This week I’ve had experiences on opposite ends of the same problem: people’s perception of my disability. Oddly enough, I was with my coworker who also has a visual impairment during both incidences.
A Grim Omen of Things to Come
The first came on Tuesday: we were leaving Decatur a little later than usual due to facilitating the take ACTION! advocacy course. By some miracle we made it to the station as the train arrived. A fellow rider calls out that we need to hurry and when we got to the escalator shouted: “don’t hurry, don’t fall down!” (oh no! A “concerned citizen!”) we make it to the platform as the train stopped and our concerned citizen tells us where the doors are, where to sit and offers to map out a route for our destinations. I informed him that I make this trip twice a day everyday and that pacified him for a minute. Literally, a minute. After that he interrupts with:
“Excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I need to ask y’all a question, this is real important.” (oh, no) “You see, I think losing my sight real bad and I see y’all walking around with these sticks” (aaaah! It’s a CANE!) “and I think you’re real brave” (if he calls me an inspiration I will stop this train and get off). “I hope I’m not looking at the future, but I fear I am.”
That last line was said while he was looking at both my worker and me sitting and holding our canes. My jaw dropped open, hit the floor and bounced back up into place. He noticed and immediately launched into: “Oh, no disrespect! You know what I’m saying though, right? I just don’t want to end up like you having to use a cane.”
We then explained that having a disability isn’t the end of the world, it’s a trait, like brown hair, eye color or face shape. Sure, it can be inconvenient at times, but you don’t stop leading a happy and productive life just because you acquire, or are born with, a disability. That seemed to calm him down, especially after he expressed the fact that, if he lost his site completely, he would just have to sit at home.
Deception on the Westbound Express
OK, express is a bit of a stretch, but you get the point. Thursday my coworker from the previous experience and my roommate get on the train with no problems, we have a conversation and remain unbothered by religious zealots or concerned citizens. Then my coworker withe the visual impairment gets off the train, playfully hits my roommate’s wheelchair with his cane upon exiting and gets off the train. After the doors close that’s with Miss Opinionated decides to speak up:
“Huh! Never a dull day on Marta! People pretending to be blind when they ain’t! That ain’t right!” I twisted my head in her direction so hard I surprised it didn’t pop off my shoulders. She was too busy with her righteous indignation to take notice of my indignation. I turn to my roommate and loudly state:
“I’m so glad she’s an expert on blindness! She can tell us all about our disabilities.” I couldn’t tell if she noticed my statement or not, but then she said:
“Even Ray Charles could see the fakeness in that” (firstly, “fakeness” isn’t even technically a word and secondly Ray Charles is dead). I cattily responded with:
“Oooh, and she’s witty too! We have a winner here!”
Eventually something else caught her attention and warranted mentioning so she let it go, but I was still angry at her assumption that she knew everything about our vision loss and judged us so harshly for, in her perception, “faking it.”
That’s pretty much been my week in a nutshell, some think I’m too blind to function in public unassisted and others think I’m not blind enough. These reactions are, sadly, typical and frequent. I don’t always have the patience to try and educate people, mainly I just roll my eyes and try to ignore them.