word. Talking about blindness isn’t taboo. I call myself blind, but I’m not totally blind. (“Yeah, why does she do that – it is super confusing!”)
Here’s something I hear quite often, though it’s rarely addressed to me (and I’m the one who could best answer it): “So, I don’t get it. How come she wears glasses if she can’t see?”
Does the logic of this make sense? Why do you wear glasses if you can’t see? Who told you I can’t see? “Well no one…I just thought…” And didn’t ask. You didn’t ask. You thought it was rude or “disrespectful” to talk to me about my vision, as if my “condition” is something shameful or awkward. Well there’s our real problem—it’s not my awkwardness. It’s yours.
So if you’re going to insist on talking about me with so little respect or consideration while I’m close enough to overhear you, do me a favor. Take a few steps back.