“P” was the first person I’d ever known who was completely blind. We worked together as licensed massage therapists at–you guessed it–a local massage therapy school. He was friendly to everyone, and they were civil to him in turn, but he had specific needs that the rest of us didn’t have, and I think they weren’t quite sure what to do with him. They didn’t really “get” people with disabilities. They didn’t understand what it was like.
The question is, did I?
Yes and no. I’m not disabled in a visible way, so I can’t say that I know what it’s like to depend on other people to do everyday things like shop (oops–wait–I do know about that one. I’m an Aspie. Shopping sucks and although I can push myself to do it alone, I freaking hate doing it and sometimes it does take everything I’ve got).
OK, bad example.
Let’s try this again. I can walk, drive, see, and move unassisted. For the most part, I can hear. Kind of.
But I sort of “got” “P”, because I’m no stranger to physical disability. My partner of 18 years is legally blind. That was no big deal to me; I’d already had experience, starting with helping serve breakfast to children in wheelchairs during the annual fairgrounds charity events, starting when I was 7 or 8. I had already learned a wee bit of American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate more easily with a babysitter who had been deaf since birth when I was 9. Another babysitter had been paralyzed from the waist down that same year.
So, I guess I kind of had a Disability Sensitivity resume building already.
“P” and I became friends pretty easily. Maybe he sensed my lack of uneasiness or the absence of a desire to keep him at arm’s length. Maybe it was that, unlike the rest of the people we worked with, I would give him what every human being deserves: the time of day. I don’t know.
Hanging out with him was not a source of pride or shame, nor did I do it out of a sense of pity, charity, or obligation. He simply approached me one day and said, “can I ask you a huge favor?”
“Sure,” I said. “Shoot.”
He was embarrassed. “My Handi-Ride hasn’t shown up yet. It’s been 30 minutes, so I don’t know if they’re going to. I need to go to the store. Would you be willing to take me?”
Duh. (Of course!)
He held my arm as we made our way to my truck. We moved slowly. I quickly learned patience. Not that it ever made me impatient, but my brain wrote new “code”. I checked my privilege.
I unlocked the truck and, taking his hand, I showed him the door handle. I was ready to help, but I didn’t want to assume he needed it. I positioned myself at the ready and watched to see exactly what he could do. It’s a myth that disabled people can’t do stuff. Sure they can. It’s not “inspirational”; it’s life, and they know how to live theirs. They know what they do and don’t need help doing.
We got to Walmart. My habit is to hang out in the truck and wait patiently, because that’s how my partner and I operate, but this was different. My partner is legally blind; “P” was what some people in the Blind Community call “total”.
This was going to be a 2-player game.
We got into the store. “I need to find someone who works here, to help me shop.”
“They do that?” I was genuinely curious; the question was not meant to be disrespectful.
He understood, and took it in stride. “Yep.”
So we snagged an employee, and “P” took it from there. He did all the talking. He was organized, with a short-but-varied shopping list in his head.
At the checkout, he pulled out his wallet and took out some bills. He had different bills folded in different ways; $1 bills were folded one way, $5 bills folded a different way. The $20 bills weren’t folded at all, and he didn’t have anything above that. After the transaction was completed, the checker gave him his change. He asked me what each bill was, one by one, and then folded it in a specific way, according to denomination.
It hit me just how much trust I imagine that it must take to conduct daily life without sight. Had I not been with him–and there were indeed many, many times in which he shopped alone–he would have had to count on the honesty of the checker (or other accompanying friend or assistant) not to screw him over and tell him that a $10 bill was a $1 bill and pocket the difference or something. People can be cruel and manipulative. Especially in today’s world. And yet, here “P” was, keeping on keeping on. I guess it’s not like he had much of a choice. The world, however, is on the karmic honor system. Were they passing? I hoped so.
I learned that “P” and I, coming from our respective perspectives, did not view time the same way. What was a “quick” trip to “P” (which I imagined would take 20 minutes) actually took an hour and 15. Not that I minded. That night, I had the time. But sadly, I surmised that there would be times when I wouldn’t. I vowed to try as best I could, though, every time I could.
I learned that there are such things as Mobility Instructors, whose job it is to teach you how to walk from your house to the mailbox, and so on. They work by appointment, and in Texas, they’re paid for by the state, as part of our DARS (Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services), as is a lot of post-secondary education within the state.
I’ve learned things from my partner over the years, too. He hates the “PC” terms for handicapped, like “handicapable”. He prefers “handicapped”–period. He jokingly (and sometimes jadedly) refers to himself as “the blind guy”. He spells like shizz (and I mean that in a compassionate, lighthearted way) because he spells words like they sound; he hasn’t done a whole lot of pleasure-reading, if you know what I mean.
There are all kinds of cool stores out there for disabled people, mostly blind and deaf. They’re usually in crappy parts of town, although not always. They carry items such as: for the blind: talking alarm clocks, large-print playing cards, Braille typewriters (“P” had one! I got to see it), strong magnifying glasses, and so on. For the deaf and hard of hearing (I’m hearing-impaired and I use the term “hearing-impaired” because, well, my hearing is impaired. Let’s call a spade a spade, eh?) they sell things like vibrating alarm clocks (you stick these under your pillow), high-volume phones, hearing aid-friendly phones, and text-based phones (think a regular phone but with a Closed Captioning-like display).
I also learned just how accessible the world is…and how accessible it is NOT. Our workplace has an elevator, but it doesn’t have the push-button doors, where you push a button on the outside wall to open the door. You still have to pull, and the doors aren’t exactly light. Our apartment doesn’t even have that; most of the buildings are 3 full storeys tall (yes, that’s the correct spelling), and there are NO elevators. And it’s 19 steps between each freaking floor. The handicap-designated parking spots in our office building are plentiful; at our apartment, there’s only 1 of them, and it’s poorly marked and easily (or “conveniently”) missed/overlooked. Yet, there are 2 of us, and we now have 2 vehicles (thanks again to the utterly amazing generosity of a dear friend!), and both have handicap license plates. One of us gets the spot; we had to pay ($100 a month) extra for a garage to park in front of so that we would be guaranteed a parking space relatively close to our building. Otherwise, parking is a complete crap shoot, and you may end up walking a distance.
And I learned just how open and willing to talk they are, these disabled people I’ve known. They know that their disability is a curiosity, meaning that they know that most people don’t know what it’s like. Because of the hush-hush nature of what passes for socialization in today’s world, genuinely seeking people are afraid to be frank and honest. They have questions and they genuinely want to know, but they’re afraid to ask, for fear of offending someone. My partner made it very clear, during our very first date, to talk about the elephant in the room: “if you have any questions or concerns about the blind thing, please: don’t form assumptions and keep them to yourself. Instead, ask me. You can ask me anything. You won’t offend me.”
Now that’s better than any sensitivity training class. 🙂