I don’t know about you, but I love meeting people out in public. Not that I initiate many conversations with folks unfamiliar to me; I don’t. But I love it when someone notices my laptop or hears my screen reader chattering or watches me read braille.
Of course, the inevitable observation’s going to come: “I don’t know if I could do that if I were in your shoes.” And my response: Well, given the circumstances, the patience, and guidance, I’m sure you could. After all, someone asking that question usually hasn’t seen someone doing blindness unless they’ve sat in a class with me, attended church with me, or has gotten to know me or my family in some other way.
Sometimes, the well-intended observation comes after a conversation about something else: the topic discussed in Bible class… riding on the bus together… meeting in person for the first time after years of knowing me on social media. Then, what happens when the blindness out in the open? If the default observation isn’t on someone’s lips, it’s not far away. That’s frustrating for us who hear it, but it’s completely understandable. Of course, we who are blind are tempted to repeat the same pat stuff we’ve said to countless folks in the past or to explain things away, eager to move onto something else.
What can we do without warding folks away or casting the hail of thorns (or egg shells) spell upon which many folks feel the need to walk in our presence? More and more, I’ve begun weaving the adaptations I make in daily life as normal threads in conversation. That’s because, I’m completely at ease scanning books so that print can be turned into electronic text. Yes, by being around a TV for The Super Bowl or the latest episode of “Blue Bloods,” I’m watching TV. So, if you who read this are sighted, please use terms like “see” or “watch” with us who can’t. Use colors when describing stuff because we do care about that, especially if we’ve lost our sight later on in life.
It’s also tempting for someone who’s sighted to be thrown off-balance when meeting someone who’s blind in a college class, seminary lecture, or a chess competition. Yes, the admissions committee let me or someone else in sight unseen. But, what to do with the blindness is out in the open?
And that’s where the gap remains, isn’t it? The ADA (1990) and the Rehabilitation Act (1973) can mandate a whole lot of stuff for public settings, employment, and the classroom. But it can’t change perceptions. As we theologian types say in our circles: The Law curbs; it’s mirror reflects. It can instruct. Well, so it goes with the laws established regarding disability rights.
The give-and-take is lifelong when coping with blindness or visual impairment. So, it goes with learning to approach someone who’s blind. But if you who are sighted do see us in an academic setting, especially graduate school or if you’re with us in the workplace, remember that our story goes beyond just being disabled. It’s as much a tapestry of experiences and learning as you’ve had. We who are blind do well to expect your learning curve and should open ourselves up to opportunities for questions.
Is a blind computer programmer going to be in the lab just to doodle? No. She’s been trained to run diagnostics and script programs. Let her tell or show you how as you converse about the matter at hand rather than assuming you’ve got to tell some remedial information they already know anyway.
If you meet someone in the college classroom who’s blind, talk about the subject matter at hand first and let the matter of adaptation arise naturally. If they’re in the seminary, yes, they’ve taken Greek and Hebrew… or should have. If they’re in a secondary education program ready for student teaching, it’s not time to freak out but to speak well of them when placing them for assignment. The blindness is important but it’s a secondary issue compared to the skills acquired in college already.
I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t always done blindness in this area right. I’m pretty forward in how I present things. So, it’s my first impulse to speak about theology, history, politics, or the tax code before saying a word about my adaptations. Sometimes, that works; often, it has intimidated folks who are still learning that lack of sight doesn’t automatically translate to lack of capability to learn.
Now do we go there socially, too? I reflect on my arrival in public school halfway through my freshmen year. And I can guarantee you folks didn’t know what to think or say. “How can this guy go to the mall or movies?” “Can he relate to dating, sex, or going to a concert?” And, ewwww, “What if his cane slides between my legs?” Yes, and I say tis chuckling, we who are boldly blind have faced all of these queries in one way or another. Then, when we hit college and the workplace, we’ve faced them again.
There’s an old adage: Folks of any age ask the same questions about blindness or our capabilities, albeit in different ways. One day in my junior year at Concordia-Nebraska, I explained to someone during chapel how to guide me up to receive Holy Communion with everyone else. Later, when speaking to a bunch of first graders taught by someone from the same church I attended, these kids asked the same kind of thing. “Mr. Rosenkoetter, how do you drink the wine when your up there with my mommy?”
I always made it a practice to ask someone sitting next to me if they’d guide me to receive the Lord’s Supper, just in case they were uneasy about some guy clutching onto their elbow or walking next to a cane tapping centimeters next to their foot. Well, probably to make a joke once, a friend of mine simply said, “No,” that she wouldn’t guide me up. Of course, I knew differently and we laughed about it later.
One advantage that has come to the fore for us who are blind today is access to social media. So, we who are blind or visually impaired talk adaptive technology, help each other with ways of navigating new places like supermarkets, or how to approach a gym’s manager to see if they’d label a treadmill or two in braille.
What a joy the blind adventure is! So, we who are blind do well to be boldly blind. There’s nothing for us of which we need to be ashamed about it. And if you’re sighted, let those questions roll so we can enjoy life and our vocations together!