by Suzanne Ament
If you have significant vision loss, you know what it is like to suddenly realize that the person you were talking to is not there, or to find when you put your hand out to shake, no one takes it. Although we may use all our other senses for everything we do, the sighted world relies primarily on vision. That isn’t to say many of us don’t use some vision, but it isn’t quite the same as someone with no visual limitations. How can we deal with these inevitable situations with grace and poise, and come out not feeling stupid, inept, or losing confidence?
There have been a few times when I had an “aha moment” around such events. Perhaps the first one was concerning kibitzing in the history department where I work. Often people would meet in the open area of the history suite, or gather around the office door of a colleague. My attempt to join the discussion felt awkward, and it seemed like I didn’t fit in. Observing and reflecting over time, I realized a couple of things: first, the people I would address would naturally be the ones doing most of the talking. Hearing them was how I knew they were there. And sometimes when I heard them talking I would say, “Hi, so-and-so,” or ask a question, not realizing that there were several others already in the mix. Because I was responding to the sound of someone talking, I didn’t realize that I might be interrupting someone else who was on the verge of responding. Certainly my interruption wasn’t intentional, but it was awkward. Second, I was shorter than many of my colleagues, and I do think that can make a difference for those watching faces.
Once I realized that I was inadvertently interrupting, I started listening for a few more seconds before I jumped in, but it was an “aha” moment!
Sometimes I think that the sighted world just doesn’t realize that blind folks don’t always pick up on visual cues. Recently I was at a faculty party. After sitting in silence for about a half-hour, I heard one of my nearby colleagues say something. Had I known he was there, I would have said hello or started a conversation long before that. Instead of feeling stupid I just said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were sitting there,” and went on talking. At the same party, people apparently knew that it was time to eat and had been going in and out of the buffet without me realizing it. I asked the host at one point (he loves food) if I had missed any hors d’oeuvres. He responded in mock horror, “Oh gosh! You are missing everything! Let me get you a sampler.”
How about the situations where you are in a lecture and it is time for questions. You raise your hand and the speaker says “yes,” and you don’t realize that he/she is looking at you. Sometimes if they see the dog or cane, they may say something, or move closer to you. But in other cases it can be a gap and a gulp. It is hard enough in some settings to decide to ask questions, but it seems like the best thing is to plow ahead. Others in the room who know you will often tell you that you’re being called on.
Some of us with fairly good vision don’t always use a cane or dog. I recall being in the college cafeteria line and asking what was on the menu (usually three different dishes). The worker behind the counter said loudly, “Maybe some people could bring their glasses to dinner!” I remember being embarrassed and angry, and said, probably a bit rudely, “Well, if I had glasses that would work, I would most gladly bring them.” Maybe that wasn’t the nicest thing I could have said, but she learned there were people who really couldn’t bring glasses, and I didn’t shrink away as though I had done something wrong.
Sometimes these things can affect the sighted people in our lives. How many times have I heard from my friends or my husband that people behind the counter just look at them and expect them to speak for me. My husband will usually say, “Your turn,” or something like that. Another friend purposely looks away, avoiding eye contact, and sometimes even moves away until the person realizes they need to talk to me. If I’m near the front of a line, either on my own or with someone else, I ask, “Is it my turn yet?” or, “Are you ready for me?” That allows the person behind the counter to realize I know what’s going on, and they can speak to me directly
I’m sure you can come up with numerous examples and neat strategies for handling awkward situations. This is just an attempt to start some thinking and pondering and perhaps some conversations, and to show that even out of these awkward situations, we can find a deeper understanding of how to interact with a world that uses vision for so much.