A few months ago I went to a small dinner party hosted by a good friend. I arrived and thought I did a pretty good job of greeting the other guests. I know my friend’s flat well and avoided the awkward pole in the middle of the floor with relative ease. Barring a brief moment where I nearly sat on the lap of an unexpected guy, I was pretty pleased with my general presentation. Except for the fact that one of the guests was someone I had met previously, in fact, he’d attended an event at my home some weeks before, and I completely ignored him and acted as though we’d never met because, according to me, we hadn’t.
This kind of social mishap is pretty commonplace in my life. A missed handshake, walking into a door left ajar, introducing myself to someone I’ve already met or almost sitting on a stranger’s lap – all of this atypical behaviour needs explaining. Why? Well, I suppose because people are simply not expecting to encounter my strange “almost blindness”, or any blindness for that matter, at a social gathering. I spend a fair amount of time with other blind people and this makes it easy to forget that we are a minority. I also spend a fair amount of time with people who know me well and this makes it easy to forget that I embody difference. Add to this the fact that this difference is not an upfront sort of difference but one which refuses to be neatly categorised with a “one glance summary”, and I’ve left some pretty puzzled people in my wake. I know I don’t look like blindness and I have so much baggage around performing sight that I almost can’t help myself. I recently did a presentation on my current research and while I was speaking I was keenly aware that I kept glancing over my shoulder as if reading off my slides. I kept telling myself to stop it realising that it was confusing behaviour for the people watching me, but I just couldn’t seem to stop performing sight in this way.
If you have read any of the posts here you will know that I spent the first part of my life pretty much committed to the performance of ‘not blindness’. This left me trundling around UCT campus semi-hunched over, sometimes bleeding from my latest attempt to walk through a cement bollard and trying to pass off my not seeing as a pre-occupation with the mysteries of life. As I’ve mentioned here before, this led to some very awkward encounters usually involving an embarrassing exchange ultimately outing my disability. Once the truth of my situation was explained people would often tell me how they had perceived me before knowing that I was blind: “Oh, you can’t see!? Oh my gosh, I thought you really didn’t like me! Every time I greet you on campus you just look right through me”
As someone who is generally quite friendly, open to meeting new people and, well, nice (I hope) it is awful to realise you’re being experienced as rude, cold, a snob or a downright bitch. But with no explanation of my socially unacceptable behaviour, these appear to be the plausible answers to the question, “What the hell is wrong with that woman?” We’re all involved in making sense of each other all the time and when an explanation about my visual impairment is not forthcoming, people will make sense of me using what they know about women, whiteness, women who hold hands with other women and the general rules which govern “normal” interactions. I have been interpreted as rude, drunk, racist, germophobic to the point where I won’t touch other people, lesbian and just plain odd. While some of these mis-readings don’t upset me (I don’t identify as a lesbian but if you want to gawp at me and my friend walking hand in hand to the bathroom that’s fine), some of them really do – especially those which cause me to be viewed as someone who doesn’t like, value or respect other people.
When I was about seventeen I was at a party with my boyfriend. It was dark and I didn’t know anyone there. This girl came up to me and introduced herself. I said, “Hi”. I was unsure whether I was looking at her and I was feeling anxious about that and actually about just being there in the first place. Then the moment got weird and I was suddenly aware that I had missed a cue, I guessed probably a handshake. I knew I had to explain myself but words stuck in my throat. I just could not account for myself. And, really, that is what we’re all having to do a lot of the time, account for ourselves. Meet people, network, answer questions like, “What do you do?” or “What do you think?” in short, make a good impression and follow the rules. I felt really bad about the moment at that party for a long time mostly because I knew, as a result of my inability to tell the truth about blindness, that I had been labelled as a stand-offish person.
Back then, it really was an inability to be truthful about blindness. I had no vocabulary and no idea how to identify as disabled and, of course, no desire to identify as such either. Today, even though I am willing and able to tell the truth about blindness, I still struggle to know how. When I’m marked with a cane or a dog then this is reasonably straightforward. It’s easy to introduce myself in a formal environment (conference, meeting, class, seminar) with my dog next to me, “I’m Michelle, I represent blah organisation, this is my guide dog, Panda, I’m blind”. It’s those social settings where I don’t have any markers (because I don’t need or want them all the time) which are tricky to manage. It just feels weird to say, “Hi, I’m blind just by the way”. But that dinner party a few weeks ago really got me thinking that I might have to start doing this to help people make sense of me. A friend was recently telling me about the group of friends she hangs out with, many of whom are transgendered, and how they provide the new people they meet with their preferred pronoun. As simple as, “I’m she”. I can really relate to this and feel an increasing need to make myself known upfront. I guess the reluctance which I feel is connected to the baggage which compelled me to fake looking at those slides the other day and also uncertainty about how to actually provide the disclaimer (because that is what it is) in a way that is not awkward. It feels like a “rock and a hard place” situation – it’s awkward if you do and awkward if you don’t. Another predicament to ponder.